A few months ago I was invited to observe a focus group being conducted with about two dozen unaffiliated Jews in their 20s discussing their views on Israel, Judaism and their own religious identity. I sat behind a one-way glass wall with more than a dozen officials from a variety of Jewish organizations, watching the proceedings in the next room.
Over a period of several hours we were at times annoyed, frustrated and depressed with the responses of the young people, who made it clear that neither Israel, synagogues nor organized Jewish life resonated with them. In fact, they expressed a good deal of negativity in discussing these issues at the prodding of Frank Luntz, a national public opinion research expert. They told him they were embarrassed by many of Israel's military actions, felt the American Jewish establishment was irrelevant to their lives and described Hillels on campus as a place to avoid.
The fact that, despite these views, the young people in the next room insisted their Jewish identity was important to them was at once encouraging and disheartening. Encouraging because it showed they still want to be engaged, disheartening because here was a group of people who rate their Jewish identity high and yet have so little knowledge of or seeming concern for core Jewish beliefs.
Of course whether or not I agreed with these people was irrelevant. They - and a whole generation of Jews they represent - need to be heard and understood, not lectured to. Otherwise the gap between generations will widen even further, jeopardizing future support for Israel in this country.
Fortunately, a study based on the focus groups Luntz held here and in Los Angeles is due out this week, and it should be required reading for every Jewish communal professional. It is called "Israel In The Age of Eminem," and if communal leaders are confused on hearing the title or think it refers to a candy brand rather than a rap star, they will be proving the report's blunt message: that Jewish organizations "are not connecting effectively with young Jews" and "may even be turning them off" rather than inspiring them when it comes to communicating concern for Israel.
Luntz's 50-page report asserts that "most traditional communications and marketing strategies are not reaching the vast majority of young Jews. We are writing for ourselves and talking to ourselves . Too often, we are projecting the memories and emotions we feel at the expense of the real questions they harbor."
For younger Jews, "culture has replaced tradition and spirituality has replaced religion," according to Luntz, who notes that "their association with Israel is frighteningly weak and ill-defined despite its near daily appearance in the news headlines."
He concludes that younger Jews resist the party line on Israel and see themselves as open and questioning. They are avowedly secular and wary of religious language. They view themselves as Americans first and Jews second. They are universalists who value peace over security.
Other advice: talk peace, be inclusive, connect the Israel message to American values, display a Web address and ask for the reader's participation.
What should Jewish organizations do with this information? Jeffrey Solomon is president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, which sponsored the report along with the Alan Slifka Foundation and the Michael and Judy Steinhardt Foundation. Solomon hopes the establishment community will take the information to heart because he sees "a disconnect between Jewish organizations and their potential constituencies."
The organizations call for more outreach, he said, while dismissing the complaints of outsiders and telling them, in effect, "Here's the way it is, get with the program."
But if you want to talk to young people, Solomon says, you have to listen to them first.
Israel has compounded the problem, he says. While Jews rallied around Israel after its decisive 1967 victory and the Jewish state became "the connecting point" to Judaism, the violence of the last 22 years between Israel and the Palestinians has been "a turning-off point," with many young people opposed to or embarrassed by Jerusalem's policies.
Echoing some of the same complaints of these young people and offering a far more radical critique of organized Judaism, media critic Douglas Rushkoff, 42, has a new book out called "Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism."
In it he argues that the religion has lost its way and reached the end of the line; what is required now is to reinvent it personally as a kind of do-it-yourself Judaism. Rushkoff criticizes Jewish organizations for trying to increase their numbers by attempting to make Judaism "cool," using marketing techniques rather than inspiring people with ideas and open forums of communication.
Over lunch one day this week, Rushkoff acknowledged that if his ideas were followed, "Judaism could disappear." But he insisted that the risk was well worth it because otherwise it will surely die.
Rushkoff may be overly provocative in trying to jump-start creative Jewish life, or at least get people to think about what such a life entails. But neither he nor the Generation Xers who want no part of traditional Jewish beliefs should be written off by the establishment as unwanted outsiders. The key is to find a place in the tent for anyone who wants to be there and to educate young people about Judaism without talking down to them.
The argument over inreach vs. outreach, now being played out, for example, over whether to focus on reaching intermarried families or concentrate on Jews closer to the center, is as old as Hillel and Shammai, the famous rabbis of Talmudic times who headed yeshivas with very different approaches.
Shammai was the strict stickler for halachic details, dismissing the fellow who asked him to be taught the essence of Judaism while standing on one foot. It was Hillel, the humanitarian teacher, who instructed: Do not do unto others what you would not want done to you. All the rest, he said, is commentary.
That lesson holds true today. As Jeffrey Solomon notes, "Organized Jewry has become Shammai - not prepared to listen to what others have to say."
What is required of us is to emulate Hillel, opening our hearts and minds to those around us and speaking to their needs. We need not lower our standards, just raise our goals.
Where I differ most with Rushkoff and the legions of young unaffiliated Jews who view Judaism as hopelessly passe is in their failure to appreciate the fact that it and its people have survived for thousands of years, outliving countless cultures, nations and religions. That track record is no accident. Judaism is alive because it has been able to reinvent itself from generation to generation while adhering to its most basic tenets of mitzvot and memory.
Ironically, in concluding that today's Judaism is irrelevant, Rushkoff calls for engagement, open inquiry, debate and study. But those are, and have always been, the religion's distinctive qualities and strengths. From the time of Abraham to the age of Eminem, we have been a people of seekers, looking for and finding holiness in everyday acts.
The answers, then, are there, in the wisdom of our heritage and the faith of its believers. We just need those who will ask the questions.