The Jewish Youth Rebellion: Does It Have Viability?

If the current Jewish youth rebellion in the United States against the adult Jewish establishment may be dated from the Six-Day War, then the time is not far off when information should begin to become available on whether the extraordinary renaissance among the Jewish young is more than a passing phenomenon, unique only in the sense that it represented a brief and spectacular interruption in what many consider the remorseless decline of the viability of the American Jewish collectivity. Two facts seem to be beyond dispute about the Jewish youth rebellion. These are that it emerged as a major element of the worldwide Jewish response to Israel’s great peril and triumphant emergence from that peril in the summer of 1967; and that it has been a movement sparked led and fostered by the Jewish college student. In May, 1967, there was no such artifact on the American Jewish cultural landscape as the independent Jewish student newspaper. There are now at least 35 such publications and new ones are gestated regularly. There was no educational forum such as the “free” Jewish university; there are now dozens of them. There was no such living experiment as the religiously centered collective; there are now at least two with some promise of survival–the Havurah Shalom in suburban Boston and the Havurah in Manhattan. Because the youth rebellion and the structures it has created have been done not only without help from the Jewish establishment but in vigorous opposition to it, reliable data on numbers and processes are hard to come by.

It would be highly useful to know, for example, the membership of the Jewish student activist groups on American and some Canadian campuses. It would be similarly useful to know the total number of students self-enrolled in self-organized free universities, studying Jewish topics of which their elders are generally totally ignorant. Consider one statistical item that has emerged. The Jewish Student Press Service, formed by activist student journalists as a central service agency for the burgeoning campus independent Jewish press, suggests that the media have from 300,000 to 400,000 readers. Even with the concession that the commitment of many of the Jewish collegians may not extend beyond such reading habits, the implications of that figure are striking–particularly if viewed in contrast to the unremitting flow of reports about the growing rate of mixed marriages, a declining American Jewish birthrate, a spreading specter of assimilation and other portents of despair for the future of organized Jewish life in America. Are there, in fact, at least 300,000 young American Jews so committed to Jewish survival in their own lives that, though roundly condemning every aspect of the Jewish establishment, their response is not to turn their backs on their people but to seek to create what they consider a truer image of an ancient tradition they passionately embrace as theirs?

WILL TODAY’S JEWISH STUDENT LEADERS BECOME TOMORROW’S STATUS QUO APOLOGISTS?

Part of the answer–at this stage–is that their commitment has led them to take actions which, first, set the teeth of their elders on edge, and second, led those same elders to admit the rebels have a case that cannot be dismissed. The young have challenged the fundamental structure of the Jewish establishment and all of its priorities. They have spotlighted the absurdities and vulgarities which their elders routinely commit in the structures of the institutions of the Jewish community–its houses of worship, its schools, its social welfare agencies–nothing has been sacred to the young insurgents. And with similar passion they have challenged their elders on the priorities of the general American society and particularly on the disaster of the Vietnam war. Nevertheless, all of this has taken place from within a protected and artificial sanctuary–artificial in that it is a temporary stage in their lives and in the sense that the young rebels have yet to face the challenges and demands of establishing careers and families. The question–which may be fateful for the prognosis of the Jewish future in America–is whether the current but unique phenomenon of student commitment and activism for Jewish identification is no more than a college fad, made possible by freedom from the grinding demands of adult life and the willingness of parents to finance both the work and play aspects of attending college.

Demonstrations for Soviet Jews and for changes in Jewish establishment priorities have been dominated by the young. But will they, in due time, when they become adults, husbands, wives, breadwinners and parents, follow in the footsteps of most of their parents and become the no-shows at tomorrow’s protest rallies and demonstrations and confrontations? When the time comes to join a synagogue will they accept the standards and norms as adults which they now denounce as collegians? Having assailed Jewish child education as an abomination, will they, nevertheless, enroll their children in the same kind of congregational schools, yielding to the same pressures for the “learning” process leading to the same kind of a Bar Mitzvah orgy they now blast as obscene? Answers should soon be available. The first graduating class of the Jewish college generation that started in the September of the year of the Six-Day War will be that of next month. It will, of course, be a while before the June, 1971 graduates will begin to move toward adult commitments but within a very few years some patterns should begin to emerge, some clues to the carryover of Jewish dedication from campus to home and jobs. In all seriousness, it may be suggested to the graduates who plan to continue their Jewish studies after getting their bachelor degrees, that a study of the phenomenon of the durability of the new Jewish mood on campus may be a major contribution to the understanding of tomorrow’s Jewish society.

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