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Identity, Ideals and Institutions: How Jewish Organizations Can Find Hope in the Jewish Future

This article was originally a presentation to the American Jewish Committee at the AJC Annual Meeting in Washington D.C. on May 4, 2005.

Allow me to begin with a disclaimer. I do not claim to speak for every American Jew in generation Y. Most of what I will share with you is anecdotally based on my personal experience. And while I am well aware that my controversial perspective is impossible to universalize, I offer my story as a case study. It is my hope, not to concentrate on where we disagree, but that you as a resourceful Jewish institution contemplate how best to reach and engage those like me.

Like many in my generation, I am the product of an interfaith background. Although my Catholic mother converted before I was born and I was raised solely as a Jew, the experiences I had with my non-Jewish extended family were vital in shaping my identity, especially my Jewish identity. I never felt marginalized as a child on account of this experience, but that changed as I grew older and my commitment to Judaism grew stronger. Jews would point to the dwindling American Jewish population, identifying intermarriage as the culprit and dismissing my Jewish commitment as a statistical fluke. I was left feeling rejected by my community, confused about my values, and questioning my tradition.

I saw two viable responses. One, I could abandon my commitment to Judaism. Why associate with a community that rejects fundamental aspects of my identity? Or two, I could challenge the tradition and carve my own niche in the Jewish community. I chose the latter. One value, one deeply Jewish value, that I was taught in Sunday school was the obligation to ask "why." Questioning and arguing and challenging and including the dissenting opinion have been essential to the Jewish people throughout our history.

Academically channeling my frustration and confusion into an undergraduate honors thesis, I critiqued the Reform Jewish response to interfaith marriage. During this process, it became clear that my identity struggles extended well beyond my interfaith background. I became acutely aware of my own struggle to balance particular and universal values in my life.

I came to realize that Jews had difficulty understanding why I would be committed to a cause like the gay/straight alliance in college. Likewise, my agnostic/atheist friends in the social justice organizations had difficulty understanding why I would choose to commit myself to a droning religious community that, as they saw, inhibited the social change we were trying to implement. At first, I schizophrenically walked the delicate balance between the two realms. Emphasizing my long list of Jewish ties and downplaying my activism in my Jewish circles, I likewise emphasized my universal commitments and borderline agnosticism in my activist circles. It was an approach in which I found little joy and took even less pride.

I'm still very much in the process of reconciling these two aspects of my identity. But in reflecting on the process, I can say with certainty that I need to be given the space to find my own way. If a particular conclusion or solution is forced upon me without my being given the room to investigate on my own, my initial impulse will be highly reactionary and negative.

Countless times I have heard the question, "Is it good for the Jews?" as a suggested lens through which I should view my own decision making. It's a question that has guided the work of Jewish institutions for decades. But for better or for worse, that question does not speak to me. My understanding of Judaism leads me to believe that as Jews, we should be asking the question, "Is it good?"--a question that implicitly includes "Is it good for the Jews?" without shutting out the concerns of others. And while I promised I would not generalize, I think that many American Jews in my generation feel the same way. We don't connect with the language of survival and triumph over adversity that so deeply spoke to previous American generations in part because those don't seem like goals. They're realities. We feel like we have survival. What we're missing is substance.

Handing down the identities, concerns and passions of previous generations is going to be rejected by my generation as inauthentic--as not our own. We need to feel a sense of ownership in determining what we want the Jewish future to look like if we are to be truly passionate about it. There is little out there for post-college Jews. Too old to attend programs put on by the nearest university Hillel, we're too young (and too single, unlike the early marrying generations before us) to join a family-oriented synagogue.

On a tight budget and on our own ... truly on our own for the first time in most cases, our Jewish identities are often limited to Jon Stewart, J-Date, and a seder with the family ... if we can take the time off to make it home. There's little that the Jewish community offers us that really clicks with our needs. Ironically, this is a time in our lives when we're starving for community. Starting a new life can be very lonely. But it's a loneliness that's not going to be done away with by shmoozing at a Jewish singles' event or sitting alone through a Friday night service in the back row. We need ways to connect to other young Jews without an agenda determining where those connections should lead.

The most authentic model of connection I've experienced as a young Jewish adult, I found in the fellowship model. Linked to other young Jewish adults doing similar work through blogs and email listserves, we share ideas, have debates, and even build sub-communities through side book clubs and meeting for dinner. What begins as virtual becomes quite real. I am not exactly sure how this model would translate when not based upon a full-time job, but I envision something like a Jewish friendster.com or thefacebook.com or a J-Date, without the Date. Once these Internet meeting spots gain a critical mass, they catch on like wildfire as one friend emails five friends who email five more friends to post an online profile. I think it would be beneficial for Jewish institutions to hop onto the bandwagon. Within these sites, people create their own sub-communities based on special interests. So whether on this hypothetical Jewish friendster, a "Starving Artists" sub group pops up, or a "Group dedicated to stop the genocide in Darfur" or even a "Ben Stiller Fan Club," young Jewish adults identify their needs for you. Programming that responds to these groups can then be authentic, attended and meaningful. Or these groups could even develop their own events, start bookclubs, organize art shows ... subsidized by Jewish institutions, enabling young Jews to connect without downgrading their T.V.-dinner-budget into a cup-of-noodles budget.

So the challenge is on the table--to find venues for Jewish twenty-somethings to connect to each other ... and connect to Jewish institutions in a way that meets our needs as much as they meet yours. The goal is not getting us through the door. The goal is having us still care once we leave.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals.
Sarah Bassin

Sarah Bassin is the Senior Jewish Campus Service Corps Fellow at Princeton University and has held fellowships in the past through both the American Jewish Committee and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. A 2004 graduate of Lafayette College with a BA in Religion and History, Sarah has been accepted into the HUC rabbinical program and plans to matriculate in the fall of 2006. She may be reached at sbassin@princeton.edu.

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