Here is one of the essays I am writing for the incredibly competitive Wexner Fellowship. It seems relevant for this space, which is why I decided to post it. If you have comments, please do email me at akb2016 -at- Columbia.edu. Before Feb 1st would be best, since that is when the application is due. But the ideas expressed below have less to do with the application and more to do with what I’ve been wrestling with for a while, so I look forward to your comments.
This is the question:
The Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program is intended to facilitate the development of future professional leaders for the North American Jewish community. We are interested in your reflections on the North American Jewish community focusing on its challenges and your sense of yourself as a future leader in that community. Please describe the following in your essay as fully as possible.
Important Note: Please include your name and “Essay B” on the top of each page of this essay.
1. As you consider the future of the North American Jewish community, which issue(s)most concern you. Discuss your own approach to at least one of these major challenges.
2. Describe the leadership role(s) you see yourself playing in the North American Jewish community ten years from today.
Here is my answer:
As an undergraduate at Columbia, I saw the best minds of my generation tune out of general Jewish involvement on campus, dragging themselves off instead into isolation, either to the backrooms of the Columbia University Hillel, or to meetings of often hysterical partisan organizations, or to mini-rallies where a speaker would preach to the choir. I’ve noticed this tendency towards polarization amongst other segments of the North American Jewish community as well. Living in the Upper West Side of Manhattan for the last four years, and benefiting from an outside perspective as a son of Israeli immigrants who remained removed from the Jewish community, I’ve been astounded by how many Jewish options exist in so few square miles, and yet little Jews know about avenues for Jewish expression outside their denomination. It is this problem of polarization that concerns me most, since I believe polarization stands in the way of our ability as a People to realize our potential collectively and individually.
I believe one of the major factors contributing to the fractiousness of the Jewish community and the resultant self-isolation of the denominationally affiliated youth is the focus many Jewish organizations put on ‘continuity’ instead of on ‘enrichment.’ When focusing on continuity, Jewish organizations invest the majority of their time and capital in reaching out to the unaffiliated through brightly packaged programming, assuming that those already committed in one way or another to the system were already won over. In doing so, the Jewish world paradoxically provides incentives for non-affiliation—hence the ever-growing amount of hipster projects funded by institutional organizations—leaving those affiliated youths to turn-inwards for Jewish options.
I would argue that a different approach is possible, one focused on enriching the lives of the affiliated and unaffiliated alike, through the creation of low-entry-cost content-driven organizations who would help participants realize their potential by drawing from the vast reservoir of the Jewish tradition. In this vein, I have formed and joined a number of projects whose goal is to provide forums where young Jews from various backgrounds and levels of affiliation can engage the issues that define our identities and chart a course for our future. The magazine I founded, Present Tense, whose first issue comes out in April 2006, brings together nearly two-dozen writers and editors from across the Jewish spectrum in news, feature, literary and critical pieces exploring issues gripping the Jewish community. A film I am co-producing, Tradition! Tradition, asks Jews from various denominations to explain why they feel connected to their roots, in the hope of showing that there is a common vocabulary of experience for whom the Jewish tradition is important. BlogsofZion.com, a website I co-edit, brings together writers from different ideological perspectives to discuss the issues of the day, in the hope that putting people of different ideologies on the same page will create a new norm of engagement rather than disengagement. Teaching students at the Ivry Prozdor Hebrew High School over the past year has reinforced my opinion that thoughtful content made accessible is better than the bells and whistles of flashy marketing.
Ten years from today I hope to have played a part in the flowering of Jewish culture and consciousness in North America. Until I reach that far off date, I hope to become intimately involved in the workings of the North American Jewish community, to help where my skills can be of use, and to participate and direct efforts to create trans-denominational programming to bring the greatest minds of my generation out to meet one another in the Jewish public square.