Presidential Conference: A Young Interpretation of an Ancient Identity

Thursday, June 21, 2012 12:31 PM

The young generation of Jews are remolding their identity in their own unique way and are proposing an updated version of what it means to be a member of the Jewish people.

The young generation of Jews are remolding their identity in their own unique way and are proposing an updated version of what it means to be a member of the Jewish people. The focus of their identity varies: religious or secular; ethnic or cultural; communal or individual; local or global.

The Next Generation of Jews Panel. Photo: Yoav Devir

KKL-JNF faces the challenge of integrating this young generation into its activities and creating a young Jewish leadership that will connect with Israel and create a better and greener world.
How does Jewish heritage find expression in the lives of these young people? How do they relate to the past? How do they interpret their Jewishness? What is the nature of their relationship with Israel? These questions, and many others, cropped up in a panel discussion entitled “A Young Interpretation of an Ancient Identity: The Next Generation of Jews,” chaired by Israeli journalist Charlotte Halle.
Israeli singer and songwriter Shaanan Street said that only in Israel did Jews find themselves in the majority, and this, he added, influenced the way Israeli Jews see themselves: “We’ve become a little arrogant,” he confessed. “We ask why Diaspora Jews don’t sell up and come to Israel. We forget that not all Jews want to live in a country flowing with shawarma and honey.”
Of Jerusalem, where he lives, Street said: “The Jewish People yearned for Jerusalem throughout the years, but never paused to think how the city should be run once real people lived in it. Jerusalem has a major role to play in the future of the region. It’s the only place that everyone says they truly care about.”
Journalist Jay Michaelson said that he had feared in the past that his identity as a homosexual would put an end to his Jewish identity. “Today young people construct their own Jewish identity, especially in the USA,” he said. “Our identities don’t necessarily suit the familiar frameworks. These changes are not characteristic only of Jewish youngsters; they are part of a wider trend.”
He concluded by saying: “I’ve learned to stop being afraid of change and to love the exciting times we live in, when we can redefine what it means to be Jewish.”
Dr. Yehuda Kurzer, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, pointed out that Jewish communities have undergone changes throughout history, not only in the modern era. “Today, thanks to technology, we are more aware of change,” he said.
What is needed now, he said, are not more Jewish books or Jewish organizations, but more Jewish people with a profound understanding of the significance of their Jewish identity.

Young conference participants. Photo: KKL-JNF Photo Archive

David Hatchwell
, President of the Madrid Jewish Community, said that we are living in an amazing period. “Jews today are in a much better place than ever before. As a European Jew, I feel very secure, because of the existence of the State of Israel,” he explained.
He continued: “The world is progressing in a Jewish direction. The Internet embodies the Jewish value of openness and offers a world in which every person can be whoever he or she wants to be. Being Jewish means translating ideas and values into action.”
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg of Northwestern University told those present that as a child, she had found it hard to relate to the notion of an angry and vengeful God who had trouble controlling his temper, and so had become an atheist. Only in her twenties did she discover that faith is a complex process of understanding one’s place in the world.
“Many young people today don’t realize that they are standing beside a door, and that the door opens,” she said. “They are unaware of the riches that Judaism has to offer, and of the significant role it can play in their lives.” Of the relationship between the different generations she said: “The older generation asks itself: ‘How can we be cool and sexy, to as to attract the youngsters?’ They forget that many young people are searching for profound and meaningful ways to live their lives. They are seeking complex experiences and strive to become part of a varied community.”
Where young people are concerned, her message was: “We have to tell them, ‘Judaism is yours. Study it, take it apart, reconstruct it, and we’ll be here if you need us. The time will come when we have to relinquish control, step aside and let the young generation choose its own path.”