Never Too Old to Engage

When the American Synagogue came into being, the institutional structure had to respond to, and contend with, the societal challenges of the time: social circles being segregated by race, class, and religion; the push and pull of assimilation vs. maintaining a strong – but foreign – identity; and the concentration of resources and communication around institutions. Today’s America looks very different. It is not just the synagogue as an American institution that is changing. All identity, power, religion, and communication structures have changed drastically in the past few decades. Capitalism, assimilation, and technology have impacted our culture significantly, and in different ways for each generation. This has made the needs of each generation different from the next. And the change isn’t stopping; it’s actually speeding up.

In the preface of his essay, Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future, Rabbi Sid Schwarz states, “I believe that over the course of the next decade there is a unique opportunity for cross-fertilization between the established institutions of the American Jewish community and the robust innovation sector of American Jewish life. If each side recognizes the value of the other and commits to a program of collaboration, I believe that we are on the verge of a renaissance of American Jewish life.” 

For the most part, today’s Jewish institutions are responding to questions, challenges, and social structures of the past. They are asking how to get more young people in the doors, rather than asking how to get resources and support into the hands of, not just young people, but people operating in the new paradigm of the changing world. I find the idea of collaboration, as Schwarz describes it, between the old and the new, inspiring and hopeful. And it raises many questions: How does this mutual respect and collaboration happen? What is standing in the way of it happening right now? What would the collaboration look like? How do innovators get space without being bogged down by the conservatism of institutions and bureaucracy? How do institutions protect themselves against moving too fast or iterating too much? How can the differences between the old and the new become a sacred tension, rather than a polarization?

The Minyan of Thinkers CONNECT Cohorts are approaching these challenges and questions in a radically different way than any other Jewish initiative I have been a part of. The CONNECT approach is to create space for people to have conversations about difficult topics, with people they may not otherwise meet. We ignite socially conscious young people to make positive change in the world by bringing them in community and brave conversation with each other through an exploratory learning experience that includes discussing scholarly texts, engaging activities, and sharing our lived experiences. It is simple. And within its simplicity lies the magic. The encounters aren’t trying to solve a problem or elicit answers. CONNECT’s values are: curiosity, bridge building, equity, hospitality, continuous improvement, and diversity. The project’s central focus is social justice and one of the vehicles for this work is community. It is a receptive space that models deep listening and encourages participants to cultivate curiosity and positive regard. 

Many institutions recognize the trends and problems that we are facing today. And many build programs and design events that aim to appeal to millennial Jews, or unaffiliated Jews, or intermarried couples. While I think this is valuable work that is helping in the Jewish field, I think there is a step missing. We are at a pivotal moment in American Jewish history, as many people recognize. As Schwarz calls it, “a renaissance of American Jewish life.” But we are not at the stage of the process where we solve the problems or answer the questions. We are at the stage where we need to understand more deeply. CONNECT’s curiosity, receptivity, and welcoming of challenge are all precisely what is needed at this stage in the process.

The content and process of CONNECT addresses social justice issues, builds community, and supports wisdom as participants become more knowledgeable and articulate about social issues. Each cohort centers on a different topic. Some are explicitly Jewish, and attract Jewish participants. Other topics are broader or more multifaceted, and attract a more diverse group of people. The Jewish field does not exist in a vacuum. The diversity and interconnectedness of our society impact us as Jews, and is changing the face of Judaism. And the challenges facing the Jewish world are impacting other groups too. By connecting with one another and learning about our changing world from different angles, we not only learn more about our neighbors, we see ourselves more clearly. As the world becomes more interconnected, across identities and geography, it becomes increasingly important to approach the questions we have for the Jewish field within a broader context. To this end, I see great value in CONNECT’s model for cultivating multicultural minyans for rigorous learning and unlikely community building.

While social justice, community, and wisdom are central pillars of CONNECT, there is an underlying value that runs throughout. And it is one that, if present, would make many Jewish initiatives more successful. It is the respect for natural cycles, for the gradual unfolding of a process. CONNECT is addressing the pressing issues of our time. But the project is not aiming to fix or change the issues. CONNECT is an effort to clarify our questions, to understand more deeply where we are at this moment in history, and to strengthen our ability to be in the moment with what is happening around us.

My experience as an experiential educator and expressive arts facilitator has informed my approach as Curriculum Designer and User Experience Expert at CONNECT and it has also influenced how I see CONNECT’s role in the Jewish field. I have grown to understand that a process doesn’t make sense when you’re in the middle of it. I would never ask a student, while living with a host family in a rural village thousands of miles away from home, what they learned from the experience or what they will do with that learning. The student won’t know what they learned until they have returned home. And they won’t know what they will do with the learning until opportunities present themselves. So, as an educator with the student abroad, my role is to support the student to live in the moment as fully as possible. I encourage them to engage with their host family, try new foods, soak in the experience as much as possible. This same educational approach is needed right now in Jewish institutions and I see CONNECT leading the way. 

In its simplest form, what I am talking about is mindfulness. Within Jewish institutions, we need to train our minds to be present, to build awareness, and to resist the temptation to jump to conclusions or fix what we don’t like. We need to give ourselves, and our constituents, permission to be mid-process. Like in personal meditation, if institutions would adopt this approach, I think it would have a counterintuitive effect: rather than leading to inaction, witnessing and reflection leads to more impactful and intentional action. This way of being also forms a sense of arrival and deep belonging, which are not only sorely needed in the Jewish community, but are feelings that inspire people to take care of communities and invest in them. In fact, the greatest counter to assimilation and the negative impacts of capitalism is to offer people a sense of belonging and arrival. 

As I see it, the tendency to jump to conclusions and look for solutions stems from a strong wish for arrival and well-being. But a true sense of arrival and well-being is not cultivated through striving, but through learning to be with what is. When we learn to be with what is, we are more able to connect with people we disagree with, explore complex topics, and understand painful situations without turning away. CONNECT’s respect for process underlies every aspect of the project and is what enables its other tenants of social justice, community, and wisdom to exist. 

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Mo Golden, M.A. is an artist and educator with expertise in immersive/experiential learning, intercultural training, and healing ancestral trauma through the expressive arts. She has worked with organizations such as HIAS, Avodah, Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, and Asylum Arts and she has lived/worked in Spain, Nicaragua, Peru, Argentina, and Ecuador.

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