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”.
Yet another piece from a Birthright NEXT person decrying the bad rap “establishment Judaism” is getting, this time, from the folks over at #JewishFutures Conference who named a whole bunch of institutional idols that needed to be smashed Josiah-style… (You can read an unscientifically assembled list over at Esther K’s blog…)
As I fired off in an earlier FB status update, all this kvetching from Birthright strikes me as a bit lame… as if Walmart, after driving all the local Main Street mom-and-pops out of business, is crying that consumers are a mighty fickle bunch…
I absolutely hate the over-simplified native/immigrant divide (first posited by Marc Prensky in 2001 and overblown by pundits everywhere ever since) to describe citizenship in the online realm.
I do accept that, for some folks, regardless of their age, this divide (or more like, their status as “immigrants”) speaks more about their bias against the online than it does about citizenship status and acceptance.
As “analog natives”, fiercely clinging to the analog, they fear/resent/are perplexed by their forced relocation into the digital world. The same happened with folks who feared/resented/were perplexed by the shift from an oral to a written culture (like Socrates in the Phaedrus!) or the introduction of the printing press in the 15th century or the irruption of the telephone and electricity into the lives of decent people in the 19th century.
Here is a piece by Deborah Blausten (h/t to Esther Kustanowitz for the link) considering Ray Oldenburg’s notion of the “third place” in light of the online, specifically as it relates to the activity of Next Jews. (Oldenburg, in the Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community, talked of “third places” as the creative “anchors” of community where people gather and really live.)
Of course, Blausten does not refer to the Jews who flock to this online third place as Next Jews, but that is exactly what and whom she is describing. Though she does not wholly embrace the crossover, (you can see how in the quote below), she is excited about the potential for a vibrant “third place” that is easily accessible, democratic, and driven by motivated individuals who are seeking meaningful Jewish connection, learning and experience.
A choice quote:
I love the online Jewish world and whilst it remains largely US based, for the past few years it has provided inspiration, conversation and several really solid friendships. There is no doubt though, that there is no substitute for RL (Real-Life) interaction. I write this on the back of 3 weeks of intense Jewish socialization, first at the 6,000 attendee URJ Biennial in Washington DC and then at the 2,200+ person Limmud Conference in the UK. Both gatherings serve as a ‘third space’ for the communities they are drawn from, spaces to meet, to re-connect, to converse, to learn and to celebrate community.
You can read the rest of Blausten’s piece here.
What is interesting to note is that Blausten trumpets the one-shot, big experiences as the exemplars of face-to-face third spaces – as opposed to say, synagogues, day schools (as Pomson and Schnoor posited, but has not really been borne out as schools are more exclusive (=$$$) than inclusive and, regrettably, not designed for adults), Jewish community centres or Manischewitz brew pubs (Just kidding… such places do not exist, but I hold the rights to the name, concept and work-product. Beware poachers!). The URJ Biennial and Limmud UK still pack a powerfully emotional, religious and spiritual punch. They are life-changing experiences, but one could not really sustain that kind of ecstatic participation week-in-week-out or, perhaps, even on a monthly basis. When would you sleep?
Blausten concludes that:
[t]here’s a plethora of places this can go, and little bits of shining best practise dotted around our community, whether it’s live-streaming services, making sure that thought leadership in the form of rabbinical blogs is accessible and sign-posted, apps for parents, a monster spreasheet of web tools or the multitude of things that are yet to exist or be shared. Critiques of online Jewish engagement will remain, and some will stand, but we can only gain by exploring.
She ends her piece with a call for British Jews to join in the exploration. Hear hear!
I hope Canada’s Jews heed a similar call: Next Jews, get online and get talking!