Wednesday, August 25, 2010

today's young Jews

Highly Engaged Young American Jews: Contrasts in Generational Ethos*Intervi=
with Steven M. Cohen**

- Many engaged Jews under the age of forty emphasize, more than their
elders and predecessors, Jewish purpose. They have created new*minyanim*=
expanded social justice activities, engaged in various cultural endeavor=
undertaken Judaic learning singly and in groups, and established a power=
and significant presence on the Internet and other new media.
- Alongside these areas of new and sustained emphasis, even the most
Jewishly engaged younger adults - not just the unengaged ones - in the
United States express much-diminished sensitivity to matters of external
threats to Jews, Judaism, Israel, and the Jewish people. Intermarriage,
anti-Semitism, Israel's security, and campaigns to delegitimize Israel m=
strongly motivate older engaged American Jews. But such issues excite
relatively little resonance among their younger counterparts, particular=
those involved in innovative activities largely outside (or alongside) t=
longstanding established organizations.
- Affiliation with a particular movement - denominational, ideological,
or otherwise - is less prevalent for the younger generation of engaged
American Jews. Conventional belonging to anything, not just things Jewis=
is neither automatic nor self-justifying. Many young Jews have shifted t=
identity's locus from people and organizations to purpose and principles=
The larger society is characterized by customization, niche marketing, a=
well as a wider diversity of options. Not only is the menu of cultural
elements longer, the ways in which options are assembled are more divers=
and idiosyncratic.
- Engaged young Jewish adults resist what they see as coercive
expectations. They see once widely accepted normative standards - such a=
in-marriage and support of Israel - as optional, tentative, and, at best=
, a
means to expressing higher Jewish purpose. In this and other ways, they
extend the notion of the "sovereign self," which was advanced and propou=
as characterizing Baby Boomers, the parents of the current generation of
highly engaged Jewish young adults, in *The Jew Within*[1] a decade ago.

Young and Engaged, Taking New Directions

"In the year 2000, together with Arnold Eisen, now chancellor of the Jewish
Theological Seminary [JTS], I had written *The Jew Within.*[2]* *It
explained how our generation, the Baby Boomers, differed from that of our
parents who came of age during the Depression. After finishing the book, I
honestly thought that American Judaism had taken individualism to the most
extreme form possible. I couldn't imagine that there could be even further
growth of this version of American Jewish individualism, with its emphasis
on *autonomy*, or control of one's Jewish life; *voluntarism*, or freedom t=
make Jewish choices; =91*personalism*,' or the emphasis on the authority of
personal meaning; *antijudgmentalism*, or an inclusive, welcoming attitude;
and =91*journeyism*,' or the idea that we are all on Jewish journeys that
deserve to be respected and supported."

Steven M. Cohen, a leading sociologist of American Jewry, has for over fort=
years undertaken studies of changing Jewish identities and communities and
how they are shaped. Although most of his work has focused on Jews in the
United States, his research has also ventured into other countries such as
Israel, the former Soviet Union, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Cohen is a
professor at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New
York and director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive @ NYU Wagner.

He observes, "But just a few years later I realized that the most creative
and productive Jewish young adults today, basically the age of my children'=
generation, were taking the Jewish =91sovereign self' even further. Since
2005, my scholarly work has focused on trying to understand this generation
and, in effect, to explore how it differs from mine.[3] One small differenc=
is that my generation - the one that pioneered radical Zionism, *havurot*[s=
religious fellowships], Jewish feminism, and Jewish student activism - got
its start in our undergraduate years, and we continued mainly in our
twenties*. *Many of the finest innovators in this current generation have
been active during their middle twenties to middle thirties."

Spiritual Communities

"In 2007, in my position as director of research for Synagogue 3000,[4] I
worked with a number of colleagues to study new forms of spiritual communit=
among younger American Jews.[5] We distinguished two types of communities
that had evolved over the last few years. One type is the independent *
minyan* [prayer quorum].* *These are worship-centered communities with no
paid rabbinical leadership, notwithstanding the rabbis and rabbinical
students who may populate the ranks of worshippers. The other type of
community is what we called =91rabbi-led emergent' communities. These are
founded and led by paid rabbis, and are especially appealing to Jewish youn=
adults and distinguished by an especially participatory culture, among othe=
features. At the time, about eighty such communities - of both types - were
functioning throughout the United States, with a few others scattered in
other countries around the world.

"The independent-minyan phenomenon started in the year 2001 with the
creation of Kehilat Hadar on New York's Upper West Side.[6] Today this
minyan attracts upward of two hundred worshippers on a Shabbat morning and
has about three thousand largely young adults on its mailing list. Hadar
services are marked by high-quality, spirited prayer and much communal
interaction, both after and outside of services.[7] In a number of ways, it=
leaders try to differentiate their community from what they see as the
spiritually unengaging and experientially passive suburban synagogues that
most of them grew up in. In this, Hadar is not alone among the independent

"Hadar has its own set of distinctive practices. One is that no *d'var* *
Torah* [public comment on the text] can last longer than five minutes. They
also do not announce page numbers for a variety of reasons. Doing so
presumes all *daveners* [those engaged in prayer recitation] have to be on
the same page, interrupts the natural rhythm of davening, and deprives the
uninitiated of the possibility of learning the page number on their own or
from their neighbors. On another, symbolic level, eschewing the announcemen=
of page numbers may be a subtle way to differentiate their services from
suburban congregational services whose model they seek to reject.

"My wife, Rabbi Marion Lev-Cohen, and I attended pre-Rosh Hashanah *Slichot
*[penitential] prayers there, where we stood out as among the oldest
worshippers in the room. That said, I was deeply impressed that several
young people took pains to make sure that I knew where we were in the
davening. It was indeed a highly spirited and deeply moving service, with
three or four hundred good, musical, and hearty voices singing together.
People really knew how to daven. Frankly, it was probably the best davening
I've ever experienced.

"While Kehilat Hadar is the oldest and among the largest such communities,
the dozens of others throughout the United States often attract between
forty and sixty participants at Shabbat services. A particularly instructiv=
example is the Mission minyan in San Francisco,[8] taking its name from the
urban neighborhood where it meets. Its peculiar combination of cultural
characteristics can be illustrated by an incident related by a colleague of
mine who attended services one Shabbat morning. My wife traveled there by
the BART train, the local subway, and brought a bottle of wine to contribut=
to the *kiddush *[sanctification] lunch after services. Minyan leaders
politely declined her offer of the wine, concerned that they would derive
benefit from wine that had been transported on Shabbat, a religious
prohibition effectively honored only by the most traditionally religious.
They told her, in effect, =91We can't use the wine but, of course, you're
welcome to join us and eat.' They then pointed to two tables of food: one
that was vegetarian only, and one that was both vegetarian and certified
kosher under rabbinic supervision.

"Notably, almost all Conservative Jews and even the vast majority of Modern
Orthodox Jews in the Bay area wouldn't hesitate to eat vegetarian food. The
separate table for *hechshered *[supervised] food - which only the more
rigorously Orthodox Jews would require - would suggest that the Mission
minyan is among the most religiously traditional islands in an otherwise
highly nontraditional Bay Area Jewish community. Indeed, their website
proclaims, =91Our practice is guided by traditional *halacha* [Jewish law] =
the values of gender equity and respect for variations in personal

"But here's the kicker: their website also declares, =91We are a highly
participatory, *queer-inclusive* [emphasis added] community that strives to
make as many people as possible feel welcome.' It is remarkable that a
community that is so stringent on *kashrut* [dietary laws] and Sabbath
observance simultaneously announces that it is =91queer-inclusive,' drawing=
the parlance of the gay community and its allies. Indeed, the Mission minya=
is the only religious community in the world that proclaims its adherence
both to halacha and to the principle of queer-inclusiveness, though other
minyanim and communities certainly combine a commitment to Jewish law and
welcoming LGBT Jews.

"This is not a point about one minyan alone. Rather, the larger point is
that these minyanim are incredibly varied, notwithstanding their progressiv=
politics, gender egalitarianism, and religious traditionalism. As a group,
they emphasize different stylistic and cultural elements, in seemingly
idiosyncratic combinations. Some of the most common elements are informal
dress, fast-paced davening, proficient prayer leaders, gender
egalitarianism, passionate singing, and *divrei Torah* that tend to relate
to significant personal issues and concerns. That said, they vary widely in
the parts of the service they include, the proficiency of service leaders,
the use of movement, the melodies, the patterns of gender inclusiveness, th=
sociocultural demographics, and the emphasis on social justice and

"An outstanding example of a =91rabbi-led emergent' community is provided b=
Ikar in Los Angeles,[9] founded by a small group of lay people led by Rabbi
Sharon Brous who serves as the community's spiritual leader. I've enjoyed
very spirited davening* *there as well. Ikar combines high-quality davening
with learning and a strong social justice emphasis. The latter is central t=
Brous's approach to Judaism and also derives in part from the years when
Daniel Sokatch, now of the New Israel Fund,[10] headed the Progressive
Jewish Alliance[11] in close conjunction with Ikar, of which he was a
leading member and provided major support for Rabbi Brous. I once suggested
to Sharon that she consider taking her extraordinary social justice pulpit =
she's an outstanding *darshanit*! [sermon-giver, or Torah-commentator] - to
the national level. Her reply was, =91If I were going to work on something,=
would be prayer.' That surprised me, if only because she's such an effectiv=
and passionate advocate for what I'd call Torah-based social justice

"On a personal level, Rabbi Brous, like many of the leaders of these
communities, is JTS-trained and traditionally observant. For example, she
prohibits the use of musical instruments at Shabbat services. What's more,
she walks to shul on Shabbat in stark contrast with a good number of
JTS-trained rabbis of an older generation. But, notwithstanding the
traditional observance patterns of its rabbi, Ikar is very open to engaging
members who are not punctilious about Sabbath observance.

"Of course, the drive for what we may call spiritual renewal in American
Judaism takes forms other than newly fashioned communities. I'm thinking of
such efforts as Mayyim Hayyim[12] in the Boston area, a
project that aims =91to reclaim and reinvent one of our most ancient Jewish
rituals - immersion in the mikveh - for contemporary spiritual uses.' It's
of some note that these innovations cluster disproportionately, given local
Jewish-population size, in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Boston=

"In 1968, Boston was also the location of Havurat Shalom, credited with
pioneering the havurah movement. It was in the late sixties and early
seventies that we last witnessed a period of efflorescence of these kinds o=
self-directed worship-study-community groups. The havurah movement both
stimulated and presaged lasting social and cultural change in American
Jewish life. Among its aftereffects: the increased accessibility of the
rabbis, and as to cantors, the decline of aria-driven *chazanut*
and the supplanting of such cantors with lay prayer leaders. At HUC [Hebrew
Union College] where I work, for example, the cantorial curriculum has been
retooled to make sure cantors can lead singing and function in the
popularist mode that the havurah movement championed. We see also the rise
of Jewish feminism and flowering of gender egalitarianism; and the emphasis
on text study. The havurah movement helped spur (and anticipated) what we
now call greater =91empowerment' of the congregant, in contrast with leavin=
control of the services entirely in the hands of the rabbi and cantor. All
these developments should be seen as cultural precursors of today's
independent minyanim and rabbi-led emergent communities.

"Since their heyday in the seventies, the havurot have declined in number.
However, the National Havurah Committee[14] lists over one hundred
communities on its website and sponsors an annual Summer Institute,
testifying to their enduring presence. In short, the cultural impact of the
havurah movement - and the large Jewish student movement and counterculture
of which it was part - has been profound, widespread, and continuous.

"And to all this must be added the impact on personnel: a good number of
today's most influential rabbis, educators, communal leaders, and thinkers
got their start in the havurah movement, in the Jewish student movement and
counterculture. And therein lies an important lesson for assessing the
significance of what some have called the =91Innovation Ecosystem' in Jewis=
life.[15] Culturally emergent trends today can become culturally embedded
patterns tomorrow. And young Jewish leaders - with God's help and good
fortune - become middle-aged and even elderly Jewish leaders decades later.=

New Cultural Expressions

Cohen observes: "In addition to building dynamic davening-centered
communities, younger-adult Jews are engaged in many cultural activities tha=
they or their predecessors couldn't, and didn't, do before, largely because
the cost of producing and distributing cultural expressions has dropped
dramatically in recent years. Significantly, long-established record
companies, newspapers, book publishers, and major film studios are all
painfully aware of the new economics of cultural production and
distribution. As more independent artists, musicians, journalists, writers,
and filmmakers are making and marketing their wares, often to very
specialized audiences, we see parallels among Jews.

"YouTube has become the repository of tens of thousands of Jewish-oriented
video clips - some humorous, others serious, and many connected with Jewish
events and used to connect with interested parties far and wide. I'm sure
that not all observers would see these clips as =91culture' in the artistic
sense, but they certainly have expanded and enriched contemporary Jewish
culture in the way that social scientists use the term. More conventionally=
we have seen the expansion of low-cost Jewish-oriented films, some of them
originating in Israel. Three Israeli-made films have been nominated for
Oscars, reflecting, I think, the maturation of an international Jewish
film-making culture extending far and wide.

"There are now Jewish drama groups, and drama skills have entered into
various reaches of prayer and Jewish education. In this realm, a prime
example is Storahtelling, or as it describes itself: =91using an innovative
fusion of scholarship, storytelling, performing arts and new media, our
programs reclaim the narratives and traditions that define Jewish life yet
have failed to adapt to modern times.'[16]

"Of course, one cannot ignore the vast expansion in Jewish musical
production, musical events, and audiences. Here I can think of no better
piece of evidence than the success of JDub,[17] a not-for-profit music
business started by two men in their twenties. Over the past few years, the
agency has discovered, developed, and promoted numerous musical artists of
whom Matisyahu is probably the best-known. JDub's mission statement is
emblematic of many features of the ethos of young engaged Jews in the Unite=

[Our] mission is twofold: to create community among young Jews, their
friends, and significant others by promoting proud, authentic Jewish voices
in popular culture; and to offer young adults opportunities to connect with
their Judaism in the secular world in which they live. JDub believes in the
power of joyous Jewish moments, in an inclusive, non-coercive, peer-to-peer
environment. JDub engages hundreds of thousands of young Jews every year
through CDs, events, online communities and conversations, and holiday

"This younger generation has created a whole series of new magazines. I am
thinking of the very ironic, iconoclastic, and irreverent *Heeb*magazine,[1=
as well as the serious forum for ideas on culture, politics, and spirit
found in *Zeek* (disclosure: I'm on the editorial board),[19] whose mission
and approach remind me of *Response*, the journal that I and others edited
in the seventies and eighties. Older philanthropists and younger journalist=
stand behind *Tablet*,[20] a year-old venture funded by the Avi Chai
Foundation, and, with a bit of stretch, one can even see the venerable*
Forward* as combining established support with the energy and independence
of young-adult Jewish journalists.

"I should say a word about Jewish spirituality, which is on the rise also
among young Jews. Relative to non-Jews, Jewish spirituality is still in its
infancy. But in 2009, also for Synagogue 3000, my colleague Lawrence Hoffma=
and I surveyed both young Jews and their elders[21] and found increased
levels of spiritual interest among younger people, though spiritual levels
among Jews significantly trailed those among American Christians. Two
demographic trends drove these upward. One is the rise in Orthodoxy, as
Orthodox Jews report much higher levels of spirituality than others. The
other trend is the rise in intermarriage, as Jews who are married to
non-Jews or who are the children of mixed parentage report somewhat higher
levels of interest in spirituality than non-Orthodox Jews with no Christian=
in their immediate families.

"Given the anticipated growth in Orthodoxy and in intermarriage, for quite
different reasons, we can also anticipate spiritual language and interests
trending upward for the young-adult Jewish population as well. Among the
most engaged non-Orthodox young Jews, who are not particularly the progeny
of mixed marriages or married to non-Jews, spiritual interests are also
trending upward for different reasons. The appeal of spiritual practices
(e.g., yoga, meditation) and Eastern religions, while small, does testify t=
stirrings of a spiritual awakening among segments of the engaged population=
So too does the rise of Jewish healing practices and centers, as well as th=
growing appeal of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality[22] headed by Rabbi
Rachel Cowan."

Learning Texts and Repairing the World

"As far as learning is concerned, a third major area of innovation in this
generation, one interesting phenomenon is that people want resources from
which to make choices about how to learn. Perhaps the most visible events
are the Limmud Festivals occurring all over the world where both =91amateur=
and educators, rabbis and the not-so-educated, come together for two to fiv=
days of classes and workshops, in free-flowing gatherings reaching people o=
all ages. With its first incarnation in 1982 in England, currently upward o=
forty Limmud gatherings are held around the world, with about half a dozen
in the United States.

"Of course, all Jewish learning is not encompassed by these Limmud
phenomena, impressive as they may be. To take another outstanding example,
in 2006, Kehilat Hadar (or Hadar Community), described above, gave rise to
Mechon Hadar (Hadar Institute),[23] a Jewish learning endeavor led initiall=
by Rabbis Elie Kaunfer, Ethan Tucker, and Shai Held - all friends for many
years. Initially, Mechon Hadar sponsored a yeshiva of adult text study only
during the summer. With additional funds they have grown to a year-round
yeshiva, where lay people come to study. Rabbi Kaunfer is a great organizer
who takes huge pride in helping people - in particular non-Orthodox lay
people - attain competence in classic Jewish texts, and in an environment
that emphasizes personal spiritual growth, the application of texts to
social justice initiatives, and a gender-egalitarian framework. His
long-term vision, if I understand it correctly, is to see many such yeshiva=
all over the world, but especially in the United States.

"Beyond these endeavors, young people also buy, and presumably read, many
Jewish books, both fiction and nonfiction. We've seen the emergence of a
Jewish blog culture on the Internet paralleling similar developments in the
society at large. My research shows that many young people are very
committed - or at least they say they are committed - to strengthen
themselves Jewishly, for which the resources are now easily accessible.

"Indeed, if there's a common theme that runs through the work of numerous
young social innovators - such as those I've met at PresenTense[24] - it's
the emphasis on using new tools, culture, and new digital media to bring
Jewish learning and Jewish meaning to the Jewishly unengaged or Judaically
uninformed. In essence, we have a cohort of entrepreneurial teachers, who
use contexts other than the classroom and teaching materials other than
classic texts, to reach far out to audiences they haven't met, with the hop=
of enticing Jewishly uninitiated people to gain more appreciation of the
resources of Jewish life, culture, and wisdom.

"Fourth, there has been a marked growth in social activism, embracing a wid=
variety of issue-focused organizations, and a network of philanthropists
supporting their efforts. In 2008, Shifra Bronznick and Didi Goldenhar wrot=
an impressive analysis of the field, entitled "Visioning Justice and the
American Jewish Community." The monograph traced the huge growth of social
justice activities and tried to come up with a strategic plan to coordinate
all these efforts.[25]

"The groups they studied cover a variety of concerns and issue areas:
immigration, housing, literacy, Third World, civil liberties, and
reproductive rights. The two researcher-activists - both have long been
engaged in the work of Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish
Community - came to the conclusion that while it's impossible to impose a
coordinated agenda on the Jewish social justice cottage industry, some
measure of collaboration among the major players (philanthropists,
activists, thought leaders, etc.) might nevertheless be possible.

"Among the earlier arrivals on the Jewish social justice scene (1999) is th=
Progressive Jewish Alliance [PJA], physically situated in the same building
with Ikar. Illustrative of its interests, its website reports, =91We fight =
economic justice by educating Jews about our obligation to stand with the
working poor, and then we organize the Jewish community to join in campaign=
to improve working conditions and secure a living wage for low-wage
workers.' PJA is one of several locally based social justice endeavors that
have expanded significantly over the last decade. The drive has extended to
the Orthodox world as exemplified by several developments of which Uri
L'Tzedek is among the most emblematic. Uri L'Tzedek sees itself as =91an
Orthodox social justice organization guided by Torah values and dedicated t=
combating suffering and oppression...[that] empowers the Jewish community
towards creating a more just world.'[26]

"Probably the most prominent and influential body in this field is the
American Jewish World Service [AJWS] led by Ruth Messinger, who assumed
leadership in 1998. AJWS has evolved into much more than a grant-making
agency for social change in developing countries. Although itself not a
creation of young-adult Jews, AJWS serves as a prime breeding ground for
emerging social justice activists. For years AJWS has been taking young
rabbinical students and others on service trips to developing countries
where they not only serve, but study Jewish teachings with the likes of
Prof. David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of
Religion. After ten days of combining service with learning, they come back
well connected with each other and more deeply committed to social justice

"These are among AJWS's many service programs of different lengths, open to
people seventeen and older. Most participants are young, and do serious
physical labor for a week or a summer or a year after college. The leaders
of these groups are Jewishly knowledgeable, use a specially designed servic=
learning curriculum, and help young people grapple with critical
issues. AJWS sends about 450 people a year on these various programs.

"Other major players in this field - beyond the =91establishment' agencies =
which the Joint Distribution Committee [JDC] is clearly the most prominent =
include Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps, with its live-in houses for Jewis=
social activists; the RAC, or Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in
Washington; and, not least, the Nathan Cummings Foundation and Jewish Funds
for Justice, two of the prime and ongoing funders of work in this area."

Internet Community

"The fifth area of innovation involves the Internet as both a place and a
tool for Jewish creativity and connection. Twenty years ago there was
absolutely no Jewish life on the Internet for a very good reason: it didn't
exist. Today, the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, SMS's, and more are
woven into the texture of everyday life, especially that of younger people,
and including that of engaged young Jews.

"There was a time when one wouldn't consider something published unless it
was printed on paper. Today, if one doesn't get one's writing up on the web=
if it's only printed on paper and not available for downloading, it simply
doesn't count and has little or no communication value.

"It would be stretching matters to conceive of =91new media' as a separate
dimension of Jewish innovation - alongside spiritual community, culture,
learning, and social justice. But it is equally impossible to ignore its
pervasive impact on all manner of contemporary Jewish creativity and
communication. The =91new media' facilitate, influence, and shape Jewish li=
and they are the locus of new forms of Jewish expression."

The Establishment Lends a Hand - and More

"This wave of innovation owes much to decades of training, education, and
network-development funded in large part by mega-philanthropists and, not
least, the state of Israel and the Jewish Agency. The leading innovators
often report numerous personal experiences as participants in programs and
fellowships with the names of rich philanthropists attached to them - such
as Bronfman Fellows, Wexner Fellows, Dorot Fellows, and so on - as well as
periods of extensive study in Israel, usually for one or two semesters.

"On a more contemporary plane, several philanthropic efforts have been
supporting people and nurturing new projects. Reflecting a partnership
between older Jewish philanthropists and creative young people the age of
their children or grandchildren, these projects, in effect, use the
philanthropists' money to help young innovators do Jewish things that aim a=
getting other Jews to do Jewish things. Lynn Schusterman's ROI program come=
to mind, as do numerous efforts funded by the Andrea and Charles Bronfman
Philanthropies such as Reboot, 21/64, and Slingshot, an endeavor to
recognize annually fifty of the most notable and promising innovative
projects, most of which have been started by U.S. Jews in their twenties an=

"A number of projects seek out new or somewhat evolved innovative projects
to offer seed money and technical assistance. The pioneer in this field,
founded ten years ago, is Bikkurim,[27] with offices at the Jewish
Federations of North America. Since their periods of incubation, several
Bikkurim projects have flourished and made a name for themselves. Examples
include Hazon, which is environmentally oriented; Encounter; Kehilat Hadar;
JDub Records; Mechon Hadar; Limmud New York; Storahtelling; and Uri L'Tzede=
(a very impressive line-up, to say the least). The domain of agencies
offering support services for innovators, startups, and not-so-startups now
includes Jump Start in Los Angeles, Upstart in San Francisco, and, for
artists, the Six Point Fellowship funded by the UJA-Federation of New York.

"A variety of efforts to found communities and engagement efforts don't fit
the foregoing models of spiritual communities. Examples are Synagogue 3000'=
Next Dor initiative[28] and the recently established string of about thirty
Moishe Houses[29] around the world. Both depend heavily on funding from
older philanthropists, and rely heavily on the work of younger people
reaching out to their age-peers.

"With the help of the Marcus Foundation, Next Dor promises long- term
results on a very large scale, through its targeting of that segment of the
young population looking for long-term relationships and commitment to
issues of purpose and meaning - rather than simply programming for social
and recreational ends. It is on the verge of establishing a national networ=
of Next Dor synagogues that will sponsor engagement personnel working with
young-adult Jews, by training synagogues for the transitional work necessar=
to sustain Judaism into another generation."

A New and Different Generation

Cohen observes that this generation's ethos contains a critique of
prevailing forms of Jewish life. "This critique can be expressed in a
memorable acronym: A-B-C-D. A stands for alienation, in that younger Jews
feel alienated from conventional and longstanding Jewish institutions,
customs, practices, and so forth. B refers to the sense that they find
established institutional life bland and boring. It seems predictable in
tone and content and populated by a predictable demographic of
upper-middle-class, middle-aged, in-married, family people. C refers to the
coercive features of Jewish life, especially its strong preference for
in-marriage and seemingly unquestioning support for the state of Israel. An=
D stands for divisive. Younger Jews see their parents' generation sharply
dividing Jews from non-Jews, Jews from other Jews - such as along
denominational lines - putatively Jewish culture from non-Jewish culture,
and Jewish institutional turf from non-Jewish turf.

"The Jewish-turf issue is especially revealing. The feeling among many
younger Jewish adults is that if, say, the Jewish rapper Matisyahu were
playing at a JCC [Jewish Community Center], they might wonder if the concer=
is going to be any good, and what kind of crowd will show up, itself an
element in determining entertainment value. But if Matisyahu plays at
general-purpose performance spaces, such as Town Hall or Webster Hall in Ne=
York, then it's likely to be a better performance. There'd be a much more
diverse span of Jews in attendance, and the added benefit of many non-Jews
attending, making it all-around a better, hipper audience. So there is a
sense that some Jewish life is sometimes better conducted on a non-Jewish

"In response to their alienation from conventional Jewish institutions,
younger Jews seek creative autonomy, often seeing themselves as social
entrepreneurs creating Jewish life and culture for those who share their
tastes and interests. In response to the perception of blandness in the
older generation, they are keen on promoting diversity in people and
cultural elements. In response to the sense of coercion around such matters
as Israel and in-marriage, they seek to act nonjudgmentally, to allow each
person's search for Jewish meaning to determine the value of their actions.
And in response to divisiveness in the Jewish community, they abjure
boundaries to the participation of non-Jews, they transcend denominational
identities, intentionally integrate cultural elements from outside of Jewis=
life, and display an interest in conducting some of their Jewish lives in
non-Jewish spaces, using the facilities of churches for prayer, or caf=E9s =
Purim parties, or concert halls for musical performances.

"I am struck by how these stances did not originate with this generation,
but in a way recapitulate much of Jewish development since the advent of
modernity. Each wave of Jewish innovation sees itself as at once alienated
from its predecessors, bringing more excitement to Jewish life, setting new
norms, and overcoming unnecessary boundaries. I'm sure the founders of B'na=
B'rith, Hadassah, Young Israel, and the UJA [United Jewish Appeal] all saw
themselves that way. Certainly, my generation saw its elders' Jewish ways a=
alien, bland, and boring, and coercive around the wrong issues. We advanced
a do-it-yourself Judaism, railed against the conventional politics of the
pro-Israel advocates of our day and the diplomatically oriented, *sha-shtil=
* [keep quiet] approach to advocacy for Soviet Jewry, engaged in a renewed
emphasis on community and learning, and launched an assault on the
Jewish-related divisions of our day - the control of organized life by the
most affluent and the control of religious life by men."

The Jewish Collective as a Means, Not an End

"Today's young people have some problems with what I see as four critical
dimensions of the Jewish collective: in-marriage, institutions, Israel, and
Jewish peoplehood.

"On each one of those levels, the inclination among younger engaged Jews, a=
best, is to instrumentalize each dimension, to see them as a means to some
other Jewish purpose, but not as altogether worthy and compelling ends in
themselves. They don't see the act of marrying a Jew as inherently
important, but valuable only insofar as it enhances the possibility of
leading a more intense Jewish family life. They place little value on
joining Jewish organizations per se, seeing such acts of affiliation as
meaningful only if they are connected with one or another worthy cause
rather than fulfilling an age-old dictum to be engaged in the affairs of th=
organized community. They see supporting the state of Israel as obligatory
only insofar as the state acts in accordance with highest principles of
democracy, tolerance, human rights, and Jewish ethical values as they
understand them. They see no automatic necessity to connect with the fictiv=
entity of =91the Jewish people,' and instead see other people as even more
needy of the type of support that Jews are best positioned to provide."

More Distant from Israel

Cohen stresses again that traditional forms of participation in
Israel-related communal activities are of low intrinsic value for younger
engaged Jews and are seen as optional at best. "A fairly representative
figure in this generation once told me: =91My support for Israel isn't
guaranteed. I support Israel insofar as it represents the Jewish values tha=
I hold dear. When it deviates from those values it doesn't deserve my
support.' His response contrasts with what may be called =91critical Zionis=
of my generation. For us, the protective impulse and the corrective impulse
go hand-in-hand. The urges to defend Israel and to take issue with its
policies support and reinforce each other. For Jews under forty, the obviou=
shortcomings in official Israeli policies - be they related to settlements,
or human rights, or women's rights, or the place of non-Orthodox Judaism -
produce distancing, alienation, and disengagement.

"One also has to understand that this generation distinguishes between
=91Israel engagement' and being =91pro-Israel.' Many of the younger generat=
are as actively engaged with Israel, if not more so, than the older one. In
fact, most young Jewish leaders - if that's the right term - have not only
visited Israel, but they've spent at least four months or more studying or
volunteering there. Experiences that are now sponsored by the MASA program
have been a crucible for young Jewish leadership development for the last
decade and more. So, unquestionably, as a group, younger engaged Jews in th=
United States are not only Jewishly engaged, they are also highly

"Yet, at the same time, they often resist being seen as =91pro-Israel' in
terms of supporting Israel politically. For me, =91pro-Israel' means you ge=
involved with Israel, even if it involves opposing settlement expansion or
denouncing Israeli authorities for repressing expressions of Masorti and
Reform Judaism in Israel. For American Jews under forty, =91pro-Israel' mea=
supporting the misguided, mistaken, and sometimes immoral policies of the
Israeli government. That is how they interpret it, and therefore they have =
problem with calling themselves =91pro-Israel' or associating with
=91pro-Israel' advocacy groups.

"Curiously and significantly, out of twenty-eight Bikkurim* *Fellowships
that have been awarded since 2000, only one project, Encounter, focuses
principally on American Jews' relationship to Israel. A scan of projects
listed in the last five years by Slingshot similarly finds hardly any
Israel-focused innovations. While the United States has seen a surfeit of
new Israel-advocacy groups over the last decade, as well as the =91pro-Isra=
pro-peace' J Street, none of these efforts entailed an initiative of
young-adult American Jews (with the possible exception of Jerusalem's
PresenTense). In all instances of newly created Israel-related groups in th=
last decade, middle-aged and older donors and social entrepreneurs took the
lead as founders, sometimes handing over creative control to younger people=

"The very minimal engagement with Israel on the part of today's Jewish
social entrepreneurs stands in sharp contrast with the Jewish countercultur=
of the late sixties and early seventies. True, we had our share of what we
called =91havurah Bundists' - essentially, devotees of prayer and study who
had little time for Israel-related concerns. But, for the most part, Israel
played a huge role in our lives and in the social networks we created and
inhabited. I don't believe I could make the same statement about today's
patchwork of innovators and innovative projects."

Little Concern for Jewish Security Issues

"Connected with the distancing from Israel is the lack of resonance with
Jewish security issues. One of the hallmarks of this younger Jewish group i=
the diminished sensitivity to matters of external threat. The Jerusalem
Center for Public Affairs is a premier institution in charting and
addressing matters of threat to Jews and Jewish life, in Europe or in
Israel. In all these contexts, we're talking about various formulations of
Jews in distress.

"In the main, this whole subject is of relatively little interest to younge=
engaged Jews today, even as it continues to resonate with a wide swath of
less Jewishly educated age-peers in the United States. Threats to Israel,
remembering the Holocaust, responding to anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist
attacks, and so forth are just not as compelling to this group of people as
they are to their elders.

"Among many of the innovative leaders, the attitude is, =91At best, respond=
to threat is just not where our hearts are. We're about providing Jewish
meaning and access to Jewish life and tradition. Others, whom we may
respect, do Jewish defense.'

"It's as if we have three Jewish ministries or super-departments in Jewish
communal life. We have a Ministry of Defense, a Ministry of Education and
Culture, and a Ministry of Health and Human Services. Personally, I'm a
member in good standing, I hope, of the Ministry of Culture and Education -
all my work and passions are about the changing contours of Jewish identity
and community. The Anti-Defamation League, the Jerusalem Center for Public
Affairs, AIPAC, and J Street belong to the Ministry of Defense -
notwithstanding their differences, they're all more interested in a secure
future for Jews and Israel. Other agencies and individuals aim at helping
Jews in need; they may support hospitals, or geriatric care, and other
communal services. The JDC, for example, is a leading element in what we ma=
call the Jewish Ministry of Health and Human Services.

"Thus, the absenting of younger engaged Jews from involvement in defense of
Israel is only partly due to their disaffection with major Israeli policies=
It also has to do with their definition of their function in Jewish communa=
life, as well as a diminished sense of the automatic claims of Jewish
kinship. In Prof. Daniel Elazar's terms,[30] they've come to define their
Jewish commitments as more a matter of consent than kinship."

Affiliation with a Difference

"I have often quipped that American Jews inevitably affiliate - just as soo=
as they give birth to a seven-year-old Jewish baby. That quip happens to be
inaccurate for these younger Jews because, in truth, they are already
affiliating, even before babies and even before getting married. For
non-Orthodox Jews in America, they are truly exceptional, a virtual elite o=
Jewish life today.

"But with all their high rates of affiliation, these young American Jewish
elites, as I call them - they'd hate the term, just as they reject the
characterization of =91leader' - have deeply held views that contrast with
those of the more conventionally affiliated. I've already mentioned their
qualified views of in-marriage, even as it turns out that 96 percent of the
married members of the independent minyanim are married to Jews. In-marriag=
is a reality, but it is not an explicit ideal. So, too, with supporting
Israel and communal affiliation. These are not inherently valued, but rathe=
merit loyalty that is tentative and involvement that is instrumental.

"The nonconventional approaches to affiliation can be seen in their
discomfort with the inherited denominational identities - Orthodox,
Conservative, and Reform being the most common. Significantly, the
largest-growth denomination in American Jewish life is =91just Jewish.' I h=
started including =91postdenominational' as a response choice in my surveys=
though it must be noted that =91postdenominational' is an affiliation choic=
of the more engaged, while =91just Jewish' is more often selected by the le=
engaged in Jewish life.[31]

"In looking at =91denomination raised' and =91denomination now,' we find
fascinating patterns of change among younger engaged Jews in the United
States. Only among the Orthodox do the numbers hold from childhood to young
adulthood. At the same time, Conservative and Reform affiliation are clearl=
dropping. Many of those who were raised Conservative or Reform are now
nondenominational or postdenominational. They feel that denominational
identities divide Jews against Jews, while providing little inherent value
these days."

The Sovereign Self Extended

"Given my own background and the way I view such matters, I regard the
current younger generations as extending the principles of the Jewish
sovereign self that Arnold Eisen and I first described in *The Jew Within*.
They are extending and elaborating the major elements we discerned:
autonomy, volunteerism, personalism, nonjudgmentalism, and journeyism. As I
said earlier, I just could not imagine anyone taking those principles any
further. It never occurred to me that the next generation would, albeit wit=
firm and passionate Jewish commitment, take the principles of individualism
and sovereign self even further than we had observed among Boomer types in
the mid-nineties.

"They expect that they and their friends will move in and out among evolvin=
options in Jewish life. They have little need for what they regard as
outmoded notions of =91parties' in Jewish life - Orthodox, Conservative, an=
Reform, but feminist, Zionist, liberal, and conservative as well. America
generally, and Jews there as well, have moved firmly beyond the age of

"Ten years ago, when we finished our book, I know that both Arnie Eisen and
I wondered: how does one create a community for and with such highly
individualized and individualistic sovereign-self Jews? Well, apparently a
good number of younger engaged Jewish adults have figured it out. In part i=
means creating communities that respect individuals, and allow very diverse
people to feel comfortable together.

"At the heart of my work is observing and characterizing this phenomenon. I=
is crucial for the Jewish people to understand it."

*Interview by Manfred Gerstenfeld***

* * *

* This work benefited from years of colleagueship and collaboration with
Prof. Jack Wertheimer, Prof. Sylvia Barack Fishman, Prof. Shaul Kelner,
Prof. Ari Y. Kelman, and Prof. Sarah Benor. Prof. Larry Hoffman of HUC-JIR
provided many valuable comments on an earlier version of this manuscript fo=
which he provided a very close read and review. Howard Weisband also closel=
reviewed earlier drafts and gave valuable advice throughout. Thanks also to
Shifra Bronznick of Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community,
Sharon Brous of Ikar, Marion Lev-Cohen, Elie Kaunfer of Mechon Hadar, Ruth
Messinger of American Jewish World Service, and Mordecai Walfish of the
Berman Jewish Policy Archive @ NYU Wagner.

** With many thanks to Chanah Shapiro for her assistance in preparing this

[1] Steven M. Cohen and Arnold M. Eisen, *The Jew Within* (Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 2000).

[2] Ibid.

[3] See, e.g., Mara Benjamin, Steven M. Cohen, and Jack Wertheimer,
"Peoplehood in the Next Gen," *JFL Media*, October 2006,

Steven M. Cohen, "Changes in American Jewish Identities: From Normative
Constructions to Aesthetic Understandings - Interview with Steven M.
Cohen," *Changing Jewish Communities* 30, 16 March 2008,

Steven M. Cohen, "The New Jewish Organizing," Sh'ma Institute, February

Steven M. Cohen and Sam Abrams, "Israel off Their Minds: The Diminished
Place of Israel in the Political Thinking of Young Jews," Berman Jewish
Policy Archive, 27 October 2008,

Steven M. Cohen, Eli Kaunfer, J. Shawn Landres, and Michelle Shain,
"Emergent Jewish Communities and Their Participants: Preliminary Findings
from the 2007 National Spiritual Communities Study," Mechon Hadar, November

Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman, "Cultural Events and Jewish Identities:
Young Adult Jews in New York," UJA-Federation of New York, February 2005,

Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman, "Beyond Distancing: Young Adult American
Jews and Their Alienation from Israel," Jewish Identity Project of Reboot,

Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman, "The Continuity of Discontinuity: How
Young Jews Are Connecting, Creating, and Organizing Their Own Jewish Lives,=
21/64, 2007,

Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman, "Uncoupled: How Our Singles Are Reshapin=
Jewish Engagement," Jewish Identity Project of Reboot, 2008,

Steven M. Cohen and Jack Wertheimer, "Whatever Happened to the Jewish
People?," American Jewish Committee, June 2006,


[5] Cohen, Kaunfer, Landres, and Shain, "Emergent Jewish Communities." See
also Eli Kaunfer, *Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach U=
about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities* (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights,


[7] See Kaunfer, *Empowered Judaism*.






[13] Ritual bath.


[15] Carin Aviv, "Haskalah 2.0," Jewish Education Service of North America
(JESNA), Jumpstart (Organization), Summer 2010,

Maya Bernstein, "Back to School," EJewishPhilanthropy, Jewish Education
Service of North America (JESNA), 30 April 2010, 15-17,

Felicia Herman and Shawn Landres, "Seeding the Ecosystem of the Jewish
Future," Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, Spring 2009, 10,

Shaul Kelner, "A Lexicon in Flux," Josh Rolnick, Sh'ma Institute, February

Shawn Landres and Joshua Avedon, "The Innovation Ecosystem: Emergence of a
New Jewish Landscape," Jewish Jumpstart, The Natan Fund, The Samuel Bronfma=
Foundation, 2009,

"Slingshot 09-10: A Resource Guide for Jewish Innovation," The Slingshot
Fund, 21/64, 2009,






[21] Steven M. Cohen and Lawrence A. Hoffman, "How Spiritual Are America's
Jews?," Synagogue 3000, March 2009,


No comments: