Leil Leibovitz has a big idea that might get lost in his recent Tablet article, How Boomers Ruined American Judaism. He exaggerates the extent to which Boomers ruined American Judaism but offers Boomers and philanthropists a big idea in advocating for Jewish intergenerational communities.
Leibovitz writes, “If American Jewish life is ever to rebound, then, the effort to inject it with new meaning and new energy must be intergenerational. It’s not, as demographers and philanthropists and other muckety-mucks often believe, just the young who are adrift; it’s the old, too…”
The need for intergenerational Jewish community is urgent. I document the social isolation epidemic in my new book, Connecting Generations: Bridging the Boomer, Gen X, and Millennial Divide. We used to associate loneliness and a lack of friends with those who are older. Now, pre-teens and teens experience the pain of loneliness at higher rates than do people age fifty-five and up. Technology, the disruptive effects of innovation, and a general fear of engaging with those who hold views that are different from our own are primary contributors to this loneliness sickness. Faith-based communities that theoretically designed to engage members of all generations can reduce the social isolation epidemic by increasing intergenerational communities. To date, I haven’t been able to find alternative communities that are meant to connect people throughout the lifespan, and that’s why we should lead on this issue.
Generally, the Jewish community does not distinguish between the implications of being “multi-generational” and “intergenerational.” Multi-generational is a numeric fact stating the number of generations alive (that number is an unprecedented seven generations!). Today, there are seven generations, from the members of the Greatest Generation (think World War II) to Generation Alpha (born beginning in 2010). Intergenerational is a value, a conscious commitment to encourage people of different generations to move from being mere acquaintances to friends. There is no playbook for having large numbers of 100-year-olds and one-year-olds alive at one time. “Multi-generational” reinforces age-segregation in the Jewish community, while intergenerational suggests a creative policy shift. It means rethinking the Jewish community and its institutions so that we stop dividing generations into peer cohort activities, like adult learning, teen activities, and Jewish preschool. Sure, some activities should be age-segregated. But many more could be reinvented as intergenerational.
If we can shift from a multi-generational to an intergenerational community, that’s where the opportunity for the Jewish community begins. Do congregations have a standing Intergenerational Action Team that looks comprehensively at social justice activities? If they did, an auxiliary group, a youth group, and a social justice committee could learn about each other’s unique generational concerns and collaboratively create a compelling, innovative social justice initiative. A Jewish day school, afternoon program, or camp could reorganize around intergenerational learning. Then, looking through a Jewish values lens on the topic of leadership, teens, young adults, and those who are middle age and up could debate the questions, “How old is too old to be a presidential candidate?” and “How young is too young?”
Bringing young and old together in physical proximity doesn’t automatically create an intergenerational Jewish community. Leaders need a paradigm shift, moving away from labeling and segregating generations toward age-integration. They could proudly chant, l’ dor va-dor -and write new music with the addition of the word va-dor five more times! Changing culture requires intensive retraining and practice. The good news is that “intergenerational” is an authentic Jewish value not open to debate, and existing funds for many multi-generational Jewish experiences could be used for intergenerational activities.
To the extent that Boomers want to clean up the damage of the American Jewish community that several generations made, we should be creating more intergenerational Jewish communities in partnership with other generations. For that significant insight, Leibovitz has this Boomer’s appreciation.
Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D., is the author of Connecting Generations: Bridging the Boomer, Gen X, and Millennial Divide and Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World, along with Dr. Terri Elton, and an expert on contemporary Jewish life.