The recent decision by the USY international board to modify their standards has inflamed passions and created a buzz in the Jewish blogosphere. The change in language about dating standards isn’t really the issue. It’s a lot more complicated.

  • It must first be acknowledged that these teenagers deserve a lot of credit for confronting issues in a thoughtful and sincere fashion. They are setting an important example for the entire Jewish world. How many others are engaging in serious talk about inter-personal relationships and levels of Jewish observance in the same context? How many adults are having these conversations? How many are even given the tools to make informed decisions?
  • There are lots of pundits who seem to know what’s best for teenagers. Most comments I have read come from people who haven’t been teenagers for a good twenty-years plus, and many haven’t raised teenagers for a decade or more. I wish there would be more posts from teenagers themselves, rather than those who claim to represent them.
  • Many comments are coming from those who were raised in the Conservative movement, were active in USY and Ramah, and consciously left.
  • Like many things published this year, statistics from the Pew study are being showcased. If we’ve learned anything from population studies, it’s that we can make the stats fit our conclusions, regardless of what is being advocated.
  • People often read only headlines and a paragraph or two of any post. It’s clear from many of the comments I’ve read on different sites. It’s why I’ve chosen to write this in bullet form.

My analysis is no more authoritative than any coming from others, but I formulate my observations based on many years “in the trenches.”

  • Pedagogically, it makes more sense to put things in the positive rather than the negative. If we sell Shabbat based on its prohibitions, we won’t get very far. If we sell it based on the beauty and holiness of the day, on its communal aspects, and on its joy, we’re going to have far more success. How should we best help people live a life of commitment to Judaism? By saying “this is what you must do”, or “this is what you should strive to do?” Seems to me that Chabad does the latter, and many who have been critical of USY would likely praise Chabad for this approach.
  • A friend wrote to me saying, “this isn’t the same USY we knew.” My reply? Thank God! It’s now many years later. It shouldn’t be the same. I don’t think the word “blog” was even in the dictionary back then.
  • In proper context, these times are not much different than they were during the debates between the Sadducees and Pharisees, Hillel and Shammai, Hasidim and Misnagdim, Maccabim and Kohanim, Ben Gurion and Begin, or Litvaks and Galitzianers. Each group thought they were right. Each thought the other was, in some way, going to bring about the demise of the Jewish people. Each saw the world through different lenses, and each did things differently. There is nothing new about these types of disagreements. The lesson learned from Jewish history is that there are many paths, and that nobody has a monopoly on knowing what is right and what is wrong. What we do know is that internecine fighting is what really leads to a significant diminution of Jewish commitment.
  • The sub-text to much of this conversation isn’t really about what we tell kids about interdating. It’s about how we measure success. One of the challenges I’ve felt over the course of my professional career is the tension between promoting what I call institutional loyalty vs. Jewish loyalty. Do we measure the success of the Conservative movement by how many affiliated members there are, or by how many serious Jews have come through its ranks?
  • The lay and professional leadership of many Jewish organizations (federations, Hillels, social welfare agencies, and Israel-related groups, to name a few) are products of USY, Ramah and Solomon Schechter schools. Many progressive and successful models of learning and prayer have benefited from the creativity that was nurtured in these institutions. I call that success.
  • Is this decision on interdating another “nail in the coffin,” as many suggest? Time will tell, but rather than spending our precious time raising ourselves up by bringing others down, I would suggest we find ways to help young people and adults alike to find ways to live meaningful Jewish lives. Our actions will do that, not our blogs.

Young people have brought about change in our community and society at large for a long time. Students ended the war in Vietnam. They led the way to freedom for many Soviet-era Jews. In many ways, they changed the Jewish Federation system in North America. They are shaping necessary conversations about Israel. Kol HaKavod for their important contribution to our ongoing discussions and dialogue.

These teenagers aren’t our future leaders. They are leading us now. Their example is something we should strive to emulate.