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by David A.M. Wilensky and Gabriel T. Erbs
from the Spring 2017 issue of Jewish Currents
ALL SORTS OF ARTICLES have been written and published about the millennials, with headlines that ask “Are Millennials Killing (fill in the blank)?” Bar soap. The diamond trade. Network television. It has also been widely reported that we are lazy and self-centered, and somehow that we are simultaneously more hard-working around the office and more engaged in social justice. Just as Big Soap, Big Diamond, and Big TV are frantically scrambling to shore up their support among millennials, so is Big Jewish. It’s not clear if they love us or hate us, but they do want us. So let’s talk about how Jewish boomers and Gen-X-ers (and self-hating millennials) talk about Jewish millennials. Even worse, let’s talk about how they talk to millennials. Here is our taxonomy of stupid shit the Jewish Establishment says to millennials.
Forward editor Jane Eisner cares desperately about who we have sex with, and seems deeply troubled by interfaith marriage. Her 2013 editorial, “For 2013, A Marriage Agenda,” urges the Jewish community to “figure out how to honor individual choice,” while considering the “communal need to promote marriage as the foundation for a healthy Jewish culture.”
We really don’t understand how any thinking person believes an intra-communal breeding program will be a convincing appeal to young people. Jewish millennials chafe against this pearl-clutching because we embrace, overwhelmingly, progressive values about gender, sexuality, and marriage. To us, baby-boomer chatter on intermarriage sounds alarmingly like what a lot of “polite society” said at the advent of racial intermarriage.
A 2013 Atlantic article, “Convincing Millennials to ‘Marry a Nice Jewish Boy,” reports the lengths that Jewish intra-religious hardliners go to in idealizing couplings between millennial Jews. Millions of dollars are spent every year making Jewish youth groups into — as the Atlantic article details — “21st-Century Yentas.”
Stop right there. Has Hillel, the BBYO, or Birthright ever paused to think that perhaps Jewish millennials don’t like being manipulated and coerced into predetermined relationships with their peers?
If Jewish boomers are really anxious about generational continuity (a phrase that verges on eugenics in its subtext), they should stop their hardline rhetoric, which simply pushes millennials out of the communal fold. For interfaith Jewish families who wish to build their family life within the Jewish communal context, this kind of talk constantly reminds them of their second-class status — so they leave.
Jewish boomer anxiety about the sex lives of millennial Jews is related to the larger Jewish generational anxiety-project of “Jewish millennial engagement.” The way Jewish institutions talk about “millennial outreach” sounds like a mixture of Silicon Valley tech-babble and the Steve Buscemi 30 Rock meme: “How do you do, fellow kids?”
“Generational consultants” coach Jewish federations about identifying trends among Jewish millennials. Piles of their costly market research drive stiff, inauthentic, young-professional programming. Then Gen-Xers turn their baseball caps backwards, waltz into Jewish institutional boardrooms, and start cashing checks. So you know what’s cheaper than propping up washed-out marketing analysis? Putting Jewish millennials in the driver’s seat, where they can call the shots about engaging their peers.
Instead, most attempts to empower Jewish millennials keep us on a very tight leash. Perhaps you’ve heard of “micro-grants.” Hailed as progressive and innovative, these programs are pennies in the couch cushions of the Jewish communal living room. They not only fail to place Jewish millennials in key decision-making roles (read: appropriations), they represent a tremendous hubris on the part of institutional program leaders. The issue isn’t that Jewish millennials fail to gather together and engage in rich ritual and communal life. We meet all the time for shabbat and simkhes, and turn out for IfNotNow, and identify our social justice as performative of our Jewishness. Allowing institutional groups, with their own conservative agendas, to colonize our organized spaces in exchange for a few dollars isn’t attractive to most Jewish millennials.
If we were in decision-making roles in the institutional community, those institutions would know where existing networks of young people are forming or have formed, and they could conjure the federations’ vast financial resources to support them. Instead, young Jews are relegated to young-professional outreach groups or feckless “student cabinets” (in the case of Hillel International).
Don’t tell Alan Dershowitz (seriously, please do not communicate with him), but Jewish millennials aren’t sitting home doing nothing. We are the hardest-working, poorest generation since before our parents. We are the leaders of protest movements and social justice campaigns. And we aren’t finding authentic leadership opportunities in our own community, so we seek them elsewhere. Seems like the anxiety Jewish institutional donors feel about the exodus of Jewish millennials from communal spaces isn’t as high as the anxiety they feel about handing over the reins. See you in the streets.
Cool Kids Like Israel
Israel, like most countries, is not really cool. I know that’s nails on a chalkboard for some Jewish boomers who believe that Leon Uris was Israel’s greatest historian and that Israel IsraelyCool. (We dare you to go Google “IsraelyCool” right now.) But even without the settlements, the occupation, and the Nakba, Israel is not hip. Young people don’t really think entire countries are cool.
That’s an intergenerational difference that cannot be bridged. Most American Jewish millennials grew up seeing the “American Way” play out in the drone strikes and invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. And they’ve had enough Israel-America flag pins attached to their starchy lapels to take boomers at their word when they say that America and Israel share the same values. No number of slimy, oversexed advertising campaigns will change that. Yet millions of dollars are spent every year pitching a sexy, Disneyland ersion of Zionism and Israel to Jewish millennials. Not only is this money that could be spent on enriching the American Jewish community, a lot of that advertising money ends up in campaigns so corny and eye-rolling that it may possibly do more to put off young people than Israel’s fifty-year occupation of Palestine.
A 2010 Forward article about a then-new hasbara (Israeli p.r.) website reported that the campaign was partially astroturfed by financial backers of the Canadian Federation of Jewish Students. Called “Size Doesn’t Matter,” the website is basically a dick-size joke. (Our apologies, esteemed, probably middle-aged, readers, but if I have to be constantly bombarded by sexualized Zionism, often on your dollar, then you can put up with reading the phrase “dick-size joke.”)
Aside from hasbara rhetoric that could have been cribbed from a porn script, the other major type of hasbara waged upon Jewish millennials is an adolescent exploration of Israel’s contributions to the sciences, tech, and cuisine-culture. Did you know Israel invented the cherry tomato? Did you know Israel invented the cell phone? Did you know Israel invented a striking myopia around promoting its own image abroad? It’s possible only the third fact is true (#alternativefacts).
Reluctant Engagement is the inability to reach out to Jewish millennials without being backhanded, as in: “We don’t like anything Jewish Millennials say or do, but we need them!” “The opinions of young #american #jews are appalling. They need to see the diversity here in #israel @DrMichaelOren #COPmission2017,” read a February 20 tweet from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. (Whose bright idea was it to give these knuckleheads a Twitter account?) The tweet quoted former Ambassador and current Deputy Minister for Diplomacy Michael Oren, speaking to whatever wasteful circle-jerk had been saddled with the hashtag #COPmission2017.
Although the Conference of Presidents was merely reporting what Oren said, they quickly deleted the tweet when a number of said #young #american #jews appallingly started mocking the elderly organization with tweets like, “I’m on my shul board, speak fluent Hebrew & work in Israel but bc I’m 4 freedom & dignity @Conf_of_Pres thinks I’m an #appallingyoungJew” and “Hi it’s me an #appallingyoungjew who hosts weekly shabbat dinner/ text studies and also believes in freedom and dignity for all people?????” -- and, more to the point: “Pro tip from an #appallingyoungjew this is not the way to court a #millennial through social media.”
The Conference of Presidents and Michael Oren, not exactly known for being relatable to millennials, know that they need us. But people like that just can’t bring themselves to believe us when we tell them how we see the world. The vast majority of us believe that there is such a thing as the Occupation, that Palestinians are people too, and all manner of heresies. They insist that to participate in the Official Jewish Community, we must adopt their politics. Good luck with that.
The following is a true story: There is a late-night young adult shabbat service at a large, urban synagogue. The late-night thing gives it a club-like vibe — the frattiest of our peers were in attendance. Part of the service was conducted in the dark: “The Amidah is a time for your own private thoughts and prayers. Or, if you actually want to read the words of the Amidah, you can haul yourselves over long pews of your peers and amble up to the front to read by candlelight!” The sermon was about Israel. And at the oneg, there was an honest-to-God keg of beer.
Synagogues are inherently spiritual enterprises. They are religious communities. But they are often so spiritually empty that if they can manage to entice any millennials inside, we can see that there’s nothing real there for us. Perhaps even worse, synagogue leaders are often so timid, self-conscious, and uncomfortable with their own spirituality that they can’t quite manage to convey any real substance to millennials who are looking for it.
The thinking behind the dark Amidah is a perfect case study: Because millennials are uncomfortable with “traditional Jewish practice” (you can unpack that phrase on your own time, not to mention that entire premise), the synagogue engages in gimmicks like turning the lights off during an important section of the service. A rabbi familiar with this particular service told us that the goal is to bring millennials to greater observance, but they need to be brought in slowly so as not to freak them out. What if it’s successful? What if a target millennial is drawn in and does want to engage in prayer in a more observant manner — by reading the Amidah, for example? Tough shit, kid. The lights are off.
WHAT CAN YOU take away from all of this?
Be an ally. Remember, dear boomers, what your parents said about you. (How’s that for intersectionality?) Put us in the driver’s seat. Put us on the board. And when you think of something disparaging to say about millennials, try shutting up and sitting down instead. When you hear one of your peers saying some stupid shit about us, shut them down and sell them a copy of this issue of Jewish Currents. Even better: Find some hipper reading material than Jewish Currents.
David A.M. Wilensky is an editor of jweekly.com and a former editor of New Voices magazine (once known as the Jewish Student Press Service).
Gabriel Erbs is a labor union organizer in Portland, Oregon, and a former board member of J Street U, the student arm of J Street.