Over coffee this morning, as I awaited Part Two of Esther K’s “Getting Engaged”, I ruminated over Isi Liebler’s piece which appeared today in Sheldon Adelson’s free daily Israel HaYom. Not one to eschew a good, screaming hysterial headline, Liebler (safe in the Israeli Jewish consensus) wrote of “A looming Jewish leadership crisis” in “the diaspora”. Though AIPAC might be in good shape for a little while longer, Liebler observed, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations are headed by folks who are near retirement – and there does not seem to be ready heirs to these soon-to-be-vacant thrones. This, Liebler believes, is bad for the Jews.
(He concludes by calling on the Israeli government help counterbalance / wrest control of the Jewish Agency and other diaspora organizations from the grasp of billionaire mega-donors… good luck with that and call me when the matter is resolved, mmkay?)
And not one to avoid an overly simplistic, glib pronouncement myself, I might agree with Liebler about the leadership vacuum … except that I do not.
Liebler’s view of North America Jewry is of a community led and anchored by big organizations. But as I wrote in End Of The Jews, these organizations are crumbling and, for increasing numbers of Jews, they are increasingly irrelevant. So, yes, if you look to the legacy organizations and succession and blabla blabla then there is indeed a leadership crisis in the North American Jewish community. But if you regard the Jewish community differently, then this crisis is similar to the “disaster” facing New York horsecar drivers in 1917 or Betamax afficionados in 1988. Or Blackberry users in 2014. As in, not a disaster at all really…
I do not see a leadership lack or crisis – but a leadership shift. Recalling Esther K’s point from Part One of “Getting Engaged” (or a similar articulation in End Of The Jews), the Next Jew jews differently. She organizes without organizations.
So when Part Two dropped earlier today, I realized that the mere existence of Esther K’s piece was a repudiation of Liebler’s establishment-generation hysteria. Esther K is one of those people Liebler considers absent from the Jewish scene. Except she’s not. She is one of today’s Jewish leaders… as are, say, the countless youngerish Jews who came up through Jewish camps who are dedicated to a viable and vibrant Jewish community. Liebler is just looking in the wrong place.
So on to Part Two where, after a close read, I realized that Esther K may be making an argument that I have heard increasingly in the Jewverse: let’s emphasize quality over quantity, or, in other words, commitment over convenience.
By privileging engagement over attendance, as Esther does, one essentially raises the bar beyond voting with your feet (or your Jew-pon, Noam Neusner…) and acknowledges that, despite the urge to conflate the two (“Look at how many people came to this program!” or, from my wheelhouse, “Look how many kids are in this school!”), there is a threshold (small or low as it may be) that demands some level of commitment.
So coming to a program does not an “engagement” make. The same is true for the child’s equivalent: education… Choosing to send a child to a day school is just the beginning – not the outsourcing – of a family’s commitment to Jewish learning. (How to pay for it is another matter entirely…) The bat or bar mitzvah is an official entry to – not an exit strategy from – involvement in collective worship. Age or life stage, as Esther writes, does not matter. (I would also add socio-economic status to this mix.) Engaging with Jewishness is a challenge facing all Jews everywhere. Even the Orthodox ones too…
The thing is… the commitment to face this challenge, embrace it, get up off the couch and do something about it, as minimal or low-bar as it is, cannot come from the programmers or professional educators. Even with the lubrication of social networking, there still has to be an affirmative commitment on the part of the individual. The programmers/educators are already committed. (If they were not, they would be investment banking or lawyering or refrigerator repairing, professions that are more lucrative and, in the case of the latter, more prestigious…) And, as I have said before, regular Jews are not commitment-phobic. They take on all kinds of other commitments freely and willingly. Some of them are downright onerous – like hockey. So how do we get them to commit more to Jewishness? Read on. Read on.
Esther is quick to point out that youngerish folks’ interests vary. Some just want a casual, “lite” cultural experience, an “Olive Garden Judaism”, while others are looking for something more intense. But, I contend, how the individual intuits this is necessarily accomplished by thinking through one’s personal goals vis-a-vis Jewness … which requires some thought and some time and, even before that, some level of commitment to considering this “goal” question in a (semi-)serious way. Or not. Whatever. It’s your party. Cry if you want to.
So, with no recourse to magic potions (thanks, George R.R. Martin), perhaps what might help move things along (i.e., “Love takes time, and a little bit of luck.”) is the proprietary algorithm that makes eHarmony harmonize or PlentyofFish flow or lavalife percolate … WHAT IF WE HAD AN APP FOR THAT? I am serious…
What if we could match the individual with the kinds of programs they (profess that they) need? I have written before about the decision-making strategies some parents (seem to) employ when deciding upon a day school for their child. I have also witnessed first-hand how families suffer through the bat/bar mitzvah process. The dissonances and disturbances and stresses these misfits and misfires and miseries conjure do little (to nothing) to make Torah and Jewishness beloved by the Jews. In fact, they are quite effective at accomplishing the opposite… So could an APP do any worse? This sounds like a Jewcer project just waiting to happen… Esther K, are you with me?