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The Future of the Jewish People – Could It Be Unity?

The old Jewish guard — what’s often referred to as the organized Jewish community — has two main concerns: the future of the Jewish people and the future of the Jewish people. Two different senses of the same problem, that is. The first sense is the future generations of Jews, us young’uns who are supposedly being “lost” — assimilating, intermarrying and, perhaps most disturbing to the old guard, not joining the established religious institutions that allow us to be counted as “affiliated” Jews. The second sense is the future of the idea of the Jewish people as one, unified people.

There’s certainly reason to be concerned with the future of the Jewish people in both senses, but there’s also reason to think that problem #1 is actually taking care of problem #2. The young and diffuse next Jewish generation may be comprised largely of individuals doing their own thing, but when doing their own Jewish thing, they are more likely to seek out an accepting community and to eschew the traditional denominational labels that have done much more to divide than to unite the Jewish people.

This point is brought home by the juxtaposition of two recent news items, from the Forward and the New York Times.

This month on the Foward’s Bintel Brief advice column, the Jewish power couple of Blu and Rabbi Yitz Greenberg have been answering readers’ questions on a variety of what might be called halachic ethics issues. (Short aside: I love that the Forward listed Blu’s name and bio first in their intro of the couple.) Their last question comes from a man who underwent a Conservative Jewish conversion, which he claims was done properly according to halacha. He now wonders whether he should tell members of the Orthodox minyan where he prays regularly about his conversion, since they might then no longer consider him eligible to act as one of the ten men required for a minyan by Orthodox standards. In other words, there is a chance that if they knew he had converted under a Conservative rabbi, they might no longer consider him truly Jewish.

The Greenbergs’ response is quite critical of the Orthodox establishment (for those not in the know, Blu Greenberg founded the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and the couple are among the stalwarts of progressive Modern Orthodoxy) and speaks to the denominational divisiveness that’s threatening Jewish Peoplehood:

We believe that those who have the authority should rule that all denominations give full faith and credit to the halachic acts of others that meet their halachic standards. They should not allow the politics of delegitimization to disqualify the other. Alas, this is not what is happening. The sectarians and the splitters are in the saddle in this generation. You will have to find your place within that reality. We are all the poorer for it.

Interesting, though, that they write “the splitters are in the saddle in this generation. Because, as a recent article in the NY Times points out, the next generation of Jews are building post-denominational prayer groups that choose communal involvement and acceptance over rabbinic authority. While these minyans vary in the strictness with which they observe halacha (some use musical instruments on Shabbat, for example), they all take prayer and the liturgical service very seriously. This seriousness of purpose along with congregational participation are what makes these prayer groups so satisfying to younger people looking for a meaningful spiritual experience that’s more open and engaging than the stuffy synagogues of yesteryear.

But before we go too hard on the old guard, it should be noted that without their vigilance in giving their children and grandchildren a (perhaps stifling) Jewish education, these new and innovative congregations probably would not exist:

The minyanim have attracted young people who are well schooled in Judaism. A flowering of Jewish day schools in the 1980s produced a generation with a strong Jewish education and “the cultural wherewithal to create their own institutions,” said Steven M. Cohen, a professor of sociology at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Cohen is Mr.-Jewish-demographics and a survey he co-authored “indicates that rather than taking young Jews out of the synagogue pews, they are taking them out of their beds on Saturday mornings.”

Rather than forsaking Judaism because of their distaste for tradiitonal Jewish institutions, young people are inventing new institutions that make Judaism fun and meaningful, in ways that fit with their lifestyles and value systems. Jewish life is hardly dead in their hands, but the kind of Jewish life that divides us as one people could be.

–Rebecca Honig Freidman