The Renaissance period represented a surge of exploration, discovery, creativity and innovation that began as the people of Europe discovered, or in many instances rediscovered, novel ways of thinking and experimented with their application across all aspects of their lives. To borrow a term from innovation historian James Burke, it was “the day the universe changed” — a point at which thinking altered so drastically that the entire universe appeared completely different.
In the Renaissance environment, the surge of exploration and discovery not only created tangible progress but also fostered a widespread belief in a better and brighter future. It is small wonder, then, that the modern university system began during the Renaissance era. In today’s campus environment, exploration, discovery, creativity and innovation are mainstays. The very act of investing in a college education is a manifestation of a belief in a better and brighter future that will come through exploration and discovery. College students represent the next generation as well as the hope for a better and brighter future, and their time on campus is when they lay the foundation for the lives they will lead as they become part of the communities they chose to live in as adults.
Yet, as many in the Jewish community consider the future of the Jewish people, they cannot help but feel concerned. Surveys show lower levels of emotional attachment to Judaism and Israel among young American Jews than among their parents and grandparents. One factor that has been linked to declining levels of emotional attachment, the rate of intermarriage, has increased over time, suggesting that the long-term unabated trend could be that levels of emotional attachment will continue to fall.
Additionally, anecdotes and data accumulating for the past several decades reflect decreased involvement in traditional social structures in general society as well as in the Jewish community. The phenomenon documented in the book “Bowling Alone” affects traditional Jewish social structures as much as it does other traditional structures in American society. Among some, there is a creeping fear that Judaism may be on the losing side of history — that Judaism represents a form of tribalism that is increasingly outmoded and irrelevant in a more diverse, open, multicultural and modern world.
The Jewish community’s concern reaches the work of campus Israel advocates as well. Increasingly, there is an appreciation that Israel’s greatest challenge on American college campuses is not the ineffectual attempts of a handful of fringe elements to disparage Israel politically, but rather a growing sense of the irrelevance of Israel in the worldviews of Jewish and non-Jewish students alike. This commonly gets reported as “apathy” — students who don’t attend events or become involved in activities because they see no personal stake in the issues those activities and events represent.
To be sure, students frequently display equal degrees of apathy to the partisan politics of their own country, much less when Israel is framed as a political issue. Yet the trend that anecdotes and some data support is that many, although certainly not all, Jewish and non-Jewish students perceive an ever-diminishing relevance of Israel to their lives. Understood in these terms, it becomes clearer why one of the American Jewish community’s most visible struggles regarding Israel and young Jews — around the limits of public criticism and behavior regarding Israel and politics — misses the mark. The key issue is not whether there are adequate avenues for young American Jews to express political criticism of Israel, but rather whether young American Jews feel a personal stake in the success of the future of the Jewish enterprise. Far too many do not.
It is time for a conceptual shift — for a “day the universe changed” — in the Jewish community, and to recognize that the involvement of young Jews is not the problem but instead a very real part of the solution. The first step in that conceptual shift is to ask the question: Why do young American Jews appear more apathetic about Israel and Judaism than their parents and grandparents?
I have never met an apathetic young Jew. Young Jews are passionate, driven and excited about the future. They are full of energy, creativity and curiosity about the world around them. They are devoted to exploration, discovery and innovation. However, few young American Jews have ever been invited to bring that energy, creativity and curiosity to bear on the future of the Jewish people. Instead, the community has invited them to join and passively support the structures and institutions that their parents and grandparents created. Rarely if ever does the Jewish community make a serious invitation to the next generation to lend a hand to shaping the future — their future — of the Jewish community.
It’s a telling contrast between the experience of the American Jewish community and that of the Israeli Jewish community. Issues of apathy and disengagement appear far less commonly and in much different forms among young Israelis, if only for the simple fact that young Israelis’ country and their existence require them to contribute much to the future of the Jewish people. Most young Israeli Jews serve their country in the military; all of them share in the burden of supporting a Jewish state through their participation in civic society. Young Israeli Jews are a dynamic, energetic, and involved part of the largest single concentration of Jews anywhere in the world. As a result of that youthful energy and creativity, Israeli society constantly re-engineers, explores and evolves. Not for nothing is Israel considered the “start-up nation.” New structures and new forms of Jewish expression and involvement appear continually. Because young Israeli Jews have no choice but to contribute to the future of the Jewish people, they are understandably more engaged and committed as a group than their American cousins.
But as many discover through the experience of Birthright Israel, young American Jews have much in common with their Israeli cousins, and have much to offer them as well. Like young Israelis, young American Jews are full of optimism, hope, potential and passion. If young American Jews were invited to contribute meaningfully to the re-engineering of the Jewish people, many would bring some knowledge and experience of Judaism and Israel, although more would not. But those who did not bring such knowledge or experience would instead bring knowledge, experience and passion in science, law, art, philosophy and the pursuit of hundreds of other fields that inform their worldviews. To both their Israeli peers and their parents and grandparents they would bring insights that come uniquely from the perspective and experience of modern life as a minority in a multicultural society that places a premium on diversity, inclusivity, and pluralism.
In the campus environment, the knowledge, passions, and life experience of students already meet and collide in an explosion of ideas and new horizons. Those who regularly work with Jewish college students, like those in the network of Hillel professionals, know first-hand that the passion and vision that students can bring with them can drive remarkable results. When brought together, the outpouring of creativity among students is unrivaled.
Young Jews on campuses across America are uniquely positioned to serve as the research and development department of the Jewish people — the Bell Labs, Skunk Works, Greenwich Village, Haight-Ashbury and Silicon Valley for Judaism, all rolled into one. Jewish students can bring to Judaism, as a whole, their knowledge and experience, as well as their spirit of exploration, discovery, creativity and innovation. All that the community needs to do is to commit sincerely to these researchers, these explorers, these innovators, and invite them to participate in creating a Jewish Renaissance.
The Jewish community needs to expand its channels of communication to foster the development of a Jewish future that includes and involves deep connections between American Jewish students with their peers, particularly in Israel and around the world; that presents to them the questions and problems that the community seeks to solve; and invites them to tackle addressing those problems with the vigor they bring to all of their other endeavors — not just to create their own individual projects, but to offer solutions for the community as a whole.
An investment in Jewish renaissance in this way also necessarily means more involvement with Israel and young Israelis, who bring their own experience and perspectives as part of a thriving Jewish culture. With this conceptual shift, the community simultaneously invests in both the prescription and the cure for the apathy that it perceives among the next generation.
If the community invests in inviting Jewish students to bring their exploration, discovery, creativity and innovation to bear on Jewish life, then stand back — and watch the universe change.
Stephen Kuperberg is executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, an organization dedicated to weaving and catalyzing the campus Israel network to create a positive climate regarding Israel on campus, and publisher of Israel Campus Beat.