Listen to the new Josephs

Don't stifle the dreamers who can stave off the Jewish famine of ideas.

joseph dreaming 88 (photo credit: )
joseph dreaming 88
(photo credit: )
The challenges of Jewish leadership in North America today parallel the story of Joseph, the Jewish patron saint of both bureaucrats and dreamers (at least until Franz Kafka comes along, an insurance claims adjuster by day and a mystic visionary by night). Close reading of the Joseph narrative, the grand finale of the extended family drama of Genesis, suggests two axes where today's Jewish community will either stand or fall: communication between veteran and emerging leadership and the balance between planning and dreams. Just as Joseph learns to systematize his dreams as an Egyptian government official - saving his family, people, and the world from a famine of food - today's North American Jewish community must bring the dreams of contemporary Josephs into the realm of communal planning lest it encounter a famine of Jewish ideas and action. Joseph reveals two dreams at the opening of Genesis 37: first his brothers' wheat bowing down to his sheaf, and then 11 stars, the sun, and the moon bowing down to him. His brothers respond with predictable jealousy to the favorite son with the colorful coat. Yet Jacob's harsh, defensive response is much more problematic. Jacob castigates his son and is said to "keep the thing in mind." While discomfort with Joseph's challenging dreams is understandable, Jacob suggests a flat reading, applying the dreams' message to himself rather than to the dreamer. He perceives his son as an upstart and a threat, not a visionary. HAVING BEEN defined by a dream of his own as a young man - Jacob's Ladder - Jacob should have already developed his passions with the patience and experience necessary to listen to, train, and integrate unexpected and even prophetic ideas into his family's conversation. Instead, Jacob seeks to protect his own interests by superficially defining his son as a selfish "dreamer," not a young star destined for the role of a "planner" capable of translating his dreams into practices that can save his family and the world. Lack of support for a young leader by his elders - including both Jacob and his other sons - results in mortal danger not only for Joseph, but for the entire family. Then as now, when veteran leadership lacks the insight to fuse emerging creativity with larger communal structures, we are all condemned to learn their shared lessons the hard way - through Exile. Even when the community leadership claims to hear, it usually does not know how to listen. Such is the case with the conversation about "New Jewish Culture" in North America. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett calls New Jewish Culture the "ethos, aesthetics, sensibility, and sociality of youthful expressive energy" in media, community, technology, arts, study, and religious experience. Anyone paying attention to the blossoming of Jewish life as a result of this movement knows its blessings. Still, more often than not the Jewish community repeats Jacob's aloofness in interpreting the visions and accomplishments of some of its most vibrant dreamers. Consider one example of many: CAJE (the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education) recently honored the retirement of long-time leader Eliot Spack by inviting a panel of distinguished, generous and astute leaders to share their "big ideas" for Jewish education in the 21st century. All of the presenters (and almost all of the attendees) were over the age of 50, if not older. Today's Josephs - the dreamers, planners and upstarts of thriving projects like Hadar, Storahtelling, Zeek, jewschool, Hazon, Jdub Records and scores of similar Jewish enterprises launched by people in their 20s and 30s were not offered the floor to describe their ideas for Jewish life to thrive in the decades to come. REGARDLESS OF the support that the veteran Jewish leadership does provide to the people and projects of "New Jewish Culture," a pattern of excluding young leaders from meaningful public dialogue about North American Jewish life in the 21st century typifies the board rooms and conference halls where the priorities of communal leadership take shape. Veteran leaders work tirelessly to imagine the future of the Jewish world, yet they mostly ignore the fact that it is young leaders who will need to live in that world, not to mention save it. Latter-day Josephs and Jacobs waste precious time muddling about in the very same paradigm of broken communication modeled by their forebears. Though new ideas may seem inherently threatening, veteran leaders must act as mentors to their younger counterparts, recognizing that seasoned professionals and volunteers can provide the wisdom necessary to transform neophyte visionaries into full partners. If "New Jewish" artists, teachers and activists are not invited to share and interpret their dreams in the conversations where Jewish communal planning takes shape, existing Jewish infrastructure, like the sheaves of wheat of Joseph's family, will grow brittle. If veteran leadership continues to ignore the call of new voices out of fear of losing what it already has built, the Jewish community will condemn itself to a needless "famine. Our JCCs, pre-schools, volunteer organizations, universities, museums, day schools, synagogues, camps and adult education institutions will loom on the horizon like grand, beautiful pyramids. Though striking testimony to the vision and strength of their builders, they will remain darkened by the lack of the new ideas that should have illuminated them. The writer is the managing editor of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture ( and a Mandel Jerusalem Fellow. He can be reached at