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JCF Blog

Amazing Adaptability

Posted by: Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford on 5/22/2017

“Our anxiety does not come from thinking about the future, but from wanting to control it.”                               -Kahlil Gibran


When our community embarked upon our comprehensive study of the Greater Hartford Jewish Community (called JMAP), I felt a palpable sense of unease from many. One comment from a community leader was particularly striking. “This study scares me a little. What if we find out that the next generation doesn’t believe in the things we think are important?”

The words reflected anxiety about the future of the Hartford Jewish community but also a deeper more personal fear. What is my legacy if the very things that define me are irrelevant to future generations?

Study after study has suggested that younger generations of American Jews have a very different view of Jewish identity and Jewish community. This knowledge has generated deep anxiety and pessimism about the future; fear that all we have known and loved and all that we have built will be lost.

I understand the fear, but is this degree of pessimism warranted? 

At the conclusion of his book American Judaism, historian Jonathan Sarna quotes Jewish philosopher Simon Rawidowicz as saying about his own generation “If we are the last – let us be the last as our fathers and forefathers were. Let us prepare the ground for the last Jews who will come after us, and for the last Jews who will rise after them, and so on until the end of days.”  Sarna and Rawidowicz are suggesting a fundamental truth about the Jewish people – we survive. 

We survive…but we also adapt.  Each generation has had to adapt to new surroundings, new technologies, new economic or social realities and even new forms of hate and bigotry. History has changed us, but never erased us. 

The JMAP study echoed many of the findings of national studies – our community is characterized by striking generational differences in the perception of Jewish identity, community and traditional Jewish institutions. That isn’t a surprise, but it does underscore that the Hartford Jewish community of 30 years from now will look quite different than today.

It might be unnerving for some that a younger generation thinks so differently about Jewish community.It is natural for us to want to see our children embrace the same ideals, institutions and practices that we do.  We want the future to include what we had growing up, because it feels right and safe.Unfortunately, that is not the way the future works.

As Seth Godin has said, “If you are deliberately trying to create a future that feels safe, you will willfully ignore the future that is likely.” The future rests not in our hands, but in the hands of those that follow us.  Yet, perhaps it provides comfort that the same was true of each generation that came before us.  We can no more make our children follow exactly in our footsteps than our parents could make us. 

Despite our fears, there is reason for optimism about future generations.  Studies reveal that younger generation Jews strongly identify with “the Jewish historical narrative and ethical legacy as a source of inspiration and an important component of their formative personal identity.”  (From “Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course for American Jewish Future” by Rabbi Sid Schwarz).   

Perhaps it’s not a rejection of prior generations’ perception of Jewish community (as many in our community fear), but rather a new portal through which they can express their Jewish identity.

Even if we cannot control what the future looks like, there is something we can do to help build a stronger future for our Jewish community. We can invest in our next generation.  We can offer them support and a platform to build a future for themselves. We can teach them our people’s history, remind them of the universal and enduring values of our faith, and remind them of what makes us unique among peoples. Nonetheless, we must also give them room to be themselves.

Some will question the optimism inherent in this perspective.For those who do, I would ask you to take a longer view. It is easy to be pessimistic, but history has proved the pessimists wrong – we’re still here.  Trust the Jewish people to continue (as we have for centuries in the face of grave, existential threats) and embrace the reality that the Jewish community of our children’s lives will look different from ours. 

Noam Chomsky once said, "Optimism is a strategy for making a better future...unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so." Our responsibility, I believe, is not to judge, but to recognize the immutability of change and to give our next generation the resources and and wisdom to succeed in a changing world - just as our parents and grandparents did for us.

Michael Johnston is the President & CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation of 
Greater Hartford.

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Jackie Jacobs
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Nice job and well written, Michael....and especially brave of you to quote Noam Chomsky!

Jackie Jacobs
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