I spend a lot of time lamenting to my colleagues that we like to “talk to ourselves” and are perhaps “too inside” to fully appreciate the wide-ranging views of the Jewish community. We share a great passion for Jewish life, and oftentimes, speak a “Jewish jargon” not easily understood or appreciated by others. So, I do my best to bring us back to the reality that many Jews are not overly involved nor engaged in the “organized Jewish community.”
Earlier this week, I read an article by Rachel Cort, a 27-year old Jewish communal professional who highlights that not everyone has the same Jewish background and connections. Although Rachel is a professional, her message should also resonate with those in volunteer leadership roles in our community. Here are excerpts from her article:
I’m not your typical Jewish professional. I didn’t go to Jewish day school, or Jewish summer camp, or youth group. While I have two Jewish parents, I celebrated Christmas every year with my extended, non-Jewish family until I was twelve. My Jewish education stopped after my Bat Mitzvah. In college, I didn’t seek out Jewish life on campus, dropping in for High Holiday services but largely avoiding the Hillel building. I didn’t visit – or ever even really think about – Israel until I was 25 years old.
What I am is your typical Jewish Millenial. While this makes me an outlier among my professional peers in Jewish communal service, I have been very careful to preserve what I consider my “outsider” Millenial perspective. I believe the key to serving young adults lies in deeply understanding their experiences, habits and needs – and not just by reading the Pew Study… Millenials have multiple, overlapping identities and a different approach to Jewish identity than their parents or grandparents.
It is with great respect, and not a little trepidation, that I write to point out what I view as the biggest unspoken challenge facing Jewish organizations today: the people who are most likely involved in Jewish communal life are those who are the recipients of a rich Jewish education or a series of meaningful Jewish experiences (such as camp, youth group or Hillel – frequently all three). They are outliers, and unrepresentative of the vast majority of American Jews. Such individuals are often unable to mount a meaningful critique of institutional Judaism, or to grasp the substantial gap between their Jewish experiences and others’, or even to realize the extent to which they are outliers. They often start from the assumption that participation in Jewish life or Israel is inherently meaningful; an assumption that many of the Millenials they are attempting to engage with do not share. For many Jewish professionals (and volunteers), meaningful involvement in Jewish life and facility with Jewish ritual is a norm they have grown up with, which is certainly not the case for many who are the target of engagement efforts.
I believe that many Jewish professionals (and volunteer leaders) are simply unable to reform a system of which they are a successful result, a system that personally worked for them to deliver value, meaning and community… It may seem that Jewish life in America is in crisis, but such crisis represents an imperative to rethink the systems and institutions that have served (some of) us so well up to this point.
Jewish life needs to be able to compete in the marketplace of ideas, which is ever more saturated with different ways of making meaning. Jewish life must continue evolving in order to allow for Millenials to both engage with and express their Jewish identities. And this all means that sometimes, Jewish professionals (and Board members) have to check their institutional baggage at the door to actually adapt a Millenial mindset, not just read about it.
A major hurdle goes back to “talking to ourselves.” Professionals and community leaders alike are often comfortable with “what they know,” and telling themselves how things are working just fine. Plus, their peers are involved, so everything must be okay. But, using Rachel as an example, are things really working for the broader community? Are our efforts relevant to younger generations? Are our communal institutions embraced by a younger cohort?
Let’s do a scan of our community. How many of our Jewish communal institution Board members are under the age of 40? I am proud to say that 1/3 of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland’s Board Members are under 40. Every organization is different, yet from a quick scan, the average age of local community board members is in the mid-50s. Can we – the insider Jewish leadership - truly relate to Rachel and understand the interests and desires of her peers?
Rachel’s article touched me. Despite my deep involvement in AZA and Jewish summer camp, I grew up in a relatively small Jewish community without a lot of yiddishkeit (Jewishness). Like Rachel, I did not share the same experiences, competencies, or knowledge that most others in the Jewish leadership field had. But, I believe my lack of exposure has helped me better understand “those outside the institutional Jewish tent.”
Today, we should heed Rachel’s call and listen to a growing audience (regardless of age) with different and, perhaps, even fewer Jewish connections. Their voices matter. So, instead of “talking to ourselves,” let’s open our ears and hear from the majority.