Vayera… can synagogues be relevant to the next generation?

Parashat Vayera

Our usual mirrors are flat (or “plane”) – they provide a true reflection of ourselves. Sometimes, however, it is instructive to consult the concave variety that turns us upside down. Torah is such a concave mirror when it provides models so opposite to us that we learn to abandon destructive paths we are on, before they lead to disaster.

Such a concave image comes from this week’s story of the akedah (the binding of Isaac). As father and son travel toward their mutual moment of doom – “one to slaughter and the other to be slaughtered” (as the midrash puts it) – we hear twice that “the two of them went on together.” The first time, says Rashi, Isaac does not yet know that he is the sacrificial victim. It is a preconscious moment when, by default, not determination, a father and son walk on together – it is their normal way of being. By the second time, however, Isaac’s fate has dawned on him. But Isaac does not bolt; he stays the course. Now, father and son (the first two generations of Jews) make a conscious decision “to go on together.” According to tradition, Abraham was aging at the time; and Isaac was 37 years old.

The Akedah is an upside-down image of ourselves. We too have an aging population (the baby boomers) and a generation in its thirties (their children). But the similarity stops there. Unlike Abraham and Isaac who “went on together,” our two generations are at ideological loggerheads. The baby-boomer parents built Federations, supported synagogues, shunned intermarriage, and erected denominational divisions. They see salvation in Israel, suspect spirituality, and appreciate the eastern-European ethnicity of their own parents and grandparents. Not so the next generation.  According to sociologist Steven Cohen, young Jewish adults in their 20s and 30s find their parents’ institutional life “alienating, boring, coercive, and divisive.” Young Jewish adults are accepting of intermarriage. They have little or no preference for Jewish friends. They prefer universal causes of social justice (albeit, sometimes, under Jewish auspices) over Federation-supported causes for the Jewish People alone. They consider Israel a problem, not a solution. They have no patience for denominational wrangling. They are in search of meaning, not ethnic solidarity. They do not ask how to be Jewish but why be Jewish at all. They do not join much, certainly not synagogues.

Synagogues have most to lose or to gain from this situation, and much of our future depends on whether synagogues can rise to the occasion and become relevant to next-generation Jews. Their grandparents (the parents of the baby boomers, that is) joined synagogues out of civic obligation – it was what one did.  The baby-boomer parents joined too, but for utilitarian reasons: to educate children and provide them with a bar or bat mitzvah. It is not clear why, or even whether, next-generation Jews will join at all – unless, of course, synagogues become less “alienating, boring, coercive, and divisive.”

Synagogues had better do so, because America is a uniquely congregational culture: it was founded with religious congregational identity at its core – and the last thirty years have only intensified that centrality. If America’s synagogues go under, so too will America’s Jews. Our next-generation problem and our synagogue problem are inextricably intertwined.

Ironically, Abraham and Isaac almost colluded in the Jewish People’s demise! God had to stay the hand of Abraham the executioner. In reverse mirror imagery, it is the inability of today’s Abrahams and Isaacs to collude in anything at all that threatens the Jewish future. And it is not clear that God cares to intervene a second time. The question boils down to whether we, like Abraham and Isaac, can reverse course and “go on together.”

In our preconscious default mode, we went merrily about our institutional agendas without regard for the eventual generational turnover.  But our Isaacs are turning 37; the turnover is imminent! In this moment of dawning consciousness, we can choose to change direction.

That change has begun. This very month, for example, synagogues from around the country and across denominations are meeting to discuss a non-denominational outreach to next-generation Jews, what Synagogue 3000, the convener of the conference, calls Next Dor (next “generation”). Synagogues will be asked to collaborate across denominational lines; to temper their traditional child-orientation that only alienates young adults who may have no children, and who (in any event) seek spiritual enrichment for themselves; and to invest in young rabbis who take Judaism into the bars and coffeehouses where young Jews gather, without demanding synagogue affiliation in return.

Filled with aging Abrahams, these synagogues will be announcing to today’s Isaacs that they do indeed want to “go on together.”

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman

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