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.
Thou shall make an app for that.
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?
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 do … We 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”.
I have been a bit distracted lately working on galley proofs of End of the Jews and other vanity of vanities… and with the passing of the weeks, I recalled that I have long neglected the unrolling of Thoughts 4, 5 and 6 about “peoplehood.” So, here, in a thought-nutshell, three more thoughts about “peoplehood”:
Read Rabbi Elie Kaunfer’s op-ed.
Re-read Rabbi Elie Kaunfer’s op-ed.
Then think about it some more.
Not that Rabbi Kaunfer’s op-ed was a mind-blowing polemical tour-de-force, but its context made it important.
Following the verbiage coming out of Denver (including an e-mail which gathered the best tweets from the GA and thus defeated the purpose of twitter), I came across Rabbi Kaunfer’s op-ed, a variation of which he delivered as a speech at the JFNA General Assembly. Though I am sure what he said annoyed some folks in Denver, it is not by any means revolutionary:
[H]ere’s the problem with [continuity] theory: In our zeal to ensure the Jewish future, we forgot to articulate why it matters for Judaism to continue.
This observation has been said elsewhere before by others. Including this blog.
Nevertheless, it is should be pointed out that for an invited speaker to get up at the GA and basically tell the continuity people that continuity is hollowed out as a galvanizing narrative and funding formula took a lot of chootspah.
And with that, continuity has now officially tipped, toppled over and broken. The continuity people should now be in need of another buzzword, slogan and brand.
May I nominate chootspah? It is topical, short and punchy – and can be branded with the following, compelling image:
I was trying to think of a word to describe the phenomenon where the fundamental assumptions that propelled one generation (begin to) wane in the next. I thought initially of “inertia,” but there are too many negative connotations to that term… Some would suggest “progress” but rather than bore y’all with the continuing semantic search here, you can simply register what I am trying to describe and if you can come up with a catchy word or phrase that best encapsulates it, please feel free to leave me a comment.
So, I think the North American Jewish community is experiencing the above phenomenon in a number of profound ways. (That conclusion is, in large part, what drove me to write my book and what the book is about…)
And when it comes to peoplehood, perhaps it might behoove us to consider the People Israel as one based on consent not descent. Now this is a catchy phrase often employed to describe how Jews feel their connection to Judaism. These “consent-not-descent” folks might say: “One cannot assume that just because an individual has a Jewish parent or two, that makes them Jewish. They need to feel it too. They need to want it. They need to opt in.” Or one could say that we might want to shift to a quality-based Jewish affiliation instead of a perception of nation based on quantity. (This, I imagine, would make many a post-Shoah policymaker nervous.)
And though folks have argued in various academic publications like this one that the paradigm has long shifted, for some reason, a lot of folks in positions of authority, policy-making and fundraising and distributing do not seem to sense any shift whatsoever.
So, if I might suggest another cornerstone for Jewish peoplehood to replace / supplant / buttress the failing ones, it should be this:
Jews need to want to be Jewish. (It is not something that just happens, or at least public policy should not be made based on the assumption that it includes those folks that just happen to be Jewish.)
And that involves engagement. So when I say “consent,” I mean an affirmative step, an act, a saying yes and a doing yes. And that doing yes should be most broadly conceived and defined… So if someone opts to go to step class at the JCC instead of a local health club, that’s an affirmative choice to associate with a Jewish entity. That counts. Disagree? That’s fine. That’s why there is a comments section…
So if shvitzing to Human League counts, does writing a cheque? Hmm… that’s a good one. Folks, chime in here on the relative merits of chequebook Judaism. (As in, the only connection one has to one’s Jewishness is writing a fat cheque to the UJA… is that doing yes?)
And I am not suggesting that folks who are not that engaged should turn in their Elders of Zion membership cards. Settle down.
"To be honest, I would like to go about my life exploiting the subject of my Jewishness for comedy, and not be saddled with the responsibility to actually represent, defend, or advance the cause of the Jewish people."
But if we are going to begin funding “peoplehood projects” with the expressed goal of strengthening the Jewish people, then perhaps we might want to consider that Jewishness / Judaism / being Jewish / doing Jewish is not just something you can just exploit for humour although Sarah Silverman seems to be doing a great job of it…
Doing Jewish should be inconvenient. Yep, that’s right. It should force the individual to have to pause for a moment at some point in their day and say to herself: “Hmmm, I could flake out here and do [fill in example of ‘easy way out’ here, like not paying my workers overtime] which would be the expedient, corner-cutting, easy thing to do, but Jewish teachings / mores / practice / tradition teach me otherwise. So I choose the latter…”
In a culture where speed and expedience are king, perhaps we should strive for a Jewishness which is slow, contemplative and inexpedient and cannot be multi-levelled-marketed like Nu Skin…