Creating Jewish meaning for the young at heart

Our obligation to the young, and to ourselves, must compel us all to move beyond our own comfort zones and think in bigger, bolder and more creative ways.

Birthright participants wave flags and cheer during a recent event in Jerusalem. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Birthright participants wave flags and cheer during a recent event in Jerusalem.
Rosh Hashana sets the stage for the obligation to sanctify time and space toward reevaluation of our lives (individually and communally), compelling us to wrestle with complacency and imagine a path based on greater values and loftier aspirations, rather than immediate necessities. One such lofty question is the state of world Jewry (including Israel) – especially as reflected in the younger generation – and the place of education in securing its ongoing associations with Jewish life, the global Jewish community and the State of Israel. As we determine our present course by examining the past with eyes fixed on the future, we need to pose serious and honest questions regarding our overall approach to this vital issue.
At a time of widespread Jewish fears regarding assimilation, disinterest in Jewish life and criticism of Israel, we should nonetheless remain focused on a simple truth: we have a wonderful young generation to work with, comprised of intelligent, sophisticated and passionate individuals who are committed to many causes and genuinely believe in their ability to effect positive change in many ways.
That alone is reason enough for the Jewish world to continue investing in such leading programs whose mission is to help this younger generation engage meaningfully with its Jewish heritage.
This investment, however, also needs to take into account the challenges we face in our correspondence with today’s young generation, for alongside its acknowledged assets, it also tends to show at times a gap between high access to information and lower ability (or desire) to engage in knowledge acquisition in depth. In this Internet age, many surf, fewer dive. Additionally, this generation is growing up in a world operating with much higher levels of opinion despite lower levels of knowledge. Unfortunately, too many have been given myopic lenses that see Judaism in primarily religious terms, and Israel in primarily geopolitical ones. Many associate Judaism with a religious indoctrination that promotes ritual at the expense of deep (let alone relevant) meaning, and this triumph of ritual over meaning yields ongoing disassociation from Jewish life. As for Israel, most media outlets and academics only see its geopolitical challenges, yielding a discourse that deprives the average “surfer” of any exposure to this country’s manifold, intricate and splendid dimensions.
These challenging vocabularies cloud the landscape, yet provide serious educational enterprises important opportunities to introduce different perspectives. Our obligation is to design thoughtful, ongoing and systematic methods that treat our young with the respect they deserve, accommodating their needs, interests and aspirations without avoiding our sacred mandate to push them beyond their comfort zones and reevaluate their own preconceived assumptions about Judaism and Israel. Nothing less is worthy of these young thinkers.
Many a time – allow me to be honest – the Jewish world is far less keen to challenge its young, even though the young themselves yearn for the challenge.
Education, at its core, should always aim to combine gratification with challenge. It should be a blissful irritation to the mind and to the heart, an enjoyable yet humbling process, as one faces the call for ongoing growth and depth of perspective – and has fun doing so. By offering safe and supportive climates for meaning-making and big questions, we can broaden the canvas of Jewish and Israel appreciation among the young, and move beyond the somewhat myopic lenses that had informed their initial views. We should not manufacture premeditated answers to accommodate one’s desire for quick relief, but facilitate a process that brushes core ideas, values and beliefs against the intricate and multifaceted backdrops of Israel and Judaism, thus allowing people to revisit their own preconceived exclamation points and thoughtfully re-message them into thoughtful question marks again. Education should teach people how to befriend ambiguity, rather than feel threatened by it. The ability to do so is one of the true signs of any soul on its way to maturity.
Our obligation to the young, and to ourselves, must compel us all to move beyond our own comfort zones and think in bigger, bolder and more creative ways. Jewish life is all about meaning making (all ritual revolves precisely around this axis), while Israel is a fascinating tapestry that negotiates great challenges with even greater achievements – on many levels. If we wish to insert these vocabularies into our overall discourse, we need to reevaluate ourselves constantly – not the young – and question some key paradigms that have governed generations of Jewish and Israel educational thought and practice.
Birthright-Israel has been working diligently to articulate and implement such educational precepts, so they may better correspond with the tremendous assets and various needs of the contemporary young Jewish adult. With over 500,000 program alumni who have been transformed by their experience, it remains committed to ensuring a cutting-edge program that keeps a close finger on the ever-changing (young) Jewish pulse, its make-up, needs and interests. By providing the young with opportunities to explore their own paths in the quest for a worthy answer, we can feel a sense of pride in our contribution to Jewish education in years past – and be filled with great hope for those to come.
The young are here, and they are wonderful.
And rest assured, they will find the meaning they seek one way or another. It is for us to ensure that Judaism and Israel play significant roles in their quest.
The author is the international vice president of education for Birthright-Israel.