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Jewish Continuity – What’s the Point?

June 28, 2010 – 9:31 pm9 Comments
Generation gap

Generation politics. Image source: Blog.aarp.org

By Simon Green

Recently on Galus Australis, Samara Hersch wrote about the “Missing Generation of Limmud Oz”. She expressed disappointment that she was part of only a handful of under-30s at the three-day festival of Jewish culture, and then asked one of the most important questions facing diaspora Jewry: How do we get the youth engaged?

The issue of why so few young people are involved in community events such as Limmud Oz was explored at Limmud Oz, in a nicely self-referential session. I found myself, one of the youngest at the seminar, sitting in a lecture theatre with all the caricatures of the Melbourne Jewish community – the holocaust surviving grandfather, the community leader (in fact, the editor of the Jewish News), the Jewish school teacher, the worried mother, the “wise son,” the “wicked son” – discussing by inference what they all thought I felt and should feel. It was classic generation politics and, beneath all the panic about negative findings from studies on intermarriage and assimilation, it reached the heart of the problem – that is, that we are too often asking the wrong question. It is not, “How do we keep the kids Jewish?” it is, “Why should we keep the kids Jewish?”

The difference between these two approaches is critical. The first question assumes, as parents, community leaders and teachers invariably do, that Jewish continuity is the upmost goal, maybe because it would give Hitler a posthumous victory. The second question aims to throw Jewish continuity off its pedestal, as do many secular Jewish youth. That is not to say that under 30s resent their cultural heritage and wish they had been born goyim, but they resent the unquestioned guilt and compulsion to be Jewish in a prescribed way.

The argument goes something like this. The “wicked son” (in this case one of the two co-hosts of the session) presents a controversial new model. He argues that we should stop measuring youth engagement by the numbers at B’nei Brith. There are almost limitless ways, he says, to express Judaism, and those that fall outside the framework are just as valid as those that lie within it. He puts forward the idea that Israeli movie nights, Shabbat dinners with friends, unofficial sporting groups, etc., can be as meaningful to individuals as youth movements and synagogues. He sees the future of the Jewish community as a network of small, interconnected but still independent, ephemeral interest groups.

The older generation hit back, calling the “wicked son” selfish. You may get meaning now from your transient and fragile groups, but what about Generation Z? They argue that to preserve Judaism, which is the ultimate aim, you need structure. They claim that we should be using every method we know – for example, alcohol – to bring kids back to the tried and tested organisations like AUJS, Young UIA, or any other of the many acronyms. They do not believe that there is a trade-off between quality of Jewish experience and quantity attending Jewish institutions.

I do not claim to know how to get more young people to Limmud Oz, apart from making it cheaper and not scheduling it during the university exam period. What I do believe, however, is that ultimately, the approach of trying to get kids to come with “a little force,” as one audience member suggested, or a little bribery, will not work. The Jewish youth must understand why being Jewish is valuable, and this means breaking down the myth that Jewish continuity is an objective good.

If we honestly believe that there is so much worthwhile in Judaism, then we should not fear this taboo topic. No matter whether we sit on one of the executive councils or are a fanatical Jewish community blogger, our kids will by and large see the same treasure chest of ideas that we see, and find their own way to sift through it. If, however, we have no faith that our kids will find meaning in Judaism, then we can keep paying in excess of $20,000 per annum to send them to Jewish day schools to magically become proud Jews, even if that objective is never explicitly discussed at school or in the home. We can then watch the cycle continue: few 20-somethings will take part in the community until they have children themselves and then, only because they are driven by the same guilt as their parents were.

One of the first steps to getting young Jewish people engaged is telling the controversial truth: that Jewish continuity is only good as long as Judaism means something to those who practice it.

Simon Green is a second year university student, studying Engineering/Law. He attends Ayeka, and is the current head of the leftwing youth movement, Hashomer Hatzair.

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  • Very interesting, but I suspect this might not be as big a problem as you make it out to be. You mention lowering the ticket prices and scheduling the event at a time when university students are not preparing for their examinations. Bingo. Come to a Limmud Oz in Sydney, and see how broad the demographic is! Youth movement leaders are given free tickets, which not only attracts the very young crowd, it encourages younger people to run sessions of their own, and ends up producing a great range of ages. I came to Melbourne this year for my fourth Limmud Oz, and this seems (to me) to be the way of it. At both Sydney Limmuds (2007, 2009) there was a large number of people and a strong youth turn-out. At both Melbourne Limmuds (2008, 2010), the majority of people were in their 40s+, and the overall number was not so high.
    There’s a lot of people out there who feel connected to their Jewish identity and who want to express themselves in an open, pluralistic environment. That shouldn’t cost them an arm and a leg.

  • Shulzi says:

    The timing of Limmud Oz has been a big factor in determining my attendance in the past. What I take issue with in this post though are two things; one being that Jewish continuity is solely a communal goal. While it is in some sense, families endorse this jewish continuity moreso for other reasons; a greater awareness of one’s own history and identity, and the lifestyle is viewed as desirable. Please correct me if I’m wrong. On this note, what the “wicked son” proposes does have its merits; it does endorse communal gatherings, and as someone who was previously involved in AUJS, the most successful events are ones that are solely social. That said, this does not allow maintainence of Jewish continuity in the long term, because it simply becomes a social group, with no common identity attached to it. This endorsement of identity is essential; and initiatives such as youth movements, jewish day schools and limmud oz all cater towards this. Thus, these types of initiatives should be emphasised more for that reason. BUT, if people are simply gathering to discuss jewish topics without coming to an authoritative resolution on the issue, it is all for none.

  • Akiva says:

    Simon, there were very few young people at Yom Limmud in Sydney this year. I doubt it’s a simple as you’re suggesting.

  • I was working over Yom Limmud, so didn’t attend. There were very large numbers of young people at Limmud Oz, however, both last year and in 2007. I think that a two-day conference, during which virtually anybody can run a session of their own, has a lot more pull than a one-day affair that focuses on international speakers.

  • ariel says:

    Simon, I agree fully.

    I attended Yom Limmud in Sydney and, whilst it was fun and I had a chance to get out of my box a bit, the variety was limited due to the 2-4 international speakers repeating themselves at every session.

    I also agree with the “wicked son” in the article. How many young Jews don’t attend UIA/JNF/AUJS/etc. functions, but have shabbat dinner every week or fortnight with friends where they discuss all sorts of issues in Judaism and the world? They also engage through sports teams, charities and by organising bowling without it having to have an organisation label  on it….
    Young Jews need to know why they should be Jewish. I am aware of much contemporary orthodox rabbinic writings on the subject, but not from any other sector…perhaps it exists, but I haven’t been made aware of it.

  • ariel says:

    PS How many people actually meet their future spouse at one of those organisational functions? Most people whom I know who have done so (and there are very few) have done so by being on the organising committee and met at a board meeting…

  • Liam says:

    If I can be so bold as to suggest that last year at Limmud Oz in Sydney, which I attended, had a plethora of young people there. I was in Israel this year, but wouldn’t have gone even if I was in Melbourne, because I thought the calibre of speakers and topics was sub-par.

    Bring content that inspires young people and activates their rather specific Jewish palate, and people will come. I just don’t think this year’s did that…

  • Akiva says:

    But it had ‘100 years of Yiddish Theatre in Australia’!! How could it have gone wrong???

    (I’m joking – I LOVE Yiddish theatre.)

  • Dikla says:

    To add only one small thing to what has already been said, I think the question of timing (ie university exams) which has been mentioned should not be overlooked lightly. Think about it – most young people who have a positive experience at a communal event, be it AUJS, Limmud Oz or whatever subsequently keep coming back. And university students are just out of high school, in their first years as adults trying to find their own interpretation of their Judaism outside of the framework which had been set for them in Jewish day schools and what not. During their years at university, there are many potential ‘hooks’ to get young adults actively engaged with Judaism and the community. The longer they are disengaged, the less likely they are to re-engage later on. I for one wanted to go to Yom Limmud in Sydney this year as I enjoyed Limmud Oz last year, I even thought about flying to Melbourne for the full program. However, as I needed to focus on exams, I didn’t attend. And I am one who attends many Jewish communal functions and am very involved in the community, so if I had to prioritise study over Limmud Oz, of course others who are not really engaged as I am are not going to even consider it during exam period.

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