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The Times They Are A-Changing

David BryfmanFilmed at Limmud Conference 2013

The Jewish world of tomorrow cannot, should not, and will not look like the Jewish world of today. There are several changes taking place in the ways in which people are behaving today that are directly impacting some of the very core characteristics of the Jewish world as we know it. This educational talk explores five of these major trends, some of which are related to today’s technology, that indicate that we are indeed a people undergoing some major transformations. Whether it's a true revolution or just part of an evolutionary cycle, perhaps only time will tell, but no matter how this period in Jewish history is recorded – the writing is on the wall and the times they are a changing.

David Bryfman is the Chief Innovation Officer at The Jewish Education Project (formerly the Board of Jewish Education in New York). David completed his Doctorate in Education and Jewish Studies focusing on Jewish adolescent identity development and experiential Jewish education. Prior to moving to New York, David worked in formal and informal Jewish educational institutions in Australia, Israel, and North America. David is an alumn of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship and has also spent time studying at the Hebrew University and Pardes. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children (Jonah and Abby) and in his spare time has been known to (sort of) enjoy running marathons.

My paternal grandparents saw the writing on the wall in the 1930s, in Poland, and then they decided to go to Australia because that was a place where they could settle. My mother’s family was less fortunate and they went through the Holocaust and all the camps. And eventually, my grandmother and my grandfather, who was a partisan fighter in Russia, they met in one of the displaced persons camp where my mother was born, and decided when they were given the choice between Palestine, the United States or Australia, they would choose Australia, because it was furthest place on earth from Europe.

Fast forward a few years later I decided to go and live in America for a couple of years, that was ten years ago and my life began to transform in so many different ways. This is the birth of my son, Jonah, about 4 and a half years ago, this was the Brit Milah ceremony, actually this was the video of the Brit Milah in Australia which was Skyped from Brooklyn so my family could participate in the experience with us.

So pivotal was that moment in the Jewish communal landscape 4 years ago, that the Jewish Week, which was the major Jewish newspaper in New York, decided that was news worthy, now I don’t think it is. And I fast forward now and here’s Jonah when he is only 2, mastering the computer experience and he is Skyping every Friday night with his great-grandmother the Holocaust survivor in Australia.

You see we live in changing times and what’s happening here can be described by many as an evolutionary cycle or revolutionary cycle. And in fact for purpose of today I don’t really care what we consider it to be – evolution or revolution – I simply want to point out that things are changing. But for definitional sakes, what’s a revolution? A revolution has three major functions and I want to claim the revolution that’s taking place right now in the Jewish world landscape, is as great as what took place after the destruction of the second Temple and the birth of Yavneh; or in the French Revolution and the so called emancipation of Moses Mendelsohn afterwards; or even as big as the Zionist Congress that took place and Herzl.

Because a revolution needs three major components: it needs a leader, it needs a single ideology and it needs people to follow. And the problem with the revolution that we’re going through right now, is there’s no singular leader, there’s no singular ideology, but there are a whole lot of people who are actually following this revolution.

And I want to suggest that what we’re really doing now, and talking about in the Jewish world, is fundamentally transforming the way Jewish life looks and feels, and when we look back upon this time in history, we’re gonna see that this was a revolutionary time.

And I’m going to point to 5 characteristics, and these 5 characteristics, when you put them altogether, for me signify a major change in Jewish landscape across the entire world. You’ll see that some of them are rooted in technology, but this talk is not about technology. But I do want to emphasize that technology is giving us the scope and the power to do things that were previously unimaginable in eras gone by.

Number one: who’s in charge? If it was ever true that rabbis were the central authority figure in the Jewish communal landscape, I want to suggest today that young people today, no longer see the rabbinic figure as the automatic assumed position of hierarchy in any community. You know this. You know this in all forms of their life, where hierarchy is not just something that people can label themselves with.

You see it today when students enter a classroom and they say things like, the teacher needs to earn my respect – unheard of even just a few years ago. And now, if the rabbi was the person that you would go to for knowledge, they’re no longer that person. Where do you go? You turn automatically to Google or to another function of the internet, to give you the answers that you once so craved. The breakdown of hierarchy in society today means that Judaism needs to develop a new way of dealing with this democratization of power in the Jewish landscape.

Number 2: ‘Wiki’ is Hawaiian for ‘quick’. Now Wikipedia is an amazing, amazing invention. Even though you know that the solutions, the answers that Wikipedia gives you might be incorrect, people flock there, more than they do any other place on the internet to find out the answers to their most common questions. And in some cases, Wikipedia has been found to be more accurate than the now defunct Encyclopedia Brittanica, because the wisdom of the masses is now seen as so powerful.

Now what does that mean for a society, for a people, that so long believed that we were a people of the book and inside that book were all of the answers to our questions. You see when I was young, I was told again and again […] – turn it over and over and eventually you’ll find the answers in this one book.

I remember the face on my teacher who was trying to explain to me the rationale behind laws of Kashrut and in that level of complete frustration they said, because it’s written in the book, when no other answer would suffice me.

Now for a young person growing up in the world today, holding up a single canon, a single book of authority, no longer makes sense. They live in a post-modern world, where they juxtapose all sources of information together. And for us to turn around and simply say, as a matter of rhetoric, that because it’s written in one particular book, does not resonate with a young person today. I’m not saying it should be devoid, it should be thrown out, of course not. But to understand that one person’s understanding of the world at large is just another source, is extremely important.

The third point: here’s my playlist. No young person today will ever listen to radio again. Why? Because the radio is somebody else’s playlist, played when they want it to, interspersed with their commercial advertisements. The iPod symbolizes that any young person in the world today can spin that dial, land wherever they like, and they can push play on the song of their choice. That metaphor is critical for us to understand what choice means in the life of a young person today. And our job, as people who work and live in the Jewish community, is not to try and fight against what’s on their playlist, but to try to make sure that we can put things on that playlist which are of such value that a young person will want to stop and play our song. It’s more than just a metaphor for saying that technology is taking over their lives. It fundamentally changes the way young people think about the world.

The fourth point: it’s a small world after all. The world is global, we understand that, but what does that mean? It means that we now live in a time where young people today consider themselves part of the global world and universal citizens. Whereas once Jews used to say you need to do this activity because it is good for the Jews, a young person now asks the question, why do I need to do this activity, because it is good for the human race. And if we cannot offer a Jewish reason as to why somebody should be involved in an activity to make the world a better place, then we have to stop and consider what it is that we’re actually offering.

A few years ago, I celebrated a Yom Ha’Atzmaut activity, a Yom Ha’Atzmaut dance party, hundreds of kids from all around the world, they’re dancing away, eating falafels, singing to hadag na’hash, it was great. The only difference was we were doing it in Second Life, in a virtual world, as avatars, with kids from five different continents beginning to celebrate together what it meant to be.

You see when I was young, and I had a pen pal, ironically from England I guess, I used to send them an aerogram, do you remember the aerogram you sent from Israel to another place in the world? That blue aerogram, I used to try to cut it open, invariably you tore it apart – some of you don’t even know what I’m talking about. When I was trying to do this presentation, I looked for a picture of an aerogram, the only picture of an aerogram I found on the entire internet from Israel was on eBay, that’s when you know you’re getting old.

The fifth point: ‘Generation me is also generation we’. The most narcissistic, materialistic, individualistic generation of the world kind is also the one that cares more about the world than perhaps any other generation in history. And they are out there trying to change the world, in so many different ways, and rectify the mistakes that we left them with. They are the generation that is out there, who are trying to fix the environmental disaster that we may have left them, to fight against equality no matter what that means. But to lump them altogether, young people, as these people who don’t care about other things is completely inaccurate. And now they are empowered, as anybody else, to be able to change the world and they don’t need leaders or authority to tell them or to give them permission to do so, they care.

Five things: when you put them altogether – the change in power, change in the authority of texts fundamental to our people, the notion of choice, the universalism of the Jewish people looking at the world as a whole and not just themselves, and the ability to be active and empowered – forces us as a Jewish community to ask three what I believe fundamental questions. Number 1, how might I change personally? Number 2, how might my institution that I belong to change? And number 3, how might the community at large change? If we can’t address this change, then we are missing the boat of an important time in Jewish history.

I now have this poster in my office. I once gave a talk of similar nature, I called it ‘innovate or die’, it didn’t go down too well with the audience – they didn’t like the options. I changed the name of the talk to ‘the innovation imperative,’ which fundamentally means the same thing. But I want to point out that now we stand at point in time where world has changed so dramatically, that if we don’t innovate, that many of our communal structures will simply die. We can and we must change the world. We must currently change the institutional status quo that we have, because the institutions we have been left with no longer resonate with our young population today.

Ironically, I guess, when I was preparing this talk, two seminal moments happened in the world which really hit me hard, two deaths of two very important people in my life growing up. Nelson Mandela, who amongst many things, and many famous quotes said, “The greatest glory in living lies, not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.’’ I’m reminded here of my young daughter, Abi, who’s just beginning to walk, and she knows what it is like to fall.

And then, the death of Arik Einstein, who I grew up with believing with all my heart and my soul that […] that you and I could physically change the world and make it a better place, that’s what inspired me and that’s what I understood. The question is why do I care? Why does this keep me up at night, and literally does at times? Because this is not just about the present, this is also fundamentally about our future. The Jewish world of tomorrow cannot, will not and should not look like the Jewish world of today, the times, they really are a-changing. And when we look back on this time in history, the question for us to ask ourselves is did we adapt, did we change, did we see the writing on the wall?

Thank you.

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