Balancing Jewish Community Needs With Repairing the World

As we've shed save Soviet Jewry bracelets for Save Darfur bracelets, Jewish leaders must recognize that focusing on the outside world does not necessarily come at the expense of Jewish continuity.

The first time I laid eyes on a stainless-steel, save Soviet Jewry bracelet -- each one engraved with the name of a Soviet Jewish dissident, I was transfixed. To be a teenager wearing one in North America in the mid-1980s signified a sense of collective consciousness for distant prisoners of conscience and the fact that one was a member of a tightly-identifying, if globally dispersed, tribe. “I wore it with pride,” one peer recalls. Another noted the sense of “status” the bracelet bestowed.

As a teen during the height of the Soviet Jewry crisis, my peers and I are representatives of the generation that falls between today’s older Jewish leaders and the Millennials, as the younger generation is called. In 1987, as executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, DC, Rabbi Sid Schwarz found himself organizing a 250,000-strong summit rally for Soviet Jewry. Today he is a pulpit rabbi and author, seeking to identify patterns that will help sustain a vibrant Jewish identity among younger Jews for whom issues surrounding Jewish persecution, the memory of the Holocaust, the role of Israel and the notion of assimilation present much differently than they did to earlier generations.

Schwarz’s latest book, Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2013), traces the shift from the twentieth-century Jewish obsession with Jewish continuity for its own sake, to a more universalist outlook. Rather than tending towards tribalism, the Millennials are guided by what Rabbi Sid calls a covenantal identity, meaning a spiritual legacy drawing from the values and ethics embedded in Jewish teachings to better the world at large.

I recently caught up with Rabbi Sid by phone.

The Jewish community, Rabbi Sid believes, needs to “convey...tribal values in a language that covenantal Jews can hear.” If it doesn’t, Rabbi Sid warns, “all that will be left are tribal Jews who will be extremely parochial and narrow minded.”

But if these core values -- values that Rabbi Sid identifies as including peace seeking, loving the stranger and protecting the vulnerable -- are already being internalized by younger Jews from society at large, where, I wonder, does Judaism come into it? How many of these young Jews can cite these values in the language of Jewish teachings? How many immersed Jews, for that matter, can even agree upon what Jewish values are?

Rabbi Sid agrees that these Millennials are taking their cues from society, but he also believes they are searching for authenticity. “Judaism has been working with this value set ever since Sinai,” Rabbi Sid says. These Millennials are attracted to “the sustenance of a community which has been teaching it, wrestling with it, and reinterpreting it.”

In this age, when it seems necessary to rethink institutional Judaism, I asked him how, as a pulpit rabbi, he attempts to nurture vibrant communities. “When you recognize how much talent and how much wisdom the average Jew has, and you bring them together and create a setting where everyone can bring their greatest talents and wisdom together,” Rabbi Sid says, “that’s when you create an intentional spiritual community.” He is about to launch a national mentorship program for early career rabbis called “CLI -- Clergy Leadership Incubators.”

Young rabbis, obviously, have already committed to a life of Jewish depth and breadth. And while some of them have succeeded in harnessing the power of their congregants to create dynamic communities which are premised on challenging some of the more tribal notions of the self and the other, some have been taken to task - sometimes quite meanly - by their more parochial peers. Witness Rabbi Daniel Gordis’s attack on Rabbi Sharon Brous last fall. So while the tribal-versus-covenantal divide serves as a neat conceptual hook on which to hang the argument of his book, Rabbi Sid in fact bemoans the “tension, the divide, the animosity that exists between these two camps” as being “extremely unhealthy for all concerned.” (Brous has a chapter in Schwarz’s book.)

My generation shed its Soviet Jewry bracelets for Save Darfur bracelets. Many of us now exist tentatively between harboring nostalgia for that kind of collective commitment versus being consumed with everyday family, work, and economic pressures. But many of us are also keenly aware that a strong sense of Jewish peoplehood can inform a commitment to social justice. That means looking at the State of Israel, for example, as posing both rich opportunities - as a haven for Jewish protection and collective self-expression - and serious challenges, namely how to establish a healthy relationship with the Palestinians out of decades of mutual enmity.

“There’s something wrong in...Israel around issues of human rights [and] treating the stranger,” Rabbi Sid says. “Hasbara is backfiring for young Jews, and that’s a serious dilemma.”

When I read the cri-de-coeur of a young Jewish adult about intermarriage pressures, or witness my undergraduate students studying the legacy of the Holocaust and the shameful inaction in Rwanda, or listen to IDF soldiers breaking their silence about atrocities committed in the name of occupation, I want my generation to be able to serve as a bridge, connecting the practical demands of Jewish continuity with a broader commitment to repairing the world, wherever suffering and humiliation lurks. To succeed in our task, what we will require are Jewish leaders and institutional frameworks which understand that one need not necessarily come at the expense of the other.