It started like many other conversations, at an informal gathering in someone’s home. It was a social evening and many — though not all — in the room were involved in the D.C.-area Jewish community. We shook hands and exchanged names and pleasantries. He told me he was 32 years old, single, and worked for a well-known start-up company based in DC. I asked him about his Jewish background, and he told me that both of his parents are Jewish (Conservative), he went to Hebrew school and had a bar mitzvah. After that, he said, he pretty much “stayed away” from the organized Jewish community.
My new acquaintance — I’ll call him “Brian” — asked me about Federation and what we were doing. I shared the many exciting focuses of our work and then began an interesting dialogue. I asked what it would take for Brian to get involved in his Jewish community, attend events and maybe even get involved.
Brian shared an interesting response. He stated that first and foremost, he was looking to be “entertained” by the Jewish community. But what about substance? I asked. What about sustainability of Jewish culture, religion, heritage? Can we do all of that by simply entertaining people? Brian said, “Yes.”
And though I knew that Brian didn’t represent an entire generation, I did note the importance of exploring the mind-set of this gentleman from the next generation before me.
Throughout our conversation Brian repeatedly expressed a need for exciting and engaging programming within Jewish communal space. He wanted to be with other Jews, but only if it was sufficiently entertaining to keep him coming back for more. And though he wanted to marry Jewish and raise his kids Jewish, that was only important to him if it was something they wanted to pursue.
We’ve heard about how boring Jewish communal life is, how predictable, stodgy and un-hip it can be. We desperately want to change in order to be called anything but these adjectives, but we haven’t found the magic formula yet. Jewish communal institutions — Federation included — experiment with different types of programming in order to attract different audiences. Nothing is wrong with that.
The question, however, is, what’s next? How do we ignite within our members the desire to take responsibility, to get involved, to give back?
What Brian taught me was priceless. He challenged my long-held beliefs about Jewish community and peoplehood and stated clearly what he wanted and needed to consider himself a part of the Jewish community. He adroitly shifted responsibility from the individual to the community, from “How can I be Jewish?” to “What does Judaism offer me?”
This may very well be the most difficult challenge we face. Brian may well have summed up his generation’s angst. Or maybe it’s our angst and their reality. Whichever, the very notion that Jewish life is one of many options available makes it incumbent upon us to make it an attractive option, lest we lose potential participants.
So now what? It seems to me that the answer lies in our willingness to experiment without giving up the franchise; to try the new while sustaining the best of the old. There are all types of Jews and there should be all types of offerings. Judaism’s greatest strength is its flexibility; the Jewish community’s greatest strength is diversity. With both, I believe we can succeed to retain, sustain and attract members. The challenge, of course, is the mix: How much new and how much old? How much entertainment? How much substance? And to what end?
Programming must be purposeful, not just a “means to an end.” Defining the “next step” must be a conversation between the community and the individual, with the community offering a wide variety of options and the individual having a choice on how he wants to connect.
I also believe that we must give much more responsibility to the next generation. We must trust their instincts to find new and exciting responses to age-old issues and at the same time, entrust them with the decisions that need to be made and give them an ownership stake in the consequences of the decisions.
I don’t believe in creating a kids’ table for young leadership; they must be an integral part of the governance structure of Federation, agencies and synagogues. As such, the younger generation must make meaningful financial gifts — according to their ability — to have an equity stake in the organization and the governance decisions.
The combination of engagement and strategy along with innovation and sound structure, complemented by meaningful participation by the next generation of our community, will lead us to a more nimble and stronger Jewish community.
What do you think? Join in this conversation by writing to me at [email protected]
Steven A. Rakitt is executive vice president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.