They used to write about us when I was your age with endless articles in Time and Newsweek marveling at how different we were from “the establishment” with our distrust of the older generation, iconoclastic politics, demonstrating for civil and women’s rights, questioning of sexual mores and marrying later in life. We were the “baby boomers,” with spreads in Life or Look picturing us in denim jackets and miniskirts, long or floral bedecked hair, and sandals and frayed jeans. We were being exhibited much like features in National Geographic showing a newly discovered tribe in a remote part of the world.
These memories come back to me as I follow endless articles about your generation. You not only don’t trust the older generation, but according to a recent survey, 80 percent of you don’t trust anyone. You advocate for myriad causes, but you disdain politics and many of you don’t vote. You are marrying even later in life or not marrying at all. You may not be questioning sexual mores, but rather finding additional mores to question. You are the “millennials,” whose lives are transported through the internet and social media with magazines, style sections of newspapers and television commercials taken with your presence.
Regardless of our age disparity and despite what media wisdom may hold in branding us as dissimilar, if we were to engage in a Jewish-focused conversation, I’d propose that our religion, traditions and culture attune us to each other with shared values and goals. I’d say “poppycock” and “no way” to the misleading and non-productive claims that we baby boomers live in a “bubble” in which, as one Jewish millennial asserted, our “wisdom is antiquated, condescending and does not reflect the world in which millennials are beginning their adult lives” — or that millennials, as I have heard some boomers overgeneralize, are self-indulgent, unfocused and feel entitled. I’d suggest we push back against the facile divides that keep us apart, and look at the cross-generational human and Jewish attributes and ideals that find resonance within each of us.
For instance, much is made of your reluctance to be part of established “brick and mortar” Jewish institutions (read: synagogues). As one of you put it, “we are able to create our own unique Jewish communities in which we pick and choose how we want to express our Judaism.” And as one of my fellow boomers analyzed of you, “Jewish young adults are seeking a strong, personal relationship to their community, spirituality and peers.”
But aren’t we all “picking” and “choosing” how we behave in our Jewish world? Conservative versus Orthodox, driving to services on Shabbat or not, or selecting from a long list of volunteer opportunities on mitzvah day? As for spirituality and worship, my own “brick and mortar” edifice, Congregation Beth El in Bethesda, houses multiple “expressions of Judaism” such as minyanim with varied approaches, demographics and reciprocal respect and encouragement among them.
And certainly I, like most baby boomers, want a “strong, personal relationship” to my Jewish world. Yet I prefer, as I hope you do, to be part of an encompassing Jewish world, not to a subset within an assortment of “worlds” claiming their separate Jewishness and operating in parallel niche networks defined by age or some other demographic factors. There is a Jewish wholeness into which we all fit as part of an embracing “am Yisrael” that engenders a Masorti tradition of “dor v’dor,” intertwined demographics and an ethos of valuing each other across all Jewish streams.
Might you agree a sameness of purpose is before us? If the 2013 Pew survey of Jews was correct, our problem is not so much that only 24 percent of Jewish adults under 30 are members of a synagogue and 41 percent have no denominational affiliation, but that a staggering 32 percent say they have no religion at all. It’s not just that Jewish institutions are seeing reduced numbers; more to the point, we have a crisis in the shrinking American Jewish presence itself. I trust you are experiencing the same chill as the one going through me at the possibility that a third of our young people may be lost to Judaism.
Many of us boomers grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust, and the thought that a significant number of our young are disappearing so soon after the Nazi annihilation of 6 million Jewish souls shreds our sensibilities. So yes, we do worry about assimilation and about interfaith marriages in which children are often raised superficially “Jewish.” My heart sank reading the statement of one millennial who claimed she is alienated from traditional Jewish settings and activities because she did not want to be “roped into something with an ulterior motive,” such as “joining something, marrying Jews and making Jewish babies.”
I do not feel I have to “rope” you into anything, and my hopes are explicit. You are already part of “something” significant and eternal through which from newborn to elderly we experience each other’s love of our people, ties to our traditions, pride in our heritage and commitment to building a Jewish future. Out of this vibrant grounding, don’t your marrying Jews by birth or choice, parenting Jewish babies, establishing Jewish families and creating shared Jewish institutions follow naturally?
Doesn’t the core calling to Jewish life that is millennia-old defy age divisions? When Pirkei Avot delineates the three pillars of Judaism — Torah study, service of God and deeds of kindness — it does not qualify the summation as this or that one for certain demographics. Abraham was at least as old as members of my generation are today when he sped out of his tent to extend hospitality to the approaching unknown travelers. Rebecca was approaching your age when she, unasked, watered the caravan of Abraham’s servant, Eliezer, who was seeking the right wife for Isaac. Rabbi Akiva was 40, a Gen-Xer, when he committed to learn to read and write, becoming one of our great scholars and leaders of Israel.
Aren’t there many challenges that call for our combined, cross-generational efforts? Besides addressing the attrition from assimilation that should concern us all, together we need to combat ugly expressions of anti-Semitism that still fester on both the right and left of our political ideologies. Your efforts are needed to aid Jewish college students close in age to you and under assault as anti-Semitic canards of “Jewish privilege” and fifth-column behavior are hurled at them. Of course Israel itself is still under existential threat and needs our vigorous, united support, because, if I may exhort for a moment, young or old, can you imagine a satisfactory Judaism without our Jewish homeland?
Sadly, a recent poll shows that two-thirds of millennials and four out of 10 Americans overall don’t know the basics of Holocaust history. Nearly a third of Americans think far fewer than 6 million Jews were killed in the Shoah. Should we not rally our generations as one to keep alive the memory of our martyrs, to understand and teach others how our horror has implications for all humanity, and to salvage the meaning of “never again” from aridity and misappropriation?
I’m not asking that you necessarily hang out with me, but when I see you at shul or at a Jewish event, my heart gladdens because we are all part of “klal yisrael.” As I will continue to do so on my part, please establish your expressions of Jewishness, always adding to our Jewish foundations. I don’t want to wait several more years to see you because you have come to tend to me. Rather, I want to be with you today, together, tending to the challenges and needs of others in our Jewish community and beyond.
Saul Golubcow lives in Maryland.