The onslaught of historical revisionism, including book cancellations and statue demolition, is bound to affect Gen Z with particular severity. How is one to navigate a polarized culture at odds with itself in a sea of post-truth? When a new Supreme Court justice says she doesn’t know what a woman is because she’s no biologist (and doesn’t mean it as a punchline), what can we expect from the kids? The existential angst of budding adulthood takes on a whole new dimension in a world that has weaponized “identity” to the point of incoherence.
Naturally, it’s all about power. Intersectionality, diversity, inclusion and similar buzzwords are designed to treat people as members of one group or another in order to create new forms of discrimination. Couched in lofty rhetoric such as righting old wrongs and seeking social justice, it leads to confusion and alienation which disproportionately affects the still growing self. And if you thought defining “woman” was hard, try “white,” specifically as applied to Jews. When journalist Dave Schechter did so in 2016, the best he could muster was: “It’s complicated.” Five years later, he came up with the only marginally less equivocal “Yes. And No.”
Not that Jews are color-blind. At issue is a “disturbing ideology that is growing increasingly rampant … that tries to turn Jews into white people,” writes Daniella Greenbaum in The Washington Post on Feb. 2. “[T]his reflects a relatively new prevailing notion that Jews, in America at least, are part of the white power structure—that we can’t be oppressed in the same way that other minorities are, and that we don’t need the same kind of support from allies that others do.” The old anti-Semitic trope that Jews are rich, powerful and ruthless has merely been updated.
So what are Jews to do? Should they insist on being considered “oppressed in the same way” as other minorities? Or that they need “the same kind of support,” such as affirmative action or immunity from cancellation? Small wonder that young people generally, not only Jews, are unsure whether to see themselves as victims and hence demand privileges, or become successful but risk being accused of oppressing others? Should a Jew capitalize on his ancestors’ centuries-old persecution, or continue to do his best and get ahead in this tolerant country that has embraced him and his family as no other?
That Jews will continue to strive, come what may, through education is confirmed by another survey from the American Enterprise Institute’s Center on American Life. Some three quarters of young Jews—X’ers, millennials, and Z’ers—are expected to attend college. Unfortunately, they are facing unprecedented challenges. “From the BDS movement to a rise in anti-Semitism in general to rampant self-censorship where Jewish students are regularly afraid to share their views and even ask questions,” writes Samuel J. Abrams on his AEI blog on March 15, the atmosphere on campuses is toxic. Appalled by “the large number of Jewish college and university students who regularly feel threatened, silenced, and disconnected from their schools and campus communities,” Abrams appeals for help.
Traditionally, moral support had been provided by the family and one’s own conscience, strengthened by a religious community. Yet just as important decisions of lifetime commitments must be made, the latest generations have been increasingly turning away from religious observance. This is true for all denominations. Jews are not exempt; according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, no fewer than “41% of young Jewish adults do not identify with any particular branch of American Judaism. Most of the people in this category are ‘Jews of no religion’—they describe their religion as atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular.”
And yet, testimony perhaps to legendary Jewish resilience, or more sophisticated methodology, AEI’s research also reveals some highly encouraging findings. As Samuel Abrams writes on March 17, 2022, in The Jewish Journal, “[a]lmost all Jewish Baby Boomers (96 percent) report that they feel a connection to a faith as part of their ethnic background or cultural heritage. The number is only marginally lower for those in Gen X (92 percent), and this is among those who are today in their 40s and 50s and generally lower scoring than Boomers on most measures of Jewish engagement. Even large numbers of younger Millennials (88 percent) still report widely held connections, at least as a matter of sentiment; and this despite their far higher rates of intermarriage than their Boomer parents, associated with far lower levels of Jewish engagement than their parents in so many ways.”
But there’s more: While the largest branches of American Judaism—Reform and Conservative—are losing ground among the young, the Orthodox branch is actually growing. Some 17 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds identify as Orthodox, as compared with a mere 3 percent of Jews over 65. One would expect percentages to be exactly reversed since the younger generation tends to be more skeptical theologically and generally less inclined to follow strict rituals.
They are also loathe to be told what to think, which may be one reason why “young Orthodox are more Republican, more culturally savvy, and—after four years of access to Trump’s White House—some say, bolder,” wrote Michelle Boorstein on May 11, 2021, in The Washington Post. The counter-awakened are part of a cultural shift, according to David Bashevkin of NCSY, a major Orthodox youth group. “American Orthodox Judaism is in a period that is less ideological, more lay-led (as opposed to rabbi-led) and a bit more fluid (relatively speaking in a highly legalistic culture),” reports Boorstein. “’It is easier than it was decades ago to be Orthodox,’ he said.
It’s not just that the rules are flexible, but that they take second place to spirituality. Most of Houston’s young Orthodox Jews, for example, attend a modern synagogue, “wear American-style clothes, lots of women leave their hair uncovered, and many have jobs in medicine or oil and gas,” wrote Emma Green in The Atlantic on May 31, 2016. These iconoclasts are “baalei teshuva, a Jewish concept drawn from the Hebrew word for ‘return’: it denotes those who have become Orthodox as a way of ‘returning’ to God. Like the rest of their generation, they are largely nonconformists—just traditionally minded, rule-bound nonconformists.”
Not that rules, freely chosen, do not carry some serious benefits. True, they can complicate life a bit, but they “can also create their own sense of identity: They’re a steady flow of ritual speed bumps that remind observant Jews of who they are.” They are surely defying the mainstream culture, reports Green, as Modern Orthodox Jews “test the boundaries of mores on ubiquitous phone use and egalitarian gender politics and an obsessive work culture. But difference doesn’t have to create conflict: Everyone I spoke with said he or she felt welcomed and accepted by the Houston Jewish community and Houstonians generally.” This speaks well for them all, but it should not come as a huge surprise.
For the Modern Orthodox community is far more sophisticated and indeed ecumenical than is commonly supposed. Though baalei teshuva is a Hebrew concept, it is not sectarian: A return to God is the wish of anyone who finds secularism insufficient for grasping the meaning of life and death, compassion and redemption. What Orthodox thinkers offer in a uniquely serious way is a way of approaching the challenge of regaining spirituality not by fighting the symptoms of secularism but by addressing its root causes.
This is, in fact, the premise of Strauss, Spinoza & Sinai: Orthodox Judaism and Modern Questions of Faith, co-edited by Jeffrey Bloom, Alec Goldstein and Gil Student. Its forbidding title notwithstanding, the book is hardly just another academic exercise. Consider how one contributor, Rabbi Jeremy Kagan, explains the current secular malaise by tracing it to modernity with its simplistic view of progress, in contrast to an earlier, more profound understanding of truth and indeed morality.
“The shift from Near Eastern spirituality to Western materialism is roughly comparable to switching from an artistic mode of engagement to a scientific one. When we contemplate a flower as a scientist, for example, we may discover a chemical that cures a dreaded disease. But if we cannot also look at it as an artist, something of immeasurable worth is sacrificed—the wonder of the flower’s beauty. Forgoing the artistic perspective does not just diminish the flower; it fundamentally diminishes us. Our world is the mirror in which we see ourselves reflected. Whatever facets of our humanity are not enlisted in our perception of our world are lost to us. We forget who we truly are or can be. … The Torah tells us something that at first sounds to our ears very strange. Truth is not reached by logic, at least not logic alone. The path to truth runs through character.”
Character, not skin color or rhetoric, defines who we are, infinitely anchored.
Juliana Geran Pilon is a senior fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization. Her latest book is “The Utopian Conceit and the War on Freedom (2019.)” She has taught at the National Defense University, the Institute of World Politics, American University, St. Mary’s College of Maryland and George Washington University.