How Boomers are Preserving American Judaism
In Tablet recently, Liel Leibovitz scribed what is sure to be a controversial article blaming Boomers for ruining American Judaism.
It raised some good points:
For the most part, these people joined shuls, attended infrequently, and dispatched their young ones to Hebrew schools run by well-meaning but not particularly competent educators. I know more than a dozen men and women my age who languished in the classrooms of Beth this or Bnei that and who cannot, after years of weekly attendance, utter one sentence in Hebrew or tell their Joseph from their Jehoshaphat. Their parents seem undisturbed by this absurd waste of dollars and years; to them, Hebrew school was an insurance policy, a service they purchased simply to make sure their kids “stayed in the fold.” This was a pathological impulse predicated mostly, if not entirely, on shame and guilt: Too often, the best reason these people could come up with to the timeless question of why anyone ought to be Jewish is that not to do so would be a shanda.
I’m not sure any of his criticism is wholly unfair, but just as we might critique Boomers for their relationship to communal Judaism, we should rightly praise the ones who have taken the reins from the Greatest Generation and have, in fact, preserved what we have left with no help from their peers.
A few years ago, my wife and I visited her childhood synagogue, Tifereth Israel in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. It was the childhood synagogue of her friend, Michael Levin, z”l, a young American who made aliyah, became an IDF paratrooper, and died in 2006 in Lebanon. Leah, her sister, and kids like Michael were raised and steeped in their Judaism by Boomers and no one else. My mother- and father-in-law, both Boomers, haunted that shul, served on its board, ran its Sisterhood, just as they contribute now to the Myrtle Beach Jewish community. The people keeping that shul alive and running its minyan are Boomers.
Same story at the synagogue where we met and were married. The Greatest Generation members were slowly in retreat, no longer serving on the board, occupying their named seats, as Boomers lead services, served on the board. Gen X members were gradually stepping up to the plate as we left, but Boomers were and still are dominant on the board.
And it’s the same story at our small community in Bangor, Maine. I am, without a doubt, the first Generation X president of our synagogue. I took over from a Boomer, who took over from a Boomer, who took over from a Boomer, who took over from a Boomer.
Look at any small town shul, I’d wager, and you’ll see Boomers still leading from the front.
I’d argue vociferously that just as Boomers “ruined” American Judaism, they’ve also been the generation that has kept what is left alive.
Let’s also think about the context Boomers came up in. Many were first, second, or third generation, with a real-time familiarity with the drive towards assimilation. They also grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust, which I believe was the incipient moment in a rapid deconstruction of American institutional Judaism. Religiosity may have seemed trite to this generation. We had figures like the Lubavitcher Rebbe and Abraham Joshua Heschel appealing for a return to the Divine, but the will wasn’t there in the wake of 6 million dead. As a generation, the Boomers were saddled with an inevitable nihilism. Only glomming on to the success of the Jewish state offered any defining identity, and I’d argue fundraising for the JNF, while important, isn’t a tie that can bind a community. We’ve been a state of flux longer than we know, and perhaps we should be grateful for even the minimal, guilt-driven participation.
Where could institutional Judaism go from there? How could it compete against the pressures of the draft? My generation, and especially the millennials, often feel the way the Boomers must have when the Greatest Generation, which should have known better, immured them in a war in Southeast Asia. That feeling of having no agency in government invariably manifested in their Jewish communities as well. I’m sure feeling like they were on the outside looking in with the Greatest Generation running their shuls and institutions lead to massive attrition. Why would it not?
Leibovitz wholly ignores the trauma of the 20th century and its impact on American Judaism. I like the “OK, Boomer” meme joke as much as the next guy, but finger-pointing leaves three fingers pointing back our way. I’m, generationally-speaking, very lonely in my level of participation at our shul. Our rabbi and his wife are of the same generation, but our next closest enthusiastic support comes from the Boomer set. My wife is similarly lonely amongst the millennial set as our religious school director. We have one or two others from our generations, but we are significantly outnumbered.
But the antidote isn’t j’accuse; it’s merely to ask.
One thing I learned being on the board and executive board of our old synagogue was that if you find younger people, and ask them to rise to the occasion and lead something, they will. Shame on us for not trying. We know what needs to be done. The Boomers can’t change this direction on their own, and from what I’ve seen, they desperately want to, if for no other reason than to preserve their own legacy.
So before we “OK, Boomer” Jews from the post-WWII baby boom, maybe we need to ask whether that’s as important as rolling up our sleeves and seeking to engage everyone who is capable in righting American Judaism.