Listen to young adult Jews
I would like to offer some thoughts on young adults. I do so because I recently participated in a think tank project under the auspices of the New York Jewish Week, with Jewish leaders from all streams of Judaism, various communal organizations, and a lot of young people.
I was one of the oldest people in this group, and by virtue of my age and title, I was the symbol of establishment, synagogue Judaism. In discussion after discussion, I listened as the young people—those in their 20s and 30s—came at me with their long list of complaints about the inadequacies of North American synagogues.
I would like to make three points about my sense of what I heard from these young people.
My first point is that young adults have not given up on synagogue Judaism, even if they do not use the term and do not think of themselves as synagogue Jews.
In listening to their concerns, my first reaction in every case—at least mentally, and in some cases more than that—was: “Stop whining.” My second reaction was: “You don’t understand all of the things that we in the synagogue world do for you.”
Only when I stopped doing that, when I got control of myself and really focused on what they were saying, was the conversation able really to begin.
My advice, therefore, whether we are URJ leaders or local synagogue activists, is that we need to jump ahead to the listening stage. We need to really hear what our young people are saying. We need to open our ears and stop responding in a defensive posture.
After I listened, I asked them what they were doing in their Jewish lives. When they told me, I said: “In other words, you have created your own synagogues.” They protested immediately. “No,” they said, “we haven’t.”
But my response was: “Of course you have. You have created religiously-based communities that revolve around prayer, study, and tikkun olam (repair of the world). That is what a synagogue is.”
My point was, and is, that nothing has happened to call into question Isaac Mayer Wise’s assumption that in America (and now in North America as well), the synagogue will be the grassroots institution of Jewish life. For further evidence, I suggest that you look at American Grace, the recently published study of American religious life by Robert Putnam and David Campbell. Putnam and Campbell demonstrate convincingly that the dynamism of American religious life emerges from its congregations. Also interesting in this regard is the recent study by Dr. Jack Wertheimer about Jewish leaders in their twenties and thirties. While the committed young adults that Wertheimer studies have many concerns, I see nothing to indicate, either in their personal histories or their current attitudes, hostility to the synagogue.
In short, our congregations are strong, but—and it is a very important but—the particular form they take may require radical change.
My second point is that young people are not buying the siege mentality that they identify with the North American Jewish establishment.
Such a mentality is simply not consistent with their experience. I should stress that these young adults are not naïve about the world. But they are uncomfortable with the idea that we as Jews are constantly under attack and that our mindset seems to be shaped by a defensive consciousness. And this is particularly true for those young adults who are interested in religious life and building religious community—which, of course, is the group in which we are most interested.
In this regard, let me take you back to American Grace.
Putnam and Campbell take a “thermometer score.” This means that they ask Americans how warm they feel toward various religious groups. A score of 100 is as warm as possible, 50 is neutral, and zero is as cold as possible.
Which group has the highest score? Jews do. Let me be clear: Jews are the most popular religious group in America today.
Why did this fact get so little attention in the Jewish press, despite widespread news coverage of the book? The reason, perhaps, is that on some level we do not want to hear it because it is contrary to our emotional self-image. Perhaps to some degree we are simply comfortable with our victimhood. But young Jews are not.
Again, these young Jews are aware of 9/11, they know that there have been terrorist threats against Jews, and they know, of course, that Israel faces a variety of dangers. But they are not building their Jewish lives around these issues.
Therefore, our challenge is: How do we keep legitimate dangers on the table, while creating synagogue communities that are listening to what these young Jewish adults have to say?
My third point is that young adults are insistent about openness and inclusion – and this does not only mean the intermarried.
Thus, for example, if we close the door in the face of American Muslims, we will lose the allegiance of our young people.
As our young adults are acutely aware, what is frightening about the Park51 controversy is that for the first time, it has become respectable to attack Islam in America and American Muslims. In the wake of this controversy, vital distinctions have been blurred: between radical Islam and mainstream Islam; between the American Muslim community and Muslim communities elsewhere; and between the moderate mainstream here and the extremists on the fringe.
The Jewish community too has been infected with this virus. A prominent congregation in a major city recently considered whether or not to rent space in its building to a mosque for prayers on Friday. Based on what I have heard, I would have opposed the rental, simply because there was no easy way to deal with the security issues involved in opening the building to the public during the day. The parents of school children were concerned, and rightly so.
But what was extraordinary was the conversation at the Temple meeting; it was vicious and ugly from start to finish. In this synagogue, and elsewhere, it has apparently become respectable for Jews to stand up and to say the most extraordinary things about their Muslim neighbors: they live apart, they have laws of their own, they do not integrate well, they hate Jews, they are prone to violence.
Is this who we want to be?
And who thinks that we will be able to attract young Jewish adults to our synagogues if that is our culture? How will we cross the divide that now exists with young people if we speak a language of bigotry and separation?
Our task in the Reform Movement is to be the voice of moderation and pragmatism on such sensitive matters. It is to meet the challenges of the moment with a voice of inclusion, and to refuse to be drawn into a pernicious attitude that, until very recently, was beyond the bounds of decency in America.
The same is true when it comes to conversations on Israel. In these perilous times for the State of Israel, I am always cautious when I talk about Israel’s security. And we in the Reform Movement do not generally invite into our synagogues those who support terror or refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. But within these reasonable boundaries, we need to welcome views that challenge our own, from both the left and the right, if we are to have any hope of maintaining the interest and the loyalties of the young. We have always encouraged vigorous debate on the politics of Israel within the walls of our congregations. Closing our doors to this debate is bad for Reform Judaism, bad for the Jewish community, and bad for the Jewish state.
My final conclusion is that our young people are not lost to Judaism or to the synagogue, but we have some work to do. And I strongly believe that we are the only ones in the Jewish community who can do it. We are the only ones, I humbly suggest, who offer the vision, the openness, the inclusion, and the creative path to Torah that our young people are asking for.
We in the Reform Movement are not there yet; in fact, we are far from there.
But I am optimistic that we can do what needs to be done.
This is a moment of great challenge, but time and again we Jews have responded to crisis with stunning bursts of creativity. At each phase of our long history, we have looked within and discovered new modes of spirituality. And that is what we will do now.