At a conference earlier this year, I heard a denominational leader now close to retirement ask whether the young leaders who are going outside of traditional institutional frameworks understand “who published the siddurim that they are using, and who gave them their training and credentials.”
This comment echoes the findings of a recent study by the AVI CHAI Foundation examining the impact of Jewish leaders in their 20s and 30s. In that study, American Jewish history scholar Jack Wertheimer writes, “For their part, younger Jewish leaders would do well to reexamine their views of the establishment. For all its weaknesses, it played a major role in educating them.” In both of these comments, I detect a hint of resentment toward young leaders, and an accusation that they/we (I’m a 34-year-old rabbi who started a new community in Seattle) are acting without appropriate humility.
On the other hand, when I started the Kavana Cooperative five years ago, I heard something altogether different: My generation did not want to align with the “establishment,” so we made calculated decisions neither to adopt a synagogue model nor to affiliate with any denomination. This desire to acknowledge generational differences by forging new paths has been reinforced by the world of Jewish philanthropy, which in recent years has supported a number of innovative projects that aim to change the Jewish world.
All of this leaves me in a bit of a quandary. I am keenly aware that I am who I am today by virtue of my upbringing during the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s in a small, southern Jewish community, where I was shaped by all of the major Jewish institutional forces of the 20th century: A synagogue (which happened to be both Conservative and conservative), an afternoon Hebrew school, a Jewish Community Center, a Jewish federation, summer camps, and more. But the Jewish world has changed rapidly and dramatically over the past decades. Today I am nurtured Jewishly by a loosely connected national network of Jewish “start-up” communities, funders, and umbrella organizations — groups brought together by a common vocabulary centering around “innovation,” “social entrepreneurship,” “meaning,” and “empowerment.”
While I acknowledge that my success is due to the individual mentors and to the many institutions — both old and young — that have taught me, supported me, and enabled me to arrive at this point, I am also aware of a deep tension — a behind-the-scenes tug of war, a generation gap — between “old school” and “new school” leaders.
I wonder what is going on. How might we probe the generational divide that exists among Jewish leaders today? Can we learn to talk across the multigenerational divide in ways that are productive and mutually respectful? Is this a matter of not acknowledging one’s years, of not wanting to hand over the power to make changes to a rising youthful leadership that works in ways different from the established ways? Are young leaders not acknowledging or paying tribute to their formative years, their own stories of emergence, the precedents upon which they built their lives and “innovative” communities?
I ask my older colleagues: Can your generation of Jewish leaders take pride in the legacy you are leaving, even if younger leaders carve out new paths rather than follow directly in your footsteps? Can you accept that we might not want to assume the mantle of your existing institutions — even if you were willing to hand over the reins? And, without being presumptuous, we know that some existing organizations may falter without a new, rising leadership. Can you demonstrate the principle of tzimtzum, contraction, in order to make space for new ways of organizing and new forms of leadership? Can I convince you that preserving Judaism is more about the values and ideals we share than any particular institutional framework or established model?
I ask my peers: How might we express our gratitude to those who have paved the way for us and demonstrate appropriate humility? How can we absorb the depth of wisdom from people who have served the field over time, have lived with an innovative spirit and created their own communities in their day — even without making their choices our choices? Can we build bridges between the tendency to reject mainstream Judaism as outdated and the reality that, for the majority of American Jews, these institutions are and will remain at the heart of Jewish life for the near future?
A multigenerational mix of Jewish leaders might challenge the unhelpful dichotomy between innovators and establishment, enduring institutions and inchoate new ventures, “insiders” and “outsiders.” In our own ways, we might focus on the shared task of making Judaism relevant and meaningful in the future.