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From Oy to Joy: A Call for Positivity in Jewish Engagement

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There is a dissonance between the Jewish story and narrative. We are a people who have demonstrated an inverse relationship between numbers and impact for thousands of years and represent an unparalleled catalyst for curiosity and growth. As we celebrate the 71st year since our rebirth, the State of Israel, has achieved mind-boggling feats, against seemingly insurmountable odds and this is just part of the incredible story we have to tell.

Still, with ongoing anti-Semitism at heights unseen in ages, victimization and crisis are deeply ingrained within our national narrative. Too many seem to focus on reactively extinguishing fires rather than proactively sowing seeds and planting trees.

Having grown up in Sydney, Australia, where so many in the community are descendants of “survivors,” the Holocaust has always been a core component of the community’s Jewish identity. The Gen17 Australian Jewish Community Survey found that 95% of participants saw remembering the Holocaust as important to their personal Jewish identity, marking it as the highest factor. Similarly, the 2013 Pew Report revealed that a staggering 73% of U.S. Jews see remembering the Holocaust as essential to their sense of Jewishness, and there are many other studies that reflect the same global trend.

Threats to one’s Jewish identity often provoke an instinctive reaction of protectiveness, but just as the current generation feels less relevance to the destruction of the Temples or the Spanish Inquisition, this approach is becoming less effective as the distance from events such as the Holocaust widens as time marches on.

The establishment of the State of Israel has been coupled with significant general improvements for global Jewry, and many Jews have not been directly exposed to anti-Semitism and the powerfully emotional tribalism it can induce. Instead, as Jewish millennials are welcomed with open arms into Western societies, they have become increasingly disengaged from a heritage with which they struggle to relate.

Desperately attempting to re-establish these stirrings of Jewish pride, I have seen many Jewish educators double down on Jewish victimhood, limiting their educational impact by focusing on instilling a responsibility to lead Jewish lives purely because the victims of prior generations could not. To me this underscores a lack of confidence in our ability to inspire positivity and pride.

When teaching Jewish history, the Holocaust must, of course, be given due attention, but it should not become an emotional crutch alone. The most effective Jewish teachers also focus on the incredible array of Jewish cultures and traditions that emerged over the last 2,000 years, helping young Jews realize that traditions have continued relevance and can be built upon in modern Jewish practice.

While this narrative continues to inspire a sense of Jewishness, it has generally not been strong enough to translate emotion into action in a consistent and pervasive way. As such, this negative narrative is becoming increasingly ineffective and yet crisis remains the dominant narrative for Israel as well.

The Israeli timeline, as taught and discussed, is often dotted with wars. The years 1948, 1967, and 1973 are, in the Jewish psyche, some of the most powerful dates in modern Jewish history and often synonymous with Israel, despite its many other achievements.

As we stand between Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), Yom HaZikaron (Israeli Memorial Day) and Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel Independence Day), three days that embody the complex duality of tragedy and triumph, we must consider how to shift this balance towards the positive. We must stand tall and say that we are proud to be Jews, not because of terrorism, violence in places like Pittsburgh of Poway, or Israel’s enemies, but in spite of them.

One of my favorite scientific studies shows why this positive approach, in which Judaism’s life-affirming, beneficial value becomes the standard, is more crucial now than ever before.

In the late 1960s, Stanford psychology professor Walter Mischel conducted a series of experiments on delayed gratification known as The Marshmallow Test. Mischel was trying to understand how age and cognitive development affect one’s ability to delay gratification in order to receive a greater reward. Particularly fascinating for psychologists today are the follow-up studies, decades later, which found that childhood ability to delay gratification correlated with higher SAT scores, professional success and better physical health.

Writing for Forbes, Justin Daab, President of Magnani Continuum Marketing, an experience design and strategy firm in Chicago, challenges the notion that delayed gratification results in increased success in life, stating that “Millennials are rationally maximizing their long-term value by sampling a bit of marshmallow today.” As Millennials grow up, they are witnessing the collapse of the long-term security once offered by traditional institutions, older generations losing their entire accumulated wealth, debts rising and job prospects and job security declining. As a result (whether consciously or not), they assign greater social value to experiences – memories that are guaranteed to last.

Hence, when sharing Judaism with young Jewish women and men, positive, transformative experiences are vital and, therefore, serve as a guiding principle of Mosaic United. As Daab explains, “for Millennials, past performance is no guarantee of future performance.”

Judaism, when lived fully, includes enriching, positive substance that can make a far more enduring impact on the individual than the declining sense of obligation to marry Jewish and the uninspired schlep to a synagogue on the High Holidays. On the other hand, exposure to the Shabbat experience, for example, can lead to an appreciation that supposedly disruptive restrictions can grant the freedom and headspace to value the truly important things in life.

Jewish teachings about charity and hospitality allow one to appreciate how an ancient moral compass can enhance quality of life for the most vulnerable members of modern society. And a deeper understanding of the vibrant, nuanced, multi-faceted reality of Israel can allow one to acknowledge its issues while seeing past its falsified reputation and appreciate the truth of its inclusivity and flourishing democracy.

A healthy Jewish communal body cannot thrive on a diet of tragedy alone. It cannot devolve into a skeleton devoid of bone marrow based on external threats, and instead must celebrate the inner beauty of Jewish life. To move from oy to joy, we need a paradigm shift in our pedagogy. The impetus for Jewish living must come from inside the Jewish world, being proactive rather than reactive. We must begin by truly believing that the Jewish story is worth telling and then reconsider how we tell that story.

After all, our children no longer want to hear how not to leave. They need to experience why they must stay.

Rabbi Benji Levy is the CEO of Mosaic United, a partnership between the State of Israel and the global Jewish community dedicated to mapping the broad spectrum of Jewish experiential opportunities and creating seamlessly accessible routes to meaningful Jewish connections for millennials ages 12-35. A recent Oleh from Australia, he previously served as the Dean of one of the largest Jewish schools in the world, Moriah College.

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