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Rosh Hashana 2nd day dvar: Jewish Engagement for the Next Generation

Delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom as one of four Generation X and Millennial guest speakers to share from their personal experiences of Jewish engagement and their visions for Jewish community life: Ben Murane, Rabbi Oren Hayon, Shoshana Wineburg, and Talya Gillman. Hear the presentation again and participate on Sat, Nov 22 at 1:15 pm – 2:15 pm.

Thank you all for joining us. And thank you to Rabbi Borodin and Beth Shalom for opening this conversation.

Every generation is indeed different from the last, but the shift we’re going through is and isn’t just a typical generation gap. I want to set the scene so that Oren, Shoshana, and Talya can share their visions.

First, young American Jews are just like young Americans. The internet and computers have accelerated the ease of connecting with others around common passions and advancing them. I’m sure many of you are familiar with Bowling Alone, but counter to that trend is the number of nonprofits shaping community life has doubled in the past decade. And the Jewish community is the same. In 2008, the first study of new Jewish organizations counted over 300. They estimated these new groups involved half a million Jews.

In 2005 when I moved to Brooklyn, I asked where young people like me prayed. I was sent to a havurah. I cared about Israeli-Palestinian peace, so I joined a Jewish peace group. I cared about sustainable food, so I got a job with a Jewish environmental group. I began to write for the publication of record for young Jews like me, a website called

By 2013 when I left Brooklyn, I and others from my minyan’s leadership were directly or indirectly responsible for fifteen new minyanim in every major city, including Seattle. That little peace group had become J Street with a chapter in every city. Hazon, which had hired me as its 7th employee, now had 24 staff. is now in competition with a million Jewish blogs.

It was estimated in 2009 that half of young Jews were involved in emergent organizations. And disproportionately represented were the cream of the crop: young leaders.

So why is this happening?

Our grandparents moved to this country fleeing persecution and slaved to give their children, our parents, every opportunity. Animating the kind of institutions they built and filled was an overwhelming need to preserve and protect — from the State of Israel to the ADL to museums to day schools to Birthright Israel.

But we, the beneficiaries of Jewish acceptance, consequently no barrier of being Jewish upon our lives. Today, when there isn’t a universal Jewish experience – neither religion, nor family, nor oppression — there’s wont’ be a universal Jewish response. Jewishness is meaning an increasing array of pathways to Israel, to spirituality, to family life, to tzedek, and to community.

The animating emotions of Millennials are meaning, significance, and impact. What does it mean to me to do this thing in a Jewish way when a non-Jewish way is also possible? What is its significance to others around me, among my equally culturally-blended and globalized society? And what is the impact that my Jewishness is helping me make upon the world?

The bad news is that many – not all, by any means, but many – previous institutions are going to phase out. When Rabbi Donniel Hartman recently lectured in Seattle, he went so far as to say that we’ve entered a “fourth stage” of Jewish civilization. But, he said, “You can’t make more fourth stage Jews by dragging them back into the third stage.” The Jewish communities that will persevere are those that will find some synthesis between previous needs and future needs.

But the good news is the sheer possibility of it all. If the previous institutions were the cocoon of American Jewry maturization, then we’re about to see what emerges. Never before have the Jewish people had so much freedom – freedom to debate and choose and shape what we stand for. To me and to most Millennials, our purpose can’t be just to survive or make ourselves successful but something grand, ambitious, beyond significance just to us. Instead of the outside world forcing us to prioritize our own survival, now we can debate and create and try and fail and retry visions for Jewish purpose. Looked at through that lens, whichever of these many options survive the test of time – centuries, millenia — Jewishness will always be deeply meaningful, full of significance, and hugely impactful.

Further reading: 

A Generation of Change — Parshiot Nitzavim-Vayeilech

This dvar torah first delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom in Seattle, WA, on September 20th, 2014. Minors edits were made for readability. Beth Shalom’s presentation on Millenial views of Jewish life will be held around 11 am during second-day Rosh Hashana services, featuring me, Shoshana Wineburg, Rabbi Oren Hayon, and Talya Gillman. 

* * *

It’s a season of change. Elul is all about change. But, really, what season isn’t about change? What year doesn’t change us from one to the next? How drastically have we changed over our lives? How are our lives today different than our parents’ and grandparents’ lives? How are Jewish life, and American life, and American Jewish life changing?

Today the Jewish community is going through a monumental shift. My generation and others can feel like we’re at odds. So many of us have opted for alternative institutions. Others of us have walked away entirely. So many new offerings, an explosion of Jewish identities that baffles and bucks preexisting categories. Existing models are collapsing, new ideas are untried. Next week, on this bimah, four young Jewish leaders will address in content what those ideas might include. But today I want to approach it from a more spiritual angle.

These two parshiot — Netzavim (Deut 29:9 – 30:20) and Vayeilech (Deut 31:1-30) – are all about generational change. They are penultimate concluding paragraphs of Moses’ final address to the children of Israel, standing on the east bank of the Jordan.

Nitzavim is a prophecy of reward and punishment. If the tribes obey God, they will flourish in the Land of Canaan, but if they worship other gods, then they will suffer exile among the nations. It also lays the foundation of redemption: a return to the Land and God’s favor will happen after exile. And this covenant is expressly issue upon the generations to follow.

Vayeilech concludes with Moses revealing that he will not join the people in Canaan, instead naming Joshua as his successor. And to ensure that the terms of the contract are well understood, God embeds a poem into the book to be read generation after generation. A book that Moses finished transcribing and leaves with the priesthood, a book we read today.

* * *

Midrash expands this Biblical event into one of the most dramatic confrontations between God and any biblical hero.

Moses insists, “I have done so much for Israel and for You, God, that it is wrong for me to die.” So he draws a circle in the sand and refuses to move until God annuls the decision.

“No,” God declares to Moses. And so Moses sits down to pray. God quickly orders the angels, “Hasten, bar all the gates of every level heaven to Moses’ prayers!”

But who can pray harder than the greatest scholar that ever lived? The midrash says, “Moses prayers were like a sword, ripping and tearing, and nothing could stop it.”

Moses begs that at least his body be brought into the Land. But God stands firm. Moses begs twice that his soul be put into an animal to experience Israel, but God refuses. And so Moses goes begs heaven and earth, the sun and moon, the stars and planets, the hills and mountains, to argue on his behalf. But they each point out their own mortality in the end of days.

God reaches out to Moses then. “Moses, I have sworn two oaths – one to punish Israel for its misdeeds and the other to punish you for yours. You begged me to annul the first, so I did. But to annul the second I must reinstate the first. You seize the pulley ropes at both ends – do you not?”

Still, he weeps, “Master of the universe, shall the feel that walked in heaven, the face that saw Yours, the very hands that first touched the Torah – shall they now lick dust?”

God replies, that was my intent from the very very beginning, Moses. “Each generation is to have its own interpreters of Scripture, each generation is to have its own providers, each generation is to have its own leaders.” Until now it was you, Moses, and now it is Joshua.

* * *

This midrash spoke to me immediately for two big reasons.

That frustration we feel with Moses at the beginning, that’s my life. I was turning pages with my heart thumping, “Yes, yes, I felt, this is how I feel!” I am nine years out of college, in middle management at a Jewish organization, I’ve had my years of rebellion and now I’m looking for Moses to soon give up his cushy corner office and hefty salary so I can have it.

But more seriously. Remember your parents. Remember something about the things your parents believed dearly, that they expected for you. One that drove or drives you nuts. That thing they wanted of you, for you, by you, that you could never give them, or couldn’t be, or didn’t want. Put yourself in our shoes.

Moses won’t let go of leadership. Despite the natural order of things, he fights it. And just as Moses appeals to the sun and moon and others to entreat God on his behalf, so too do young people like me watch Jewish leaders and institutions turn to experts, sociologists, and philanthropic fads to – as far as I can tell – change me from who I am to what I should be. And despite the natural order of things, that the next generation will rebel and be different, it feels many times that dominant conclusion is disappointment in us that we don’t look like them, talk like them, support the institutions they support, believe what they believe. I can totally relate to that frustration with Moses.

I wear tzitzit but no kippah. I come from a mixed ethnic background. I’ve founded and run two Jewish prayer communities but this is the first time I’ve been a member of a synagogue. I work tirelessly in support of Israel but through a progressive lens. I’ve worked and lived my entire 20s within a community of new Jewish institutions that didn’t exist 15-20 years ago.

The other reason this midrash made my heart pound is because I wonder about Joshua. What was that like? It is said that Moses was our greatest teacher. If Moses shone like the sun, touched by God directly, rabbis tells us, then Joshua was like the moon. A fraction of the radiance.

And I can relate. Here I stand, in the shoes of those who came before me, wondering if I – we, my generation – have in us what the last generations did. To not have been the generation that survived the Holocaust, or built the State of Israel, or place Jewry atop the highest socio-economic rung despite prejudice.

Are we fundamentally lesser because our travails now feel smaller? Does our generation really see any threat like those of the past? What could we do with this surplus well-being? What could we do that will be even half as trying, as difficult, as monumental as what you did? How will we make you proud? And how will we make you proud if, as we sometimes get the feeling, that we’re not exactly what you wanted and won’t do things as you think they should be done?

* * *

If the parable about Moses had ended where Moses finally agrees to step aside, it would be less powerful for our purposes today. The beauty to me of the story is what happens after that. The point isn’t that Moses steps aside. What moves me, truly moves me, is what I see as the story’s climax.

Moses then asks to see the world once through Joshua’s eyes. Going undercover, Moses sees Joshua elucidate law and lead. Moved by what he witnesses, Moses surrenders to God’s decree. The climax of this rollercoaster of a midrash is the next event: he apologizes to the tribes and asks their forgiveness.

“Because of the Torah, I chastised you greatly. Now, please forgive me.” And they replied to him, “Our teacher, we troubled you even more, we made your life hell. Please forgive us.” And they forgave each other. Moses goes peacefully to his deathbed, attended by God and all those forces of nature he appealed to for help, and his soul is taken by God.

Moses and the Children of Israel reconcile. Remember the thing that drove you mad about your parents. Imagine if they looked you in the eyes and apologized for how it made you feel. Imagine having that moment. Now think of your children, your younger friends, mentees maybe, or students. Imagine what it would feel like to hear from their lips despite your differences, that they admire you, even love you. That they do everything which might drive you mad in your honor.

There are two lessons in this story. First we share in the frustration against Moses, then we share in the compassion towards him. In inhabiting this story, we inhabit each other on a two-way street of understanding. Next week, there is more opportunity for everyone to hear from young Jewish leaders from Seattle making important decisions about our future.

* * *

Change is hard. As a closing example of Jewish change, here in this parsha are the roots of individual tshuva/repentence, a theological ideal that did not play a dominant role in Jewish thought for a thousand years. Can you imagine a Judaism without tshuva as we know it today? Would you want to even be a part of a Judaism without forgiveness? And yet our ancestors did and, if needed, we probably could again. Change – the thing that Jews are indeed the best at: practices evolved, entire paradigms rose and fell, our community expanded and contracted time and again.

As we enter the High Holy Days, let us follow the example in these parshiot. Of embracing change, however difficult. Of seeing in each other that we do what do out of love, not hate. Of thinking nonjudgmentally about what may come after us. Of recognizing the natural order that all of us at one point play the Joshua and all of us play the Moses. L’dor vador, Shabbat shalom.

Interfaith prayer vigil for missing Israeli teens

Interfaith Vigil, tomorrow June 17 at 5 pm at the Gush Etzion junction. RSVP to Brought to you by the Tag Meir campaign, a coalition of Israeli NGOs fighting racism, extremism and intolerance within Jewish and Palestinian society. Learn more here.

Interfaith Vigil by Tag Meir

My tweets on the topic of BDS