To Engage the Young, Think Just Like Them

Jewish Americans perceive a number of threats at the end of the first decade of the 21st century: Israel’s security; the rise of anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism in Europe, Latin America and now North America; radical Islam; and the effects of economic conditions on their communities’ vitality.

These external threats add to the anxiety felt by a Jewish community facing an internal demographic threat represented by an aging and shrinking population — too few families having too few children — and the challenge of acculturating a generation of young Jews who insist on defining for themselves the meaning of their Judaism, the nature of their community and their relationship to Israel.

The strong reaction by some to Hillel’s decision to rent space to the lobbying organization J Street is a response to the real threats that face us.

It also exemplifies the challenge of guiding young Jews into adulthood when they perceive the threats differently than we do. For many, the primary issue in considering Hillel’s decision is how to properly understand the character of J Street and what needs to be done to stop it or promote it, depending on one’s perspective. For Hillel, the primary issue is how to properly understand the character of today’s college students and what can be done to engage them in the Jewish conversation.

Jews now coming to maturity have never known a world where Israel’s survival seemed perilous; for them, the Holocaust is remote, ancient history even. They relate to the world around them similarly to their non-Jewish peers. They value personal relationships and small social networks over organizational and formal community affiliation.

These young people avoid large, established organizations favored by their grandparents and seek less structured and less formal alliances.

They are finding expression in vehicles that are “edgy,” cynical and irreverent. Above all, they seek “self-authorship” — the power to define who they are, what they believe and how they relate to the world around them. They view being Jewish as a choice to be made or ignored.

Nowhere is this truer than in the Israel arena. Across the political spectrum, young Jews are less likely to identify with a particular Zionist movement and more likely to question ideological orthodoxies. They will argue with one another forcefully, but will defend against attempts to stifle any voices at all. They prize their intellectual independence.

Like prior generations, many will leave the Jewish community if they believe their independence is threatened or that the norms of their parents are being imposed upon them.

Success with this generation requires patience and flexibility. The questioning of established ideas regarding Israel and Judaism need to be tolerated, even encouraged. Most importantly, the organized Jewish community needs to engage the young, but not seek to protect them from themselves. This might only drive them away. Young Jews need the space to discover the truths that will define their Judaism, Jewish affiliation and relationship to Israel.

Hillel’s experience on campuses today suggests five strategies for success:

· Trust young adults to think for themselves and give them the information they need to make informed decisions.

· Provide young Jews with dynamic Jewish educators who will relate to them individually and will help them form loose social networks to learn about the substance of Judaism.

· Encourage the establishment of social networks organized around Jewish conversations (an Israel salon, for example) or experiences (Shabbat dinners for Birthright alumni).

· Encourage building inclusive communities; eschew Jewish institutional rivalry and competition in favor of broad-based collaboration.

· Celebrate the joy of Jewish life in ways that reflect the vitality and style of the current emerging generation.

Hillel succeeds with 21st-century students because we use these strategies. Their effectiveness has also been proven by young adult organizations such as Hillel’s Graduate Student Network, Moishe House, Chevra, Birthright NEXT and the Collaborative. Together, they are helping to secure the next generation of Jews, and should be supported by mainstream Jewish Philadelphia morally, politically and financially.

Rabbi Howard Alpert is the executive director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia. Professor Edward Newman chairs Hillel’s Israel Campus Coalition.