The ‘ABCD’ of Young American Jews

Notes from a talk given by Prof. Steven M. Cohen at the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, London, UK, December 2 2009.

Young people are distancing themselves from aspects of the Judaism of their elders, and responding to what they see as its shortcomings. Embodied within the endeavors outlined above is both a widely held, albeit unevenly shared, critique of conventional Jewish life. The Jewishly engaged but institutionally unaffiliated harbor four objections to the commonly available opportunities for affiliation, objections that may be encapsulated in the mnemonic “ABCD.”:

A = Alienating: The young people leading these initiatives feel alienated from the more conventional Jewish world, and wish to challenge many of its perceived norms by offering far more independence of thought and action.

B = Bland and Boring: This is how they view the Jewish lifestyle choices of the older generation. They see conventional leaders as too homogeneous, and disturbingly closed to diversity in social class and family status. The Judaism they seek is stimulating, upbeat, passionate and happy.

C = Coercive: The younger Jews find established Jewish institutions implicitly coercive – aiming to induce younger Jews to marry each other, to conceive Jewish babies and to support Israeli government policies of which they are ambivalent. By contrast, the initiatives they are creating are characterized by an emphasis on autonomy and the respect for individual growth.

D = Divisive: They find conventional Jewish institutions divisive, in that they are seen as dividing Jews from non-Jews, Jews from each other, Jewish turf from non-Jewish turf, and Jewish culture from putatively (and artificially defined) non-Jewish culture. In contrast, they seek diversity in people, culture, and geography. They tend toward the post-denominational. Similarly, they like to open up the boundaries between Jewish and non-Jewish, borrowing freely from non-Jewish culture to create new forms of Jewish culture, and demonstrating clear preferences for activities that happen in non-Jewish spaces, rather than exclusively Jewish ones.

Posted on Synablog

18 comments on “The ‘ABCD’ of Young American Jews

  1. This has been called the “Peter Pan Syndrome,” describing men who never grow up. The problem is that nowadays our culture worships youth, plus there doesn’t seem to be much financial advsntage to being a grownup (why aim for a 9 to 5 adult job when starting a website is more fun and pays a heck of a lot better?)

  2. The Jews were drawn to idolatry because it provided a spiritual high without the hard work of true personal and moral growth.

    Similarly, people in our age seek spiritual experiences without any of the introspection or moral judgment that comes with a real spiritual path.

    There is nothing Judaism can do about this – and we certainly shouldn’t do anything to Judaism to accommodate this.

    We can attract young people to the sense of community and to other appealing aspects of Judaism, and hope that when life’s true challenges surface they will turn to Judaism.

    But judging from the large number of divorces – and those who never do marry – a lot of these people will never outgrow their immature mindset. And Judaism is most definitely a religion for grownups.

  3. People nowadays have ten-nanosecond attention spans before they’re running off to see the Next Next Thing. So you have to really “grab” your audience and avoid anything that might be perceived from Minute One as “bland and boring.” That’s part of the success of the “Bible Codes” and the approach of Aish and Discovery, the “wow, will you getta look at this!” factor.

    By the way, my oldest son once had to make a short speech in shul to a group of men between Mincha and Maariv, and he asked me if I had any ideas. I suggested that he talk about Moshiach and the “days to come”: people just eat that stuff up. He took my advice, and came back delighted, saying it was a great topic, as it kept all of the men interested until it was time for davening.

  4. Len, I agree with your analysis that we need to think about different ways to present Torah Judaism to non-observant Jews.

    Having discussed this topic before on this site it seems that using words like re-branding (or marketing) raises alarm bells in many minds so it might be best to avoid them. The main objection seems to be that those words cheapen Torah, since people see marketing as a negative.

    There are in fact many people trying new approaches to teaching, but they’re either not reaching enough people, the methods are not that effective, we need a greater variety of methods, we need a method that reaches the general population.

    It’s interesting that one of the most effective methods of getting people interested in Judaism seems to be Kabbalah. But that could be because of the celebrities (some of whom are not Jewish) who have shown interest in Kabbalah rather than its content.

  5. There are two ways to look at this problem. One way is to say “Torah Judaism is truth so people should embrace it… and the problem is that people are using fake substitutes.” This places the problem on those people who are outside of our community.

    The other way is to look at the situation and say “People are embracing substitutes because they are not finding what they need within Torah Judaism. We know that Torah is Emes so the flaw isn’t with it. That must mean the flaw must be in our presentation (and possibly practice)” This way is much harder and if done honestly leads to a lot more introspection but may be a more successful approach to Kiruv and may help the Orthodox community grow as well. It is very difficult as it means not only re-branding how we present Torah Judaism but listening to their issues and asking ourselves whether their issues have a core of truth.

  6. The real issue is that we are seeing as depicted in the linked studies is the growth of what is DIY Judaism, a phenomenon that no less than R Meir Simcha in Parshas Vayakhel views as having ended in the aftermath of the Chet HaEgel. Like it or not, ersatz substitutes for Torah, Avodah and Gmilus Chasadim are ersatz.

  7. There are no shortcuts to solving this problem. No matter how one tries to position it, Judaism is prescriptive. It teaches that there are things that one must do, and things that one cannot do; things that are permitted, and things that are off-limits. These constraints do not sit well with a generation that grew up in a multicultural environment, free of social pressures that kept previous generations of Jews in the fold.

    As I once heard a Rav say, “In America, every Jew is a Jew by choice.” The only way to get excited about Judaism is to have positive role models who instill love and enthusiasm for mitzvot from an early age, or, like many members of this blog, to acquire the taste later in life.

    In previous generations (including my own), American Jews who looked for an alternative to the yoke of the mitzvot tried to find it in political and social movements such as support for Israel, Holocaust commeration, rescue of Soviet Jewry, etc. (see reply #2 above).

    These binding ties were “Jewish” because they addressed the plight of fellow Jews and could be presented in the context of Jewishly-rooted concepts such as “tikkun olam” or “tzedek, tzedek tirdof” or “kol Yisrael areivim zeh ba-zeh”.

    Today, Israel is somewhat more secure, the Holocaust is for many found only in movies and in the Diary of Anne Frank (that some read only because it was a school assignment), and the Soviet Union is history.

    Although there are still many fellow Jews who need help, today’s generation tries to define Judaism in the context of causes that are remotely connected to Jewish ideas and to Jewish communities, if at all: Darfur, the environment, homosexual rights, immigrant labor, etc. When there is so little difference between Temple Beth (fill in the blank) and any other “social justice” organization, it is no wonder that young American Jews feel little affinity davka to Judaism.

  8. Around 22 centuries ago, in the generation that experienced the Chanukah miracles, most Jews considered authentic Judaism to be: outdated, excessively restrictive and boring.

    That explains why a majority of Jews alive at that time were Hellenists, or Jews who embraced the Greek culture. Only a minority of Jews supported the pure authentic Judaism of the Macabees.

    It seems that the more things change, the more things stay the same.

  9. I agree with you in that the way that the “complaints” being levelled against traditional Judaism are often dealt with are not kosher but I think that at the same time there are some good points in these complaints. Personally I understand and agree with the complaint they give regarding being divisive and coercive.

    Maybe todays approaches to religion are too focussed on “either with us or against us” and too much “we are right and you are wrong”. I don’t by any means have all the answers but I think articles like this beg the question of can we address these issues while being true to Judaism.

  10. Len, I think the article described something that really is going on, but that something, however sincerely meant, is not so knsher.

  11. Bob,

    Not sure if I am reading your posts correctly, are you suggesting that the above article does not make any good points?

  12. I found the quote below online in a paper co-authored by the same Professor Cohen of the Reform institution Hebrew Union College (see ), which reinforces the idea that the phenomenon under discussion is a rebellion against the core concept of mitzvos:

    “To be clear, in this fierce devotion to their autonomy and resistance to ‘judgmentalism,’
    younger Jewish adults are not much different from their parents (even as both generations
    abide their own forms of judgmentalism, protestations to the contrary notwithstanding).
    Baby Boomer Jews are also uneasy with rabbis, educators, fund-raisers, and communal leaders
    using normative language, urging them to comply with classic Jewish norms because ‘Jews
    should’ or ‘Jews are expected,’ or ‘Jews are obligated,” to undertake one or another activity.”

  13. The prior generation (actually, the generation before that, the Jews of the 1960’s) found community in three areas: support of Israel, remembrance of the Holocaust and combating anti-Semitism. Young Jewish adults of today, 2011 C.E., no longer feel bound by the same sharing of these ideals.

  14. Carried too far, the “emphasis on autonomy and the respect for individual growth” can be divisive, too.

    In most of this article, I detect a desire to adopt the mores of today’s general society, which would itself be a type of conformity.

    Those who want to lead authentically Jewish lives don’t have license to redefine Jewish life in line with their desires.

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