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'New Jews' stake claim to faith, culture

By Jessica Ravitz, CNN
  • Some Gen X and Y Jews are staking creative claims to identity, religion and culture
  • They don tattoos, blend Jewish sounds with hip-hop, write edgy blogs and own their spirituality
  • "They want to re-engage in the world as Jews, but not solely for Jewish causes," one says
  • Where traditional synagogues fail to touch them, independent groups and alternatives step up

(CNN) -- When Moses came down from Mount Sinai about 3,300 years ago, he couldn't have seen these Jews coming.

A blogger writes about how one of Judaism's holiest days ended, for her, in a strip club, while elsewhere a guy strolls into a tattoo parlor requesting a Star of David. Two women exchange wedding vows in a Jewish ceremony, and hipsters toss back bottles of HE'BREW, The Chosen Beer. A full-time software developer prepares to lead a group in Jewish prayer, as a PhD candidate in Jewish thought pens a letter criticizing Israel's policies.

Meet the "New Jews," as some call them: pockets of post-baby boomers -- or more accurately Generation X and Millennial (Gen Y) Jews -- who are making one of the world's oldest known monotheistic faiths and its culture work for them and others in a time when, more than ever, affiliation is a choice.

"I could wake up tomorrow and say, 'I don't want to be Jewish.' There would be no social, political or economic consequences," said Shawn Landres, the 37-year-old co-founder of Jumpstart, a Los Angeles-area organization that pushes forward out-of-the-box ideas in the Jewish world. "It's true for the first time in thousands of years that we can build the identities we want."

Many of those at the forefront of innovative Jewish construction are rabbis, religious educators, people who know their stuff. But they're not interested in foisting labels on people -- like the denominational terms Reform, Conservative or Orthodox -- nor do they want to perpetuate the pressures that come with fitting into religious, political and social molds.

For Atlanta, Georgia, punk-rock musician Patrick A, or Aleph (the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet), this means he can seamlessly blend who he's been with his newly embraced religious observance.

They want to re-engage in the world as Jews, but not solely for Jewish causes.
--Ari Wallach, social entrepreneur and consultant

"When I'm on stage screaming, hitting my face with a microphone and pouring beer on my head, at least I'm singing about the Torah," said the 26-year-old founder of PunkTorah, an outreach effort to inspire Jewish spirituality.

Turns out the traditional synagogue model doesn't have a lock on religious offerings. One alternative that's sprouted up: independent prayer groups that invite the spiritually hungry to study text, as well as shape and lead their own services.

"It's tapping into a need that stems from people wanting to take hold of their Jewish life," said Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, 36, executive director of Mechon Hadar, a New York-based organization that tracks and empowers such groups. He said there are about 60 nationwide. "When the institution wasn't serving the need, people stood up to create their own communities."

It's this kind of innovation that Jonathan Sarna, of Brandeis University and a leading scholar of American Jewish history, can get behind.

"When there's religious complacency, when there's boredom, we're much more likely to see people check out," said Sarna, who is a member of an Orthodox synagogue. The more pressing issue, he added, is whether cultural ties alone can keep Jewish life going.

That concern is a real one, said Steven Cohen, a sociologist at Hebrew Union College in New York. He said about half of young Jews are not marrying Jews, and that only 25 percent of children born to interfaith couples grow up to see themselves as Jewish.

But by making Judaism and its rituals more accessible and meaningful, "Emergent Jews," as they're also often referred to, hope they can inspire a long-lasting connection to their faith.

It's why volunteer-driven educational retreats, sponsored by a group called Limmud (Hebrew for learning), are cropping up in Colorado, Illinois, Georgia and across the globe. It's why Jewish Milestones in Berkeley, California, is helping interfaith, same-sex and other couples have Jewish weddings. And it's why another Bay Area group, Wilderness Torah, hosts Passover in the desert, where participants combine Jewish traditions with their commitment to the outdoors and sustainable living.

Unlike their parents and grandparents, who may have gathered to fight anti-Semitism, remember the Holocaust, rally around Israel and liberate Soviet Jews, many Gen X and Y Jews see their worlds as wide open.

These Internet and media savvy Jews are behind what Ari Wallach, a 34-year-old social entrepreneur and consultant in New York, likes to call "Judaism 2.0."

"They want to re-engage in the world as Jews, but not solely for Jewish causes," said Wallach, who was one of the forces behind The Great Schlep, an online push, featuring comedian Sarah Silverman, that encouraged young Jews to fly to Florida and convince their grandparents to vote for Barack Obama.

"If asked, 'Would you rather fund raise for trees in Israel or for solar-powered ovens for refugees in Darfur,'" he said, "they're more likely to go with Darfur," which is why the American Jewish World Service, an organization that fights poverty, disease and hunger in the developing world, resonates with many of them in a way other Jewish organizations don't.

In fact, they may not have a relationship with Israel. And if they do, it's often complicated. They might support the country and people while being critical of the government's policies and wanting a Palestinian state, too, as evidenced by J Street, a new left-leaning lobbying group in Washington.

Jay Michaelson, a 38-year-old writer, activist and scholar received a torrent of responses when he recently wrote in The Forward, a daily Jewish newspaper, about his ambivalent love for Israel, where he lived for three years.

When I'm on stage screaming, hitting my face with a microphone ... at least I'm singing about the Torah.
--Patrick A, founder of PunkTorah
  • Judaism
  • Religion

The reactions that interested him most came from rabbis and Jewish Federation leaders who wrote, "You've said what I cannot say," said Michaelson, who was the founding editor of Zeek, an online journal to push discussions about the Jewish tomorrow. "There's a climate of fear, and they cannot speak out on this issue."

But many of these "New Jews" aren't afraid to be who they are, say and show how they feel.

Heeb magazine, a hipster quarterly based in Brooklyn, does this and leaves some cringing. The magazine recently raised a collective "oy" -- and stirred outrage -- when it published a photograph of Roseanne Barr standing at an oven, dressed as Hitler, holding a tray of burnt-Jew cookies. The intention, said publisher Josh Neuman, was to force a conversation about how pervasive Hitler references are in modern culture.

"We aim to elicit responses, even if they're illicit responses," said Neuman, 36, who formerly taught Jewish culture and thought, and worked at the Museum of Jewish Heritage -- A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.

If they can't easily find what inspires them, some create it themselves.

Sarah Lefton, 36, of San Francisco, California, said she developed G-dcast, weekly cartoon webisodes -- narrated by a wide cast of characters, including an indie rocker -- to make Jewish learning more engaging, "because God knows we all grew up in boring Sunday school classes."

Allowing younger Jews to connect with their faith while living in a secular world is what drives Aaron Bisman, 29. Inspiration came for him at a 1996 Phish show, when the rock band busted out with a performance of "Avinu Malkeinu," a Jewish prayer. Hearing a non-Jew sing in Hebrew a song to thousands of fans showed this rabbi's son that Jewish expression could go mainstream, without being limited to Larry David shtick.

So he formed JDub Records, the original label for Matisyahu, the Hasidic Jewish reggae phenom. Bisman's New York nonprofit promotes cross-cultural understanding by putting out innovative Jewish sounds, like hip-hop meshed with Israeli folk songs. JDub also recently adopted Jewcy, an online media outlet rich in blogs and discussions, to help build more bridges.

And mixed in with all this are those who -- irrespective of where they are religiously or in the Jewish community -- advertise their identities with Jewish-themed tattoos, as Andy Abrams, who is behind "Tattoo Jew," a documentary in development, found out.

They're not swayed by the long-perpetuated myth that Jews with tattoos cannot be buried in Jewish cemeteries. While tattoos are prohibited by Jewish law, Rabbi Joel Roth, a professor of Talmud and Jewish law at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York said he knows of "no Jewish legal source that would prohibit the burial of a Jew who violated that law." If such a prohibition existed, added Florence Pressman, executive director of Jewish Funeral Directors of America, "how would we honor our Holocaust survivors?"

When they're getting inked with Hebrew letters or Jewish symbols, these Jews are not fretting about laws followed by the most observant. Nor are they haunted by the numbers tattooed on arms during the Holocaust, said Abrams, the 40-year-old filmmaker of St. Louis, Missouri. They're taking a bold stand today that they'll carry with them, permanently, into the future.

"They're being overtly Jewish," Abrams said. "They're saying, 'I'm Jewish. I'm proud. And I'm willing to wear it on my skin.' "