I have walked the desolate pathways of Auschwitz Birkenau with young Jews agonising over their place in the Jewish community of the future. I have listened to young Jews on Yom Kippur wrestle with the challenges of faith in the twenty first century. I have been inspired by young Jews who have made the heart wrenching decision to put the heritage of their ancestors before the person they love.
But I have never yet encountered a time in which an entire community of young people have directly considered the price of being Jewish. Never have I seen this many people ask themselves what being Jewish really means to them, look at the price they might have to pay for being different, and make the resolute decision to publicly and proudly affirm their Jewish identity.
That change was brought home to me through the moving words of a young father in my own community named Alex, whose heartfelt article for a recent shul magazine deeply moved me.
Events of this past year have made many young Jews like Alex seriously reflect upon what their Jewish identity means to them. It is true that the impetus for this may have been serious concerns over antisemitism in modern Britain. Yet, as time now moves on and we hopefully look forward to a politically calmer 2020, this new focus on Jewish identity shows no sign of slowing down. Our community has been badly shaken — and young Jews in particular are still continuing to gather their thoughts on what being Jewish really means to them.
There is a sense in the air that the coming year might therefore be a very special opportunity to re-engage young Jews within the ambit of the Jewish community. And the striking thing here is that when young people articulate what being Jewish means to them, it is often far less complicated than we might imagine.
In fact, it can probably be summed up with just one word: Belonging.
In a world that feels both global and rootless, the gift of being able to hold on to a marker in the sand that gives a person a sense of who they are does more than uplift and inspire. It grounds a person and provides a basis for every decision they make in life.
Alex describes himself as a, ‘Jewish Worst Case Scenario. I’ve married in, got my son circumcised and, as far as I’m concerned, that’s it; I’ve done my job, now leave me alone’. Yet, on the insistence of his wife and the infectious enthusiasm of his young son, he agreed to join our shul and, in a very short space of time, it has had a profound effect.
In his article, he reflects upon the implications he feels his own re-engagement with communal life has for other like-minded young Jews, both millennials like himself and younger. I reproduce some of it here because I think it has vital lessons for all those interested in what that feeling of belonging might look like for the next generation of Jews:
“I was amazed at what I found; warm, caring, wonderful people. I didn’t feel like it was a fashion parade or that anyone was passing judgement on the fact that I wasn’t wearing a tallis or that I didn’t know the exact moments to stand or sit…a marvellous shul, one I feel completely at ease in. A Cheder my son loves going to. A place that has made my wife feel alive in and cared for and important. It has added so much to our lives, given us new friends, enabled us to reacquaint ourselves with old friends — and turned my son into the world’s largest single consumer of fishballs, both sweet and salty.”
Alex continues with a moving reflection on the fact that he is absolutely certain that there are endless numbers of other young Jews out there just like him: “...people [who] want to feel part of something meaningful and — most importantly — Jewish. Because, and I do believe this to be true, my generation does want to feel Jewish, are eager to embrace their Jewishness, but are not necessarily sure how to be Jewish in their lives.”
Events of 2019 have suddenly woken a slumbering community of young Jews like Alex into thinking about what being Jewish means to them. In 2020, it is our responsibility to provide them with a place within the community where they can well and truly belong.
Yoni Birnbaum is the rabbi of Hadley Wood Synagogue