Forum for the Future: Rebooting Judaism
by Yoav Schlesinger

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Age: 32

Profession: Executive Director of Reboot

Jewish Childhood & College Experiences: I am an RK (rabbi’s kid). I went to shul every Shabbos for years on end, attended a Conservative day school, read Torah by age 9, and led all of Shacharit and Musaf in addition to the entire Torah reading for my bar mitzvah. As a teenager I was never permitted to attend a party on a Friday night, a time reserved for a mandatory family Shabbat dinner replete with blessings and singing, and often I experienced our family being subject to scrutiny, unrealistic expectations, and community intrusiveness. So I hated most of it, and did my share of rebelling, including putting a Christmas tree in my room in high school—after all, what could possibly anger my parents more? Still, I came away with a strong sense of Jewish identity—our family was in it together, after all—and an appreciation of the beauty of Jewish ritual as well as the importance of community, family, and tradition.

Then, at Stanford University I discovered a thriving Orthodox minyan and a group that breathed new life into the formerly dormant kosher co-op by cooking Shabbat dinners for 40–60 people. We all wanted a thriving Jewish community. That’s when I realized how critical community is to the enterprise of living an authentic Jewish life. Observing Shabbat by oneself is fine; it’s something to do. But it can also be a tircha, a burden. Shabbat is revelatory when it’s celebrated at a sparkling table, or when the service moves to lunch at a friend’s home, followed by time in the park with loved ones and a group havdalah. Jewish life is communal life. There is something powerful, magical, and important in doing things together.

Perspectives on Engaging 20s and 30s: I love Judaism and the Jewish community for allowing me the full expression of my personhood. I am a Jew with a tattoo, a nonobservant theist, an unapologetic culturalist, a determined skeptic, a lover of yiddishkeit and of Carlebach melodies, a sukkah builder and a yontif chazzan (holiday cantor), a hater of orthopraxy (“correct” action for action’s sake), a community builder, and a reluctant community member. Where else could I be all of these things?

At the same time, I’m not entirely certain I’d ever join a synagogue. There are lots of reasons people belong to synagogues, but I fear it’s all too often out of a sense of obligation rather than meaning or value. Most people don’t show up except on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And why? Perhaps because, for them, the perceived value of belonging to a synagogue is to enable a child to attend Hebrew school and become bar or bat mitzvah’d. Thousands of dollars a year to “belong”? The only place most of those in my cohort pay such a fee is to a gym, where the return on investment is clear. Unfortunately, the synagogue has failed to clarify its own value or present an appealing vision of Jewishness beyond obligatory dues-paying membership.

Where do I find a compelling vision for what Jewishness might be? In Reboot, where I serve as Executive Director. It’s a platform for innovation and experimentation, a cultural collective and incubator, a think tank that draws incredible minds who are unengaged with the Jewish community to answer questions such as “Who am I?” “What am I inheriting?” and “What, if anything, do I want to do about it?” The answers to these questions have been testaments to the relevance of Jewish tradition in modern life: 10 radically reinvented sukkahs built in New York City’s Union Square, an international modern day of rest and tech detox, an all-night reinvention of a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, a digital reflection during the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. That’s how you draw people to Judaism—new, flexible platforms for Jewish experimentation, renewal, iteration, and reinvention.

The Jewish establishment is trying to meet the needs of 20s and 30s, but they’re failing. They continue to throw darts at a board, hoping to find the “killer app” that will bring in this age group. And therein lies the fundamental problem—the message has always been about belonging to an institution. The needs of this age cohort are not met by belonging; they’re met by experiencing.

If Jewish life is going to appeal to Jews under 40, Jewish leaders will need to humbly divest themselves of failing institutions that no longer serve their populations. Like the most successful companies, they need to be willing to slaughter their sacred cows when consumers aren’t buying what they’re selling and to funnel their dollars instead to more successful enterprises. They will have to accept rapid, radical, and revolutionary change that will entirely redefine their jobs. And they will have to suffuse content into their offerings, because Judaism Lite isn’t appealing. Jews gathering with Jews for no other purpose than being with other Jews (whether for a young adult happy hour or an excursion to a baseball game) is supremely unsatisfying. Meaning will only come when young people are presented with an authentic, resonant, approachable form of Jewishness.

I’m pessimistic about the Jewish future when it comes to the formal institutions we’ve created for ourselves. Jewishness will go on, but the Jewish establishment as currently configured is in peril. There’s a serious paucity of good ideas, and even scarcer funds to make them happen. The ones that do work are more a product of their charismatic, visionary leadership than their form or function. Jewishness is in serious need of rebranding, of reinvention. Is there enough courage to discard the outmoded patterns of behavior and reinvent from scratch? The rabbis of Yavneh managed to reinvent Temple worship and formulate the Mishnah, a radically new approach to Jewish life in the post-Temple period. Who will be our Yohanan Ben-Zakkai or Hillel? At this point I’m not confident he or she exists. Members of the Reboot network will make valuable contributions here, but this work alone will not be enough to radically reinvent modern Jewishness. It will take more collaboration, more innovation, more tolerance for failure, more reconfiguration of existing tropes, more unity of purpose, more disruption, and more active embrace of that disruption.

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  • MJohnston 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand

    Well said.  These ideas may be thought provoking for some, but they will clearly resonate with many (as they did with me).  I think the case is well stated - it is time for us to consider profound change.

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