“How do we reach Jewish young people?” has long been one of the central mantras of the organized Jewish community, as those of us who work as Jewish professionals can surely attest. But while we wring our hands over at the state of the Jewish future, a remarkable new generation of Jews has been knocking insistently at our door.
Case in point: Almost one year ago, five young Jews disrupted the keynote speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Jewish Federation General Assembly in New Orleans. One by one, at five different points during the speech, the activists stood on their chairs, unfurled banners and shouted out in turn:
Young Jews say the settlements delegitimize Israel!
Young Jews say the Occupation delegitimizes Israel!
Young Jews say the siege of Gaza delegitimizes Israel!
Young Jews say the loyalty oath delegitimizes Israel!
Young Jews say silencing dissent delegitimizes Israel!
With each successive interruption the shouts from the crowd grew louder and angrier. As security attempted to safely walk them out, one protester was put in a choke hold by a convention attendee and wrestled to the floor. Another conventioneer grabbed a banner and tore it in half with his teeth.
At the very same moment, “Young, Jewish, Proud” launched its website, featuring the “Young Jewish Declaration” — an astonishing statement of purpose that seemed to come directly from the collective heart, mind and gut of this newly formed youth movement:
We exist. We are everywhere. We speak and love and dream in every language…
We remember how to build our homes, and our holiness, out of time and thin air, and so do not need other people’s land to do so…
We refuse to have our histories distorted or erased, or appropriated by a corporate war machine. We will not call this liberation…
We commit ourselves to peace. We will stand up with honest bodies, to offer honest bread…
We are young Jews, and we get to decide what that means.
Predictably, the Jewish establishment wasted no time in excoriating the protesters. Some chided them condescendingly for their “misguided” behavior. Others angrily criticized them for “aiding the enemy.”
As for me, I watched these events unfold with genuine hope for our Jewish future.
After all, weren’t these young people claiming and proclaiming their Jewishness in classic Jewish fashion? Like young Abraham destroying his father’s icons, they stood up to the hypocrisy and corruption of their elders. In the heart of the the largest gathering of American Jewish leaders, these proud young Jews called out their community on its most sacred of sacred cows: namely, the unquestioning, unconditional support of the state of Israel.
In all honesty, I can’t say I’ve ever witnessed as authentic an act of young Jewish self-expression as I did that afternoon at the New Orleans General Assembly.
Yes, as a professional Jew, I’ve participated in the “how can we inspire young people?” conversation more times than I care to admit. I’ve watched a myriad of Jewish community-sponsored initiatives come and go. And invariably, all of them focused on what we believed was best for Jewish young people.
But while the Jewish establishment has been excellent at creating and funding expensive projects, we seem to be chronically incapable of actually listening. We love to tell young people how we think they should express their Jewishness, but rarely do we stop long enough to really, truly learn what drives and inspires them.
Taglit-Birthright Israel, the Jewish establishment’s signature youth initiative, is the most obvious case in point. For well over a decade, we have invested literally hundreds of millions of dollars in providing free, all-expense-paid trips to Israel. The essential goal of these trips, as Birthright’s Marketing Director puts it plainly, is to make Israel “an integral part of every Jew’s identity.”
It’s well known that Birthright was born in response to growing reports that American Jewish young people were becoming increasingly disconnected to the state of Israel. But by rushing to address this issue through a massive multimillion dollar community initiative, we successfully avoided asking the deeper questions.
Could it be that we were afraid to know the answers?
Could it be that young people are becoming disenchanted with Israel because they are becoming increasingly troubled by its treatment of Palestinians? Could it be that growing numbers of young Jews regard Israel more as an oppressive colonial project than a source of Jewish pride? Could it be that in the 21st century world, the identities of young Jews are tied less to Jewish ethno-nationalism than to a more universal vision of liberation?
“Young, Jewish, Proud” is decidedly not the product of a Jewish communal initiative. On the contrary it is a grass-roots, self-organized effort of young Jews who seek to express their Jewish identity in a time-honored Jewish manner: by speaking truth to power, by advocating unabashedly for peace, justice and liberation, by standing up to oppression, racism and persecution in Israel/Palestine and throughout the world. They simply aren’t buying what the Jewish establishment has been selling them. They are finding their own voices.
We are young Jews, and we get to decide what that means…
I am well aware that it is not easy for a Jewish community so thoroughly focused on Zionism to hear it challenged in such a fundamental way. But aren’t these young Jews doing precisely what they were raised to do? They are taking a good, educated look around them, thinking critically about what they see and are taking a stand for what they believe in as Jews. Are we really prepared to disown them because their conclusions make us uncomfortable?
In the Torah portion for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we read that when God saves the life of young Ishmael in the wilderness, “God heeded the cries of the boy where he is” (Genesis 21:17). In other words, God was able to find Ishmael by truly listening to him. Not where God wanted him to be or where God thought he should be, but where he was.
This New Year, I fervently hope our community can do the same with our newest adult generation. These young people certainly have every reason to be disenchanted with the organized Jewish community, but for some reason they refuse to go away. They’re here, and they’re knocking loudly at our door.
Do we, the gatekeepers of the Jewish community, have the vision, the faith and the courage to open it up and let them in?