Sunday, March 30, 2008

An Age-Old Problem

The Jewish Week, Novemebr 10, 1994

Of all the fault lines separating Jew from Jew, perhaps no division is more severe and less acknowledged than that lingering holdover from the '60s, the Generation Gap. With all that separates the political right from the left, the world of Orthodoxy from liberal Judaism and the Jews of the diaspora from their Israeli cousins, none of these divisions rips apart Jewish communities from within as the war between the elders and those insolent upstarts.

Most synagogues are relatively homogeneous philosophically and politically, yet most are also multigenerational. And the screaming that goes on at congregational meetings from coast to coast rarely has to do with "those crazy radical Marxists who sit in front of me on the High Holidays"; it's all about "the kids" who show no respect and just can't pray like you're supposed to pray. Or it's about "those old people" who live in a prehistoric world that just doesn't exist anymore and who insist on inflicting it upon a new generation.

More often than not, the first bit of information sought from me by potential new members is the average age of our membership. Once that matter is resolved, only then are other factors considered (does the rabbi juggle, does the kiddush include Entemanns, etc.). Honestly, how many are actually searching for a place that offers an intergenerational ambiance? And at how many intergenerational synagogues do the generations actually interact?

If synagogues are supposed to be the surrogate families of the post-Ozzie and Harriet '90s, then why can't we all just get along, no matter when we happened to be born? We need a new version of CLAL simply to span this apparently insurmountable age gap.The problem goes much deeper than simple intolerance, cutting straight to the root of our continuity crisis. There is a fundamental difference between how older and younger Jews look at the world, especially when it comes to religion. For the pre-boomers, religion is the bastion of stability in a rocky world. But for those weaned on Woodstock, what resonates most is precisely the opposite -- religion as the agent of change.

Each group seeks a different Judaism, each prays to a different God. The elders are comfortable with the Father/King model of divinity, while my generation prefers the brand popularized by the Havurah movement, influenced by Buddhism, kabbalah and neo-chasidism. One group lived through the Holocaust and rebirth of Israel, but never saw the need to crystallize those experiences in its liturgy. The other locates Holocaust-Israel at the core of its Jewish identity, but the ghosts of anti-Semitism are less able to motivate it philanthropically.

The two age groups live in completely different worlds and they come to me seeking things that are diametrically opposed. One wants comfort and security, the other wants challenge and discontinuity; one seeks a priest, the other a prophet. To which group do I tailor my message? How can I be, simultaneously, a balm of consistency to one and a catalyst for change to the next?

These are times of upheaval in institutional Jewish life. The Jewish world is groping for the right formula to confront a new era that is only beginning to take shape. Prayerbooks, which used to need modification every other century or so, now become dated after a decade. The language of approaching God has changed so drastically in recent years that all major movements are redefining themselves with greater frequency than presidential candidates. Change itself has become our primary mode of Jewish expression.

That's why I'm taking this opportunity to appeal to my respected seniors not to hold back the train. Please come aboard. The ride is bumpy, to be sure, and this is not the Judaism you bought into those many years ago. The new books you are praying from might upset you at times; yes, the "valley of the shadow of death" might now be called the "valley of deepest darkness." But it is through that valley that we must walk together.

I appeal for your patience and understanding, you who have been so loyal for so long. There are thousands of lost and lonely souls out there, primarily from my generation, who have never found a home in Judaism, and without at least trying to bring them in the future looks dim indeed.

Join us -- and step aside, too. This country only recently elected its first baby boom president. How many synagogues, federations and other organizations have yet to do so? And "young blood" makes no difference if the ideas are still the ones that have been tried so many times before but are failing so miserably now.

Jewish renewal will be meaningless if it is based on the repudiation of a previous generation, for such activity goes against the grain of our tradition as expressed explicitly in the fifth commandment. It can only work if the older generation buys in. You must not simply tolerate change, you've got to be its chief endorsers, even if it makes you so uncomfortable.

Don't force us to do what Jews have been doing all too often since the days of Abraham: seeking God by leaving their parents in the dust. Please, don't insist only on what makes you most comfortable, please don't bemoan every slight innovation in liturgy, agenda and leadership style. If the Abrahamic route is forced upon your children, we'll never realize our dream of creating a model community where all generations can drink from the same cup.

And whether that "cup runneth over" or our "drink is abundant" (as that upstart newfangled JPS Bible translates it), we'll all be nourished by the same elixir, the fulfillment of our common quest for a renewed and vibrant Judaism to hand down to the next generation -- from which they might drink abundantly and renew again.

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