By birth year, I am at the very tail end of the baby boom. But I am so close to that tip, that most of what defines baby boomers seems foreign to me. Woodstock doesn’t register. The Beatles are a band that had already split up. President Kennedy’s assassination? I was in a stroller. Selma? I’ve seen pictures of Abraham Joshua Heschel marching arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King Jr. The lunar landing? Grainy television images to me. The Six-Day War? A lot of pride, but absolutely no recollection.
It’s not until the Watergate hearings and the evacuation of Vietnam that I feel like I join the cultural conversation. The music I think of as mine is that of Elvis Costello and Talking Heads. If I am a baby boomer, somehow I missed the boat.
But for the sake of argument and clarity, I’ll imagine that ship is where I belong. And yet throughout my adult life, one that has been very connected to Jewish organizations and institutions, no one has ever been terribly interested in my generational point of view. They were not interested when I was in my 20s in college — probably my least connected stage; nor were they when I was in my 30s and a member of shul; nor as I became a parent and as my children grew.
And now that I have kids in college, again, no one is all that interested. Because everyone is obsessed with what the children of boomers, the millennials, think, want and do. They are our future, and I am the past, even as I continue to pay shul dues, and maintain membership in a JCC, read Jewish news as it scrolls in my Facebook feed, watch Jewish and Israeli films and buy Jewish books.
So I was very intrigued to find that David Elcott, the Henry and Marilyn Taub professor of practice in public service and leadership at the Wagner School of Public Serve at NYU; and Stuart Himmelfarb, the CEO of B3/The Jewish Boomer Platform, had released “Generations and Re-Generation,” a survey that at least from description, seemed to be focused on what baby boomers think, want and do — Jewishly.
It turns out that their survey is more interesting than a simple snapshot of boomer wants and needs. While past research has focused on that cohort, the authors chose to look across generations for this study. To do so, they surveyed more than 12,500 Jews, respondents culled from email lists of 16 national Jewish organizations including denominational bodies, activist and advocacy organizations and fellowships, as well as from 38 Jewish federations around the country. They looked at not only how baby boomers answered their questions, but also at how their elders, “The Greatest Generation,” Gen-X, and millennials parsed their way through being Jewish in the 21st century.
Because of the nature of the sampling, this survey — unlike A Portrait of Jewish Americans: Findings from Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews, which came out a year ago and examined the responses of 3,475 people — included Jews, who are more connected to the whole Jewish organizational enterprise. And although included in the survey were Jews that eschewed denominational designations such as Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, they were, nonetheless still connected. Even if only tenuously, through an email list.
For the authors, this means that any data that casts negative light on Jewish organizations is even more alarming, since the people who opted into this survey are not the random Jews of Pew, but already connected in some way or the other to Jewish life.
So when 21 percent of baby boomers, 22 percent of Gen-Xers, and 24 percent of millennials, report that they are somewhat to very dissatisfied with their synagogue, we should take notice. These are people who are coming, and for whom their shul is failing. What can we make of those who walked away altogether?
But in regards to generational differences, they note that the three post-World War II generations — the boomers, Gen-X and millennials — have more in common than we think. They have a strong sense of tikkun olam, or repairing the world; see volunteering as important, but don’t always connect the Jewish value placed on it to the act of doing. They are just as likely to volunteer for non-Jewish organizations as they are for others. And they like doing it on their own terms, when they want to. It’s not that surprising, is it? The acorn does not always fall too far from the tree.
“Baby boomers are interacting with the Jewish community in ways remarkably similar to the younger cohorts: trending toward episodic, short-term engagement and a loosening of institutional affiliation ties,” the researchers say in their analysis. They suggest reaching out to boomers as a way to reinvent Jewish organizations and their missions, while noting that success and innovation at the foundation level is rarely focused on older age groups. “The community often measures success by how compelling its programs are to 20- and 30-somethings…. Their rationale reflects a shared mantra that intergenerational and boomer issues are not part of their mission — an ironic echo of the language foundations and Jewish communal organizations used a generation ago to explain their failure to address those in their 20s and 30s.”
The big innovations will probably always tilt toward the young. They are quite literally, our future. Birthright, the free 10-day trip to Israel given to any 18- 26-year-old Jews for the asking — was the biggest innovation to come out of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey that revealed an alarming intermarriage rate. And it is aimed at youth for a reason, to capture their hearts and minds when they are young and passionate and at the beginning of their life’s journey, as a hope to wed that journey inextricably to their Jewish one.
But organizations ignore boomers at their own peril. As a generation, they are going to live longer than past ones. They are healthier and wealthier. And they have the ability to spend those resources in ways that younger people who are raising families do not.
I felt less pessimistic after reading this survey than after Pew, but then this was a survey of the engaged, no matter how marginal some of that engagement was (being on an email list for a Jewish organization strikes me as a pretty low-barrier definition). Nonetheless, I keep running up against the feeling that for all the handwringing and angst about the Jewish future, that it is for naught. Judaism is rich and offers much if you are willing to step inside, but if it is no longer relevant to people, I am not sure how we make them “do Jewish.” Spurred by technological changes and shifting attitudes about affiliation, maybe this is simply the process of evolving.
Those of us engaged in Jewish life need to realize that in our consumer defined and saturated landscape, we are all now Jews by choice, and we choose what, when and how we will be Jewish. At some point, I wonder if that will look anything like what I think of as Jewish. I like to imagine that you need some kind of standard or definition to say what is Jewish, but that does not seem to be the way the current winds are blowing.
What would the Judaism of the future look like? I’m not really sure, but if we take some hints from within the survey, it will find ways of connecting a desire to do good in this world with Jewish identity — something that does not seem a stretch to me, since so many Jewish organizations do this so well. But it will mean finding the language and stories to make that connection compelling. It could be finding ways to provide better for older populations that don’t want to leave their current communities for retirement ones elsewhere, which could be a plus for the Jewish landscape. JCCs and Jewish family service programs are situated to tap into such “virtual villages” for retirees. And it might mean dialing down on the religious, and changing how we speak about Zionism, which would make me worry that we are losing some of the most essential things that define us as a people.
It most assuredly means change. And isn’t that something that baby boomers have always been good at starting?