Youth vote matters in Judaism

The United Synagogue could learn from Jeremy Corbyn's successes, says Jennifer Lipman

June 27, 2017 11:07

Was it the yoof wot won it? Actually, initial analysis suggests it was voters born after the 1970s. YouGov’s preliminary findings indicate Labour swept up more votes for every age-group under 49.

So how did someone considered so unelectable come within such close proximity to power? The suggestion is that Jeremy Corbyn did so by responding to people’s anxieties. He listened when parents worried about school funding, when junior doctors went on strike, when twentysomethings looked gloomily at their future.

Acknowledging these concerns made a difference. And while some might scoff at Anglo-Jewry learning anything from Mr Corbyn, his victory is instructive, particularly for the mainstream Orthodox community.

Put simply, that community must not be complacent that the next generation will remain in the fold. In 2010, research found that, in 20 years, central Orthodox synagogue membership (which includes the United Synagogue) had fallen from two thirds of all members to 55 per cent, while membership of “non-Orthodox” shuls relative to “Orthodox” ones had increased to 30.8 per cent. Seven years on, you’d expect those trends to be even more pronounced.

I’m not suggesting that most or even many Orthodox millennials are looking wistfully at Reform or Masorti. But the Conservatives assumed they’d retain support by simply being better than the alternative — and look where that got them. Orthodox Judaism has to give younger generations a positive reason for staying involved, and not assume that habit or parental affiliation will be enough.

There’s a need for community leaders to understand issues that matter to the younger generation. From rabbis opposing partnership minyanim to the paltry support shown for Rabbi Dweck, I’m surely not alone as a young(ish) Orthodox Jew feeling there is an unwillingness to recognise that these questions can no longer be brushed under the carpet. I’m not expecting US rabbis to start presiding over same-sex marriages. But I do expect them to recognise what the community cares about.

I look with envy at the activism shown by Reform and Masorti leaders on issues like refugees or on building links with Muslim communities — or indeed at their responses to the sometimes troubling direction of the Israeli Government.

Chief Rabbi Mirvis, to his credit, has been vocal about being an outward-looking community in the wake of Brexit. But too often it seems there is a fear of rocking the boat. Millennials want their politicians to be principled; why wouldn’t they also want to see their rabbis take a stand?

And what about modernising communal life? Youth movement veterans know Orthodox services can be dynamic and exciting; tunes can be fun and new, services can be explanatory, women can be engaged instead of sitting upstairs in a gallery gossiping. Some shuls are great at offering these “alternative” services, but what’s stopping them entering the mainstream?

Equally, it’s time the US looked at membership fees for cash-strapped millennials. I have countless peers who are not members; most are considering joining only because they want to send their children to Jewish schools. “We need a monthly payment option,” said one. And yet, a year after I first raised it, nothing has changed.

How things have always been done doesn’t have to be how things are always done. Before my wedding, I remember the rabbi casting doubt on whether male relatives could sing sheva brachot under the chupah. We knew there was no halachic block, and eventually he acquiesced. But so often it feels like an uphill battle to get Orthodox Judaism to live in the 21st century.

There are those who buck these trends; rabbis who have gone out on a limb on partnership minyanim, for example. But as the election shows, movements cannot rely on a few impressive individuals.

Too often mainstream Orthodox Judaism comes across as insular, focused only on appeasing those within. This perception has hardly benefited the Conservatives and will do our community no favours.

Yes, there are rules and values that cannot simply be abandoned, but Jewish life has changed since the shtetl and can change again. At the least, the mainstream Orthodox community needs to be having these conversations — and listening.

As Edmund Burke put it, “a state without the means of some change is without the means of its own conservation.” The youth vote matters. Ignoring it won’t make it go away.

June 27, 2017 11:07

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