A little while ago, my brother wrote a provocative article assessing the current climate of young Jewish leaders. You can read the full article here. I was thoroughly impressed with his commentary on young Jewish leaders and our generation’s declining Jewish engagement. There are several reasons why I like this article and why it’s so important to pay attention to what my brother is trying to say.
First of all, I have to say that growing up with him and my sister in our Conservative and Kosher household was very different than many of our friends and neighbors. We grew up a block from school and synagogue. We sang, read and wrote in Hebrew twice a day. Jesse and I wore kippot on our heads and learned prayers starting in third grade. At home, we lit the Shabbos candles as a family. Starting in high school, my father would email his weekly, “Two Minute Parshah” returning from services to enlighten us about the Bible’s lessons and make meaningful connections to our condition as a people.
The point is that all three of us (Me, Jesse, and Hayley) were fully immersed in our Conservative upbringing, and yet, Jesse never felt connected to his religion through these traditions and rituals we observed every single day. As young children and adolescents, Jesse was by far the most agnostic in the family; he once boasted of breaking Kosher his first week in high school by calling up my mom at work and asking her, “Guess what I’m having for lunch?” while waving around a turkey and Swiss sandwich. He would attend services and bar or bat mitzvahs like the rest of us, but I’m not sure if he saw them as anything other than obligations and disconnected rituals. I know for a fact that he truly enjoyed and loved his bar mitzvah, but unlike myself, he did not stay actively connected to the synagogue or the Jewish faith afterwards. He may not know this, but I was genuinely concerned that Jesse would grow up and marry either a very agnostic Jew or even a non-Jew and build a family completely divergent from our childhood. It would not only break my mother’s heart, but my own as well, because we were so connected as a family through our Jewish faith. The Jewish connection did not seem to matter to him as much, other than the family ties it created.
Then, Jesse went to college. At first, not much changed. He didn’t join a Jewish fraternity and he remained somewhat distant from the university’s Hillel. However, things began to change, when with my dad’s encouragement, Jesse decided to attend Passover services in Florence, Italy at one of the oldest synagogues and Jewish congregations in Europe. Okay, Jesse was very impressed. After graduation, Jesse then moved to New York City, far away from our family and our families’ synagogue— Anshe Emet. Coincidentally, Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove also moved from Anshe Emet to the 5th Avenue Synagogue around the same time, so Jesse had some connection to Chicago and Judaism when he couldn’t make it home.
Then, without any pressure from the family, Jesse became actively involved in the UJA Federation in NYC. At first, I was pleasantly surprised. I heard about how much fun he was having and how many more people he was connecting with and building relationships with. I thought to myself, “it’s about time.” I knew Jesse would be able to find something Jewish to connect himself to and feel good about in New York. All is not lost. As his connections to UJA grew, I noticed his commitment to the movement was stronger than ever. He definitely eclipsed my perception of his faith when he signed up to staff a Birthright trip, rather than simply attend. Not only did he return with a stronger faith and connection to Judaism, but he found on that very Birthright trip a very intelligent, sweet and caring girlfriend whose faith in Judaism was much like his own.
He went on to speak at an event with Mayor Bloomberg and Matisyahu in attendance, and even had the pleasure of speaking to Mr. Charles Bronfman in his own home at a private fundraising event. I have never seen him happier, other than when he comes home to the family.
Jesse has experienced much of what we all hunger for in our journey towards connecting to God and to Jews in America and across the world. His volunteer work and dedication to UJA only proves that young, emerging Jewish leaders like him can make a difference. Yes, a deep-seeded Jewish upbringing does help shape perceptions a bit more, but organizations and groups like JUF and UJA provide opportunities for people like me and my brother to connect to young Jewish people wherever we are.
Oy!Chicago has provided for me a wonderful opportunity to engage with the young Jewish crowd here in Chicago, and I could not be happier or more proud of my faith and its strong, emerging generation.
“Wherever we stand, we stand with Israel.” At first, I don’t know if Jesse fully believed in this idea growing up. Now, I cannot imagine him feeling otherwise. However, Jesse would take it a step further and use this mantra to build meaningful connections to young Jewish leaders and strongly encourage them to volunteer, to get involved in a meaningful way. It is clear to me that Birthright was a life-changing experience for him and should remain that way for future young Jewish adults.
To my brother Jesse: I love you, and I am so proud of you for everything you have accomplished and everything you plan to achieve in the future. Your connections to the Jewish faith and your commitment to volunteer and help those in need is a remarkable characteristic that you have developed. You are an inspiration to me and to other young Jews out there - Chicago, New York and elsewhere - that want to believe that they can make a difference, that their voices matter. Keep it up.
Jesse found his place in his community and strongly urges all of us to do the same. I know I am. Are you?