Besides being a back-cover blurbster for End Of The Jews, Esther Kustanowitz is a fabulous person.  She blogs.  She tweets.  Based in LA, she is a Senior Media Consultant and doyenne of the NextGen Engagement Initiative for the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.  So when she wrote today about “getting engaged”, I read closely and not just because of the head-fake in the title.

Many of us in the Jewish world – single and married, younger and older – are tasked with creating “Jewish engagement” opportunities every day. Some of us even have the actual word in our professional titles; for others, it’s implied. But the one thing everyone agrees on is that no one knows what “engagement” really means.

But we doWe just called it something else when the “Jewish engagement” opportunities were for Jews under the age of 18.  We called it education.   But I digress.  More from Esther…

She goes on to explore “engagement” (in the smoochy, rock-on-finger waving sense of the word) as a seemingly fit framing metaphor.   Many sociologists (this century’s rock star “theologians” according to Eli Valley) take the metaphor literally, counting inmarriages and baby-making beyond replacement level as one of the prime measures of success in the game of Jewish continuity.   But:

…Jewish engagement must be bigger than marital status or parenthood potential, otherwise it retroactively and tacitly deems those who do not meet their soulmates – or those who do meet soulmates but are not on a parenthood path – as engagement failures. It also conveys the false message that those who are married and/or on the parenthood track do not need to be engaged. So the success of Jewish engagement cannot be measured solely by marital status or parenthood potential.

I would go even farther and say that touting these measures is a distraction … much in the way that folks look at graduates of eight years of day school education and say: “Now that’s a viable Jew right there!”   But I digress.

Esther continues with BREAKING NEWS for some Jewish folks…  The Jewish community today is increasingly dominated by Next Jews for whom:

Affiliation is a choice. Civic engagement is a choice. Social activism is a choice. And when it comes to making space in their lives for those choices, many of which exist concurrently and definitely non-exclusively, most NextGen people don’t rely on organizations to do it for them, because they can do it better, faster, stronger and cheaper themselves. As Clay Shirky titled it in his book, Here Comes Everybody, this is the particular power of “organizing without organizations.” Is there any concept more terrifying to legacy organizations than the threat of their obsolescence?

And when I say “dominated”, I mean numerically – despite the “Fear of a Black Planet” narrative of an impending Orthodox takeover.  But even then, Next Jews do not dominate where, from a legacy organizational standpoint, it truly counts: in the Board Rooms. (But that, too, is changing… I guess.)

Esther concludes with two questions that provide the segue for the forthcoming second part:

1) How can we create experiences that encourage the formation and deepening of relationships among program participants as well as between them and Jewish organizational professionals?

2) What can the organized Jewish community provide to this self-reliant and independent group of people that they cannot provide for themselves?

So, returning to my lead SAT analogy headline, does Jewish education have anything to say about this?

Jewish education is not a synonym for day school learning exclusively, although many folks look to day school to deliver the continuity goods.  (Insert usual caveats and critiques here.)  I would add Jewish summer camps as a site of powerful Jewish education as well.

What these programs do well and most effectively b’gadol is create an environment which values Jews as Jews, positioning Jewish experience as normative.

One could say dismissively: “What do you expect?  When you have a captive audience Monday through Friday for eight years or 24/7 for eight weeks, you can stir the heart and rouse the soul.  You can make a Jew out of anybody.”

Well, not really.

What one could say instead is: These meaningful normative experiences happen because there is time for it to happen… sometimes, by design, sometimes, on its own… which necessarily demands commitment (of time, at least) from everyone involved.

BREAKING NEWS #2: Next Jews are not commitment-averse.  They just need a compelling reason to commit.  (Hint: Inertia is not a reason.  Fear is also not a reason.)

This is where the challenge lies… and, despite appearances, it is not a challenge solely for those working with adults.

…which is why I, too, am eagerly awaiting “Getting Engaged: Part Two”.


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