Last month the North American Jewish community witnessed the public pillorying of a Jewish communal worker. Was it another horrific, shameful case of sexual abuse or harassment in the work place? One more mortifying incident of misuse of funds? No, rather, it was a case of a strongly worded opinion piece posted on eJewish Philanthropy that was behind the ouster of the former Israel Center Director of the Jewish Federation in San Francisco.
I find the whole episode exceedingly distasteful. The position that she publicly and so disrespectfully took in regard to so-called “Millennials” was one thing. Then the reaction of her employer, who chose to fire her, was surprising. Is there no such thing as teshuvah, giving her an opportunity to respond and explain herself? Regarding her ill-stated attitudes, is there any precedent for the financial support of any age group over another? Are there Jewish legal considerations that underpin the distribution of community funds to Birthright programs versus Jewish camps, education or food banks?
Whoa. There is a lot here. Three distinct issues need to be explored in the wake of Michal Kohane’s fiery piece, “40 Plus and Screwed: More on Less Young Adult Engagement”: First, the issue of parameters and determinations for the allocation of Jewish communal resources; second, an examination of Judaism and ageism (is there a preference in our tradition toward the support of any particular age group over another?); finally, the responsibility of leaders to communities they serve.
The subhead for Kohane’s diatribe reads, “Building a sustainable community can’t be just about paying for buses full of young people in hopes they will make Jewish babies.”
Regarding the over-40s, Kohane writes, “So we are not going to invest in you. Please, step aside, and hand over the keys.” This compels us to investigate the material angle here. If the Millennials are not deserving of this investment, who is? Is there another age group that the community should invest in? To what kind of programs should communal dollars be allocated? Who determines these issues?
Laws of tzedakah outline Jewish standards of giving. Who should be on the receiving end of Jewish charitable funds is not a simple issue. If one were to attempt to adhere to the principles of tithing, to whom does one give? According to a number of classic Jewish sources the priority is as follows: First, someone whose life is in danger, then relatives in need, then Torah scholars and Jewish education, the poor, then communal needs such as a mikva or synagogue, and finally funds helping people perform mitzvot, such as the observance of holiday rituals.
What of those Birthright trips that Kohane seems to hold in contempt? Does sending young people to Israel fit into this rubric? Are we in the long run investing in and attempting to ensure their Jewish engagement and subsequent mitzvah performance? Could it be that if we do not devote resources to their education there is little hope they will support communal organizations?
Perhaps investing in this generation and their connection to Israel and Judaism is in fact one-step removed from supporting Jewish communal institutions. Might some even go so far as to stress that anyone distanced from Judaism is someone whose spiritual life is in danger and who must then be “ransomed,” not unlike a prisoner? I can hear that argument being made quite compellingly by those in the Jewish outreach business.
A trip to Israel can be life changing. The argument can be made that with a long life ahead, those younger than 40, with their family-making ahead of them, are a good “bang for your buck.” And yes, Michal, it may very well be every Jew’s “birthright” to go to Israel, no matter their age. I hope that that is where folks’ travel dollars would go if they have them. By all means, let’s try to help everyone get to Israel! Many federations have subsidized missions over the years in the hopes that those who are on the trip will later be inspired to “pay it forward” by helping others in the community. Whether or not this is tzedakah or the best use of communal dollars is debatable — but certainly not to be dismissed as out of hand.
(An aside: In the case of Taglit-Birthright, sending 350,000 young people to Israel since 1999 is a tremendous accomplishment. The “Jewish Futures Project” report in 2010 concludes, “Participation in Taglit-Birthright Israel alters the trajectory of Jewish identification and engagement.” Is this really what Kohane casually calls a “goodie?”)
Kohane summarizes her criticism with, “Above all — we need to leave our young adults with a clear message, that after 40 — you’re not screwed, because they too, like us, will reach that noble old age one day, and they should know that Jewish life isn’t over then; in fact, we’ve only just begun.”
Well, Michal, I would like that, too, but when you toss out allegations like the following one from earlier in your piece you undermine your own stance: “But we are living in a society that assigns old people to old people’s home [sic], which often look worse, smell worse and are budgeted less than our prisons.”
That’s an awful line. It hit me in the gut. I would ask you to document it and would want further information on what you mean by “society.” The Jewish nursing home in Seattle, The Kline Galland Home, where I have spent much time, is as far as one could get from your accusation. To assert such with blithe smoothness and generality is to perpetuate a horrid stigma about older people and their lives and frankly, those who love them and seek to care for them.
What of ageism? Judaism tells us that newborns are esteemed as being closest in proximity to a pre-birth full knowledge of Torah and for their inherent purity, and school-aged youngsters are admired for their quick thinking, while their prayers are preferred for wholesomeness of spirit. Teaching the young is like writing on new parchment; teaching the old is like writing on erased parchment. But then, one cannot study mysticism till the ripe age of 40. Who is old (zaken)? One who has acquired wisdom. Age 80 is the age of strength, teaches Pirke Avot. The young advisers lead King Rehobaom down the path of power abuse while the elder advisers offer wisdom and patience. Bottom line? We need everyone around our table. One cannot be valued over the other, and each needs to be treated with respect and genuine awareness.
Finally, how do we work together in this Jewish community of ours? Should there be a modicum of tolerance for a communal worker gone rogue, who displays some decidedly poor judgment? Is there room for a sincere reflective apology? Perhaps an invitation to dialogue around some of Kohane’s dramatic contentions could have moved this conversation forward. Or is there a line that once crossed leaves no path of return? In this time of communal mourning over a temple destroyed on account of contentious Jewish in-fighting, perhaps a degree of mutual compassion is in order.