Forum for the Future: The Discontinuity of Continuity
an interview with Jonathan Sarna, historian and Brandeis University professor
From your observations as a Jewish historian, what differentiates today's 20s and 30s from those of previous generations in terms of Jewish engagement?
There is a generational disconnect between elders who grew up before the Internet age and young people who grew up in a post-Internet age. Those who are tethered to technology are literally on a different wavelength than earlier generations. They are in constant "virtual" touch with one another; they read on screen instead of in books; and they can meet their friends on Facebook, so they have no need to meet them at the synagogue or the JCC.
Young Jews also do not understand the worldview of the so-called Jewish establishment. For Jews in their 50s and 60s, like me, the Six-Day War in 1967 shaped the way we think about Israel and about our responsibilities as Jews. Likewise, the Soviet Jewry movement taught us to work together as Jews to help save our brethren abroad. Young Jews today don't remember the Six-Day War; instead, they came of age when Israel had become much more controversial and when no large group of persecuted Jews anywhere in the world has had to be saved.
In addition, 20- and 30-year-olds—like all young Americans—have been shaped and battered by two central events: September 11, 2001 and the economic collapse of 2008. Is it any wonder that they tend to be suspicious of big institutions, including big Jewish institutions? They have watched too many of those institutions collapse. People like me, who were adults during the 1980s and '90s, watched an ever-more-prosperous American Jewish community create one big thing after another: lofty buildings, innovative programs, bold visions. Our children, by contrast, watched that prosperity evaporate. Their question is not "What's the next big thing?" but "What can we reasonably and responsibly sustain?"
Finally, the new generation approaches problem-solving differently. Since the Progressive era early in the 20th century, the American Jewish community has believed in central planning. We create a multi-year plan to actualize a vision and then follow a predetermined, step-by-step process to get there. Change in this model comes slowly and deliberately. By contrast, today's young people look at who is at the forefront of change and see nimble start-ups and disruptive technologies. If you have an idea, they believe, you should carry it out—right now. They are not afraid of failure. They understand that in a start-up culture, 90% fail and 10% succeed. What they are not interested in is "continuity." The people they respect are agents of change, people like Steve Jobs who are not afraid to break things.
Do you see this as a period of renaissance or stagnation for the Jewish community?
I'd say that across the spectrum of North American faiths, we are currently experiencing what may someday become known as the Great Religious Recession. Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, mega-churches and tiny temples are all witnessing membership declines as young people shift away from religious institutions.
In contrast, in the 1970s, America's religions, Judaism included, experienced an "awakening"—an unanticipated religious revival. I watched it at Hebrew Union College, where some students donned yarmulkes, tried on tefillin, and began keeping kosher. Soon, the Reform Movement as a whole embraced more rituals—yarmulkes and prayer shawls became common in the pews; and on Rosh Hashanah, some Reform congregations even took up tashlich, the medieval custom of casting one's sins into the sea. More significantly, Jews across the spectrum began to engage in serious Jewish learning through such programs as Wexner Heritage, Me'ah, and the Melton Mini Schools. Everybody at that time knew young people who had become much more religiously committed than their parents.
Well, religion is a bit like gravity: what goes up must come down. Every revival is followed by a period of backsliding, and this one is no exception.
When else did we witness backsliding in religiosity in America?
The late 1920s and early 1930s could also be considered a period of "Religious Depression." At the ninth biennial of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (today's Women of Reform Judaism) in 1931, for example, the topic was: "The Cause and the Cure of the Laxity of our Youth in Religion," and plenty of blame was cast on the "older generation," the "times in which we live," "the environment," "[Jewish] associations," and, of course, on the synagogue, which was allegedly "not concerning itself sufficiently with the very vital things of today." Looking back, though, the religious recession of the 1920s and '30s was also driven in part by automotive technology—having a car offered Americans many competing secular things to do on the weekends. My guess is that today, Internet/social media technology is partly driving the current religious recession. Nowadays nobody needs to go to temple to catch up with friends or learn about Judaism.
Are you optimistic about the Jewish future?
Overall, I am optimistic. This generation of native-born American and Canadian Jews is better educated Jewishly than any of its predecessors as a result of day schools, camps, university-based Jewish Studies, and Israel programs. For example, the independent minyan movement has been heavily influenced by Jews who seek a Shabbat worship experience like the ones they enjoyed in Israel, and its standards of learning are higher than those of the 1970s chavurah movement because its leaders are much more Jewishly knowledgeable. In time, the payoff from this Jewish learning will be a new Jewish renaissance, fueled by young Jewish women and men who can read Jewish sources on their own, understand Jewish history and tradition, and apply that knowledge to fuse past and present into a new synthesis that will steer us ahead to the future.
Remember, too, that historically, young outsiders have often become future Jewish leaders. Many of the wild and rebellious Jews who dressed differently and wore long hair with pride in the 1960s later joined the Jewish establishment and reshaped North American Jewry. The fact that our synagogues and temples today are a lot less stuffy and formal, and there is an emphasis on "doing Jewish" and not just sitting passively in the pews is, in good part, a tribute to the values that these once-rebellious Jews introduced into post-1960s Jewish life.
In addition, the intense engagement of today's young Jews, marked by a willingness to question, to disrupt, and to act, signals a significant Jewish renaissance on the horizon. As they create one Jewish start-up after another, they are likely to move from the periphery to the center of Jewish life, from being the so-called enfants terribles, the terrible children, to being the leaders of the next generation.
The Jewish establishment needs to nurture these innovators. Historically, we've benefited by giving young people opportunities to experiment. For example, in the 1870s, a group of young Jews from New York and Philadelphia pledged to bring Jews back to "the ancient faith." They created the weekly newspaper American Hebrew, which was livelier, edgier, more willing to debate issues, and more critical of Jewish leadership than any Jewish newspaper in the United States to that time. They launched a revolution in adult Jewish learning through classes, books, and eventually the great compendium of Jewish learning known as the Jewish Encyclopedia. They engaged women such as the poet Emma Lazarus (who rediscovered Judaism, battled antisemitism, and championed a return to Zion) and Henrietta Szold (the most learned Jewish woman of her day, who later founded Hadassah), understanding that women would have a major role to play in "saving Judaism." And they took advantage of new developments in transportation (trains, streetcars) and communication (the telephone) to link Jews together in new ways and promote Jewish learning. All of this cost money, and fortunately, farsighted Jews such as philanthropist Jacob Schiff supported the new endeavors. The result was a 20th-century Jewish community that was better educated, better organized, and better prepared to take up new responsibilities than its 19th-century predecessor.
So should we be nurturing a culture of transformation?
No question, transformative programs are just as impactful today, as Birthright Israel (which awards Jews ages 18-26 a free trip to Israel) has taught us. The danger, however, is that we shift so many resources to transformative programs that we forget that we also need formative ones. To those who ask, "Why invest in Jewish education when summer camp and Birthright Israel seem to make more of an impact?" I say, "Would you scrap the public school system and reallocate all the funds invested in elementary, middle, and high school education into summer and teen programs?" That would be absurd. And it's likewise absurd for us to completely abandon formative programs for transformative ones. We need both.
I deeply believe that only a person who possesses Jewish knowledge can make an informed decision concerning Jewish life. My parents wisely insisted that I needed a strong foundational Jewish education. Even if I later decided to reject everything, they said, I needed to know what it was that I was rejecting. "I want you to reject on the basis of knowledge," my dad would repeat, "and not on the basis of ignorance." I have followed this example with my own children.
I'm not saying that there's only one way to transmit Jewish learning. We need to investigate, experiment, and see what works best. E-learning, I suspect, is full of promise. But I'm not willing to give up on traditional Jewish education altogether, because at the end of the day, across the spectrum of Jewish life, we want informed Jews making informed Jewish choices.
What else does the Jewish community need to do to position itself for success?
We have to use our resources more efficiently. Many synagogue facilities are drastically underutilized, sitting vacant sometimes six days a week. Here we can learn from Chabad, which has pioneered multiuse facilities that usually also house the rabbi and his family.
Ultimately, the key for success is to embrace change. The Reform Movement's continued success is a testament to its ability to change, as seen in its evolving views on bar mitzvah, Israel, ritual, and much more. Now there are new things to be changed in the face of a young generation that challenges the assumptions and norms of its elders. Change will keep us going—if we do it right.