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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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