On Shabbat morning, August 19, Roben Smolar offered a fascinating and challenging Shabbat morning presentation in our service. I was so taken with it that I asked Roben if we could share it as widely as possible via our congregation’s electronic and print media. Roben is the Director of Communications for the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, an AA member along with her family, a parent of two Ahava ELC students and Vice President of Ahava. In her professional efforts, Roben works extensively with young Jewish adults in support of their Jewish pursuits and lives. In her Shabbat morning presentation, Roben provided us with a clear view of young Jewish adults – what they care about and what motivates them to act. Most importantly, Roben helped us to understand that young Jewish adults do care deeply about Jewish life, but often express their interests and commitments differently than older generations. I believe that in her presentation, Roben offers our congregation not only important insights but also a path toward thinking about its mission and vision. I know you will find Roben’s thoughts very interesting!
– Rabbi Neil Sandler
In 2005, I took a phone call that changed the trajectory of my life. I was working as a journalist in Chicago when I had the opportunity to interview someone about her efforts to strengthen the Jewish community.
I always had a strong connection to my Jewish identity. I grew up in the northern suburbs of Chicago where most of my friends were Jewish. Our house was infused with a proud, warm embrace of Judaism. We went to Hebrew school, celebrated bar and bat mitzvahs and observed the holidays.
But while being Jewish was always present and something I was proud of, it never felt like mine. It belonged to someone else. To my parents. To the rabbis at our Hebrew school. To those more observant and Jewishly literate who I felt would always be a “better Jew” than me.
When I took the phone call that day, I heard a perspective on Jewish life I had never been exposed to before. She talked about meeting young people where they are. About the potential for Jewish life to be fully pluralistic and egalitarian. About engaging people through inspiration, not obligation.
The person on the other end of the line was Lynn Schusterman. When I had the opportunity a few years later to work for her and her daughter Stacy at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, I jumped at it, leaving Chicago for DC and ultimately Atlanta. I never saw myself as a Jewish professional, per se, but here I was going to work in the Jewish community.
The rest, as they say, is history. But it isn’t history. It is my story and still ongoing.
It is the story of finding my Jewish identity and making it my own. Of realizing that I didn’t have to keep kosher and be Shomer Shabbos to be a “good” Jew. That I could both honor the legacy I inherited and forge my own path.
And that is what I want to talk about today in the context of the work we do at the Schusterman Foundation: how we can empower more young people to own their Jewish journeys as part of a broader effort to ensure a vibrant Jewish future.
I recognize that our perspective and approach may not be your perspective and approach. But I hope that in sharing it, you will find themes and ideas you can draw on here as you continue to think about how best to engage young people in the AA and Atlanta Jewish communities.
Let me pause for a moment and ask: how many of you have heard of the Schusterman Foundation?
My guess is that all of you have heard of the organizations we support-everything from BBYO to Birthright, Hillel to Moishe House, Keshet to Repair the World, the Israel Institute, Israel on Campus Coalition, ROI Community, REALITY and much more.
The Foundation, which turns 30 this year, has three core focus areas: improving public education in the United States; strengthening the Jewish community and Israel; and enhancing the quality of life in the Schusterman family’s home town of Tulsa, OK.
For our purposes today, I am going to focus on the Jewish aspect of our work.
When Lynn and her late husband, Charles, started their Foundation three decades ago, they felt they could make the biggest impact by investing in keeping the next generation connected and engaged with Jewish life and Israel.
As the President of our Foundation, Sandy Cardin, recently put it: our work is grounded in helping young Jews all over the world realize three things:
- That Jewish identity is a point of strength and pride;
- That a strong relationship with Israel can play an incredibly meaningful role in their lives; and
- That Jewish people, wherever they live, have a responsibility to help make the world a better place.
It is apt that the Torah portion this week is Re’eh, literally translated as see-the ability to see things as they are. It is only in hindsight that I see how my call with Lynn shaped my perspective on what it means to engage Jewishly.
But the Schusterman family has long had the foresight to see what it takes to engage young people like me and my peers. It is critically important to have foresight in this work-to see, acknowledge and adapt to things as they are and as they will be.
With the benefit of both hindsight and foresight, it is clear to any keen observer of the Jewish community that there are seismic changes taking place.
Increasingly, our community is made up of diverse individuals who are gay, straight, Jews of color, immigrants, very affiliated and unaffiliated, living with disabilities and, notably, marrying people of other faiths and customs.
Beyond demographics, we are seeing shifts in identity as well. Even if someone does identify as Jewish, it is likely that “Jewish” is just one piece of how they see themselves and no longer necessarily the primary one.
At the Schusterman Foundation, we embrace these trends. We see our growing diversity as a strength. We work hard to ensure our community is welcoming and inclusive. And we want to help young people see Jewish values and Israel as relevant to the way they live, give, love and learn.
Because no matter how our demographics shift, we know one thing for certain: that young adults-like most people-want to feel a part of something bigger than themselves. And we believe the Jewish community can and should be among the places they turn to find purpose, meaning and grounding in a chaotic world.
We recognize for that to happen, we have to build-or rather empower young people to build-the kinds of communities they want to be part of:
- Communities that are diverse and inclusive, reflective of their broader social networks;
- That are welcoming and accepting of their partners and families;
- That offer them a place to wrestle with complex issues, with Jewish and civic values, with ethics and moral responsibilities;
- That do not force them into binary choices of for or against, pro or anti;
- That offer them ways to engage through the lens of their needs and interests, whether that is music, arts and culture, Israel, spirituality, service or something else;
- That allow them to create and customize how, when and where they engage;
- That allow them to see how Jewish values can inform their world views and perspectives as a global citizen; an
- That don’t just ask “how is this good for the Jews” but also how Jewish culture, values and traditions are good for the world.
At the Foundation, we also recognize that if we are going to help young people care about being Jewish, we need to develop a 21st century narrative that is both relevant and aspirational. We have seen that for too long, our community has used narratives of obligation rather than inspiration to “convince” young people that they owe it to someone or something to engage Jewishly.
Instead, we can build a narrative that answers their questions:
- What is the value of being Jewish today?
- How do Jewish values inform universal values?
- What do we as Jews care deeply about and what do we stand for?
- Why should I get involved?
We have talked about changing demographics and the implications for the communities and narratives we are building. So what? What does it all mean?
I want to offer you three thoughts I believe are relevant to what you are building here:
- Young people DO want to engage Jewishly. They want to live lives with Jewish intention and Jewish values. But they want to choose it and shape it themselves, in their own image and on their own terms. They want to do it through the lens of their needs and interests. And that’s okay. Better than okay – it’s great. It’s what makes it sticky. We must encourage and celebrate it.
- There are exciting initiatives growing in the Jewish community that are succeeding in engaging young Jews in this way. Jewish innovation is flourishing, fueled by networks like our ROI Community, with innovators and entrepreneurs who are reimagining Jewish life. Institutions like BBYO and Hillel have reinvented their approach to meeting the needs of young people today. Large-scale movements for peer-led engagement have emerged through organizations like Moishe House and others. Programs like our REALITY initiative are giving exciting young leaders a chance to experience Israel firsthand, and of course, Birthright continues to grow. There are new ways to learn and understand Jewish texts and access knowledge online. New initiatives are rising to engage people with spiritual communities, food justice, racial justice, gender equity, LGBTQ and so much more. It is exciting to see many of these organizations, like Repair the World, OneTable and Moishe House, among others, growing here in Atlanta.
Which brings me to my third point.
3. For these efforts and others to take root and to succeed at the scale at which we need them to succeed, we need to see-to really see-the ways in which our community has changed and will continue to change. We must have the foresight to see, acknowledge and adapt to our community as it evolves. If we fail to do so, we run the risk of becoming irrelevant and that would be a huge loss humanity. Because like it or not, we don’t live in a static world. Engaging young Jews today is a lot harder than it was 30 years ago. Today, Judaism competes for time and mindshare with social media, on-demand television, social change movements, a world of significant cultural and geopolitical shifts. In other words: in the age of Spotify and Netflix, we don’t want to be the AM/FM radio. Our offerings can remain relevant in a broader marketplace of ideas AND stay true to our millennia-old traditions and values. To do that, we must create a 21st century Jewish narrative that is rich in meaning, relevant to people’s lives, allows each generation to build the communities they want to be a part of and ensures they all are inextricably tied to the ongoing story of the Jewish people.
Before I close, I want to make two final points.
First, I want to take off my Schusterman hat and put on my Ahava hat. I am the proud mom of two kids who attend Ahava and am fortunate to serve on the board.
I am so grateful to AA for having the foresight to invest in the school, which is an incredible gift to both the AA and Atlanta communities.
My husband Gregg and I stand here today as members of this congregation because of the preschool.
The school is the vision and hard work of so many people-in particular, Elisa Ezor, Hannah Williams and all the teachers, staff and board members, who make the school the best environment possible for the kids and families that attend. We all owe them a huge debt of gratitude.
For Gregg and me, it is everything we could want for our kids, and it has spurred the next phase of our Jewish journey. I hope you all will find a moment to the visit the school. It reflects so many qualities of the communities I spoke about before. You will see there a model of what the Jewish future could be: a diverse community, engaging in joyful Jewish experiences and collaborative learning.
I also hope you will welcome the families, hear their stories, share yours and understand what drew them to Ahava. You will find it inspiring and exciting.
Finally, I want to thank the Rabbis for having me. I was moved by the letter you all sent in the wake of the horrifying events in Charlottesville. I am proud that this congregation was part of our #TogetherAtTheTable initiative.
For those who don’t know, our Foundation-together with our partners at OneTable, Repair the World and more than 70 national and local organizations-created an initiative to encourage people to dedicate Shabbat this weekend to celebrating unity and diversity in the face of fear and division. In just four days, more than 700 people pledged to host Shabbat meals, including over 400 young adults.
We created this effort in the hopes that it would spark conversations about how we can move past hate and begin to heal.
It is my greatest hope as a mother, as a Jew and as an American, that we will find a way to strengthen civil discourse in this country. Where we are now, where the extremes hold the most space, scares me. It scares me for my children, and the children of my friends, and your children and grandchildren, and the children of other races, faiths and abilities.
As Nathan Englander wrote in the New York Times in the aftermath of Charlottesville: “Because the children who witness a day like that … will not forget the fear and disrespect tailored to the black child, the Muslim child, the Jewish child.”
Hatred, anti-Semitism, racism, bigotry, bullying and violence can have no place in our communities. We must embrace our Jewish legacy of being called upon to fix what is broken, to make right what is unjust, to improve what can be better.
Because that is what this week’s portion about sight teaches us: we must see how our actions impact others. We must see how every single person can make a difference.
So let’s start by listening to, learning from and hearing each other. Finding ways to engage in constructive dialogue, to disagree with civility, to share our stories, our hopes, our fears. To celebrate and mourn together. To build and re-build together.
That is the future I want for my kids and for all kids. A future in which our diversity and respect not for the other but FOR EACH OTHER is our greatest strength.
I look forward to being a part of community like AA that can be a model for that here in Atlanta and more broadly.
Thank you. Shabbat Shalom.
Roben Smolar is the Director of Communications for the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, a global organization that ignites the passion and unleashes the power in young people to create positive change. She also serves as Vice President of the board for Ahava Early Learning Center.
Portions of these remarks have been adapted from previous speeches.