Jews by Choice

Last Updated on Tuesday, 19 January 2010 08:49 Written by bryfy Tuesday, 19 January 2010 08:49

Today we seemingly have unlimited choices. Jewish teenagers, for example, necessarily must choose whether to partake in anything Jewish, often competing against soccer practice, band camp, spring break in Florida or worshiping at the local ashram.

I don’t have a problem with choice – I have come to accept it as a part of the world in which we choose to live. Whether we like it or not – individual choice is the choice of this generation.

On the other hand we (and here I mean many Jews, especially us in the Jewish communal and educational world) have this concept of Peoplehood floating around. Jews have always had a sense of connectedness to their history and to one another. Here I can reference Tevye’s call for “Tradition,” my grandmother pointing at all the Jewish names on the screen at the end of a movie, or more recently the pride which many of us exhibited when seeing Israeli rescue teams in Haiti. Can we have it both ways? Can we be both a people of individual choice and a collective people?

What would happen to Jewish tradition if all Jews acted individually and created prayer books of their own? At least people would get to pray in a personally meaningful and relevant way?

What would happen to the communal aspect of Jewish learning if every Jewish child had their own tutor? At least children would be interested and invested in their own learning with quality tutors teaching according to individual learning styles.

What would become of our sacred tradition, our common heritage, and as Soleveitchik might suggest, our Common Destiny?

Many of us know the book Bowling Alone that spoke of the collapse of communal life in American society as we once knew it. It is interesting to note that in 1995 when Robert Putnam wrote his essay it was entitled Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital. When released as a book in the year 2000 this seminal piece was called Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.

It is no longer helpful to consider individuation and unlimited choice as reasons for the decline of the Jewish world as we once knew it. If we accept choice as a part of life then how interesting it would be if we accepted individual choice (the sovereign self) as the cornerstone of the revival, and not the demise, of the Jewish community.


  1. sarah   |  Wednesday, 20 January 2010 at 12:01 am

    Great post. I especially like the links to recent articles and phenomena. I find it hilarious how folks are afraid of things like allowing people to make their own siddur. In so many of these cases, individual choice is what ends up drawing folks together. Even NFTY, a huge teen youth movement, was originally started by a small group of folks created what they felt met their needs at the time. I think what the Jewish community needs is some great resources (ahem for building and sustaining a variety of small, creative communities. The sovereign self still wants to have a Pesach seder, she just wants to do it in a style (and cuisine, hello) that fits her interests.

  2. Robbie   |  Wednesday, 20 January 2010 at 12:20 am

    come on David, they changed the title so it would sell better. Putnam didn’t alter his main assertion that the route to ‘revival’ was through concerted collective enterprise.

    Also I have a feeling that “personally meaningful” is an oxymoron.

  3.   |  Tuesday, 02 February 2010 at 8:20 am

    […] We must¬†understand that Jewish teens can simultaneously be individuals and actively belong to the Jewish People and Community (see last week’s post). […]

  4.   |  Tuesday, 23 February 2010 at 9:05 pm

    […] Sounds just right for this generation of Jews. […]

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