20 May 2007

The Continuity of Discontinuity

That's the title of Steve M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kaplan's study on "How Young Jews Are Connecting, Creating, and Organizing Their Own Jewish Lives," which I just read about in Kaplan's JTA op-ed. Maybe now the institutional Jewish Community machers will Get It:

Rather than concluding that these new endeavors are weak or competing versions of existing institutions, we will do better to understand them as expressing an alternative vision of what Jewish communities can look like and how they can serve the needs of their members.

One hundred years ago, young immigrants and allrightniks built the American Jewish infrastructure that we have today -- from both AJCs to the landsmanshaften to nightclubs and shuls with pools. Now we are seeing smaller, more localized but no less provocative efforts to rejuvenate, engage, practice and live Jewish lives organized on their own terms by people younger than 40.

In cities across the country they are creating their own minyanim instead of joining synagogues; they are writing and publishing their own journals instead of just subscribing to existing ones; they are playing their own music, putting out records and producing their own concerts. They are hosting salons and movie screenings. They are involved in the creation of Jewish life that is thoughtful, popular and exists largely on the margins of mainstream Jewish organizational life.

These new endeavors do not look like their predecessors because they are responding to the perception that the offerings of synagogues, federations and JCCs are simply too narrow and do not adequately address the diverse needs of American Jews.

This translates also into practice, as the organizations typically resist anything hierarchical, denominational, exclusionary or judgmental. This resistance is partially a critique of mainstream Jewish organizations and partially an expression of deeply held beliefs in pluralism, as well as an understanding of the fluidity of identity in general.

These are some of the lessons that Steven M. Cohen and I address in "The Continuity of Discontinuity," our newly published study on this phenomenon. In the study we explore the ways in which these new organizations represent a response to institutional Jewish life by offering a variety of responses to it.

The organizations we highlight -- and there are many more across the country -- are the result of creative, thoughtful, dissatisfied people who had no desire to join committees, take over sisterhoods or participate in the young leadership branch of local or national communal organizations. But they understood that the landscape of Jewish life could sustain a greater diversity of organizations and experiences.

Today there is much communal anxiety over the behaviors, attitudes and activities of American Jews between 18 and 35. Members of that age cohort are not following their elders into the halls of existing institutions, which could threaten these institutions.

But what we are seeing is not the loss of Jewish practice in North America. We are seeing young people who want to build something new that follows a different vision of what an institution can be and that will cater in a different way to the needs of American Jews for meaningful Jewish engagement.

You can download the study here -- I've done so but haven't read it yet.
Also downloaded but just glanced at the Institute for Jewish Policy Research's new report "Jews in Britain: A Snapshot from the 2001 Census", for those of you who like yer stats... it's been briefly blogged over here at JOI (and no doubt elsewhere, but, y'know, these are the only ones of which the news has come to Hahvahd/There may be many others but they haven't been discaaahvahd).

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