Millennials entering their 30’s

I recently noticed a list serve group with a description similar to the one below. (Changes in wording were made to protect their privacy. If any of the organizers of the list serve want further changes or corrections then contact me by email.)

A Support Group for Former “Day School Q” Students Who Lead Alternative Lives:

Did you go to Orthodox “Day School Q”? But are you also, say, gay, a cross dresser, a sex worker, a heretic? Are you married to a gentile? Did you marry a gentile of the same sex? Have you written for porno magazines? Do you refer to yourself as Conservative and have the courage to think for yourself? Would the principal Rabbi Q be ashamed of you? Yes, Great! Then come join us!
(If you’re completely religious, married with kids, spent a Israel before college and still study Talmud to this day, basically the ideal product of day school, but are friends with all us apikorsim, then you are also welcome.

The school is a flagship Modern Orthodox day school and this online list serve group is predominately for the graduate of the 1990’s, those who finished college as gen y millennials. Currently they have either just reached or are in their early thirties. “They have a solid plurality of former students who share their experiences about identity and are beginning to reflect on each other’s journeys. One member of the group has indicated to me that there is a large diversity among the members in their level of observance within or outside of Orthodoxy, in the types of families that they have created, and in their political and philosophical views. Their intermarriage rate (including those that converted to Judaism for the marriage) is not yet known since many are still happily single. (In the 2000 NJPS study, day school graduates had a 7% rate).”

I must note that these same classes produced a higher than average number of Jewish educators- several years in Israel, YU through smicha, and then rebbe in day school. What they called the day school ideal.

I asked one of the members of the group whom I am friendly with to try to explain or to account for—why your era/years produced so many interesting souls – unconventional and not in the ordinary box. I received the following response. (slightly edited)

I think that there is something particular about my period since many of us are the last offspring of the baby boom generation (the end of the 1950s Middle Class American Dream); we lived in the time of post-USSR Jewish immigration to the U.S. in the 1990s and with that the beginning of a new capitalized and globalized world post-cold war; and maybe we had more social class diversity because there were more scholarships at the time (this is a guess). In any case, it made up a somewhat alternative group within a homogenous community.

Also, I think there is also something to the crisis of postmodernity playing out in the 1990s that added on other interesting factors that made people clash with traditional institutions in a way that was more vibrant and also destructive.

People in their late 20s and 30s are now coming out more in NY, Baltimore and all over about abuse from Orthodox yeshivas. This is also happening in the Catholic world, and I don’t think that it is a coincidence. Whether it’s physical, sexual or emotional, young adults around the world are speaking out. I think that many of us realize that the old model of family/shul/community needs to be reinvented.

There were few people who saw that a transition period was coming up for Modern Orthodoxy and with that a big identity crisis for all of us. I guess that our generation happened to come into adulthood just as these old definitions were dying out, or at least I would hope so.

I am ready for a new cycle in the world since the last period has been so destructive. Sadly I don’t think that things are getting better. We just need to find some sort of space for taking care of one another and hold out the storm. Maybe many of us know what we don’t want and are finding that there isn’t a space yet for what we would like to see in the world. Some people believe that it can be created; I am pretty skeptical but am at least enjoying the diversity that’s coming to the surface in all of our stories.

This is a group of the best and brightest. Some of the goof-off’s who hated studying Torah are the ones who remained Orthodox. It is not those who needed to be exposed to correct doctrine or practice, since it includes offspring from Gemara teachers, the rabbim. Their parents were not especially lax or cynical.

Notice that according to this member’s explanation, Orthodox was not an emotionally safe place. (I know for others then and now, religion is a safe refuge from the outside.) They felt it as unsafe. They already sensed that the old was dying 15 years go. Student’s identity is formed by the end of high school, so don’t blame it on college. The problem is not modern Orthodoxy since if needed; I can produce a similar overview of a Yeshivish school. Their principal has been complaining for decades about the twin “corrosive influences” of thinking for oneself and eating dairy without kashrut supervision.” That is probably not the cause.

Here is a thought experiment for the Jewish educators out there. Picture your class of 25 students. If it has a similar demography of this class, then picture 1 of the 25 as gay or lesbian, 2 of them as marrying non-Jews (who may or may not convert), 5 of them giving up Judaism entirely and 5 of them leaving Orthodoxy for another denomination. Assume that these may be your best and brightest. Would this change what you teach? Would it change how you relate to your students? If you were a principal would it change who you hired? There are no easy answers because you may also have in the same classroom a significant number of students for whom the very definition of their religion and commitment to Orthodoxy is moral certitude, absolute values and rejection of the relativism of the outside world. (For more on this group- see my post on Christian Rock and kiruv) I cannot comment on the students currently in high school who will be “gen z” obsessed with texting. Time will tell if they follow those who are half a generation older than them.

Any official organization want to start doing long term studies of day school graduates for variables besides assimilation? If so, contact me offline. Don’t be concerned with which school this is describing. My point is not to castigate the school or the graduates.

Most educators and those reading this, myself included, are within the religious parameters and cannot see the outside perspective of those who left. When you leave comments know that this is about real people, so of whom will be reading this. Know that you may have little insight into the other side other than this 400 word email.

11 responses to “Millennials entering their 30’s

  1. I’m not sure which school this was, but the 90’s may have been the peak of a culture clash in modern orthodox and community day schools where the religious faculty was dominated by rabbis coming from more right wing yeshivot. At some point some of these schools (mostly those that were coed) woke up and decided it was worth paying more to attract young centrist teachers from YU.

    Just a thought.

    • completely disagree, AS. “centrist” people seem to have a hard time seeing this, but on the things that alienated people they are quite like the yeshivish. centrist truth claims still fundamentally in conflict with contemporary science/academia, centrist halacha is still fundamentally incompatible with contemporary values, and the centrists, rather than even engaging in apologetics (which yeshivish would), tend to glorify that conflict and urge subbordination of ethics to law – that approach is a huge turnoff to people who want to be (or just are) engaged in the broader world.

      • That might be a turnoff to thoughtful adults, but that’s certainly not the dynamic in high school which is much more about conflicts over resistance to popular culture, conflicting messages about whether your parents are actually religious by your teacher’s standards, conflicting messages about how much sexual latitude you have etc.

        That tension breeds cynicism among high school kids.

      • (should i confess that i am nogaat bedavar re: this particular post?)

  2. i don’t think centrists score much better than yeshivish on the things you list either, with the possible exception of popular culture (though I don’t recall the yeshivish teachers expending much energy telling us not to go to movies either…)
    also, at least the way people are telling their stories as adults, the things you list may be catalysts, but they do not explain life decisions. people feel a fundamental incompatibility that may start with messages about parents, etc, but ends up running much deeper.

  3. Here’s a guess:
    This has to do with the total lack of creative and courageous leadership in the american modern orthodox world .

    Who wants to be part of a movement that has no leaders willing to grapple with our rapidly changing world ? It’s not very reassuring when you grow up and realize that the supposed intellectuals of your religion are grappling with issues that the rest of society seems to have dealt with years ago.
    I know there are many many great challenges to reconciling the world we live in with orthodoxy but somebody could at least try! Teenagers respect honesty and can easily smell fear. If we had grown up with leaders who faced difficult issues publicly and head on, some of us might have stuck around. All they had to do was try to stay relevant to us. Try to keep apace with society.
    I’m not referring here to the average young Israel pulpit rabbi, but to the heavyweights in YU and wherever else. The ones who should have written something (anything!) worth reading.
    All we had to look to was a Rav who was no longer present or fit to the task by the time we came around. Was there anybody else? Maybe, but they were certainly never mentioned.
    Maybe it’s different in Israel?

  4. I know we only have these 400 words to go on, but let’s look at it for what it’s worth. W
    hat jumps off the page is the empahsis on the body. Obviously, this is written tongue in cheek, but still:
    “But are you also, say, gay, a cross dresser, a sex worker, a heretic?”

    3/4 there (even though cross-dresser and especially sex-worker are simply to ‘mix things up’).
    “Are you married to a gentile? Did you marry a gentile of the same
    sex? Have you written for porno magazines? ”
    Once again.
    “Do you refer to yourself as Conservative? ”
    What could this mean. Do we have kids from MO schools specifically identifying as Conservative Jews as opposed to post-denom/non-denom? This is perhaps the most surprising to me.

    Fascinatingly, there is no “are you a heretic academic”, “do you assume that the Torah was written by multiple authors,” “are you a hasid of Kugel” “do you pray with an egalitarian minyan”, “do you not like the chauvenism” et al. In this text, I would go as far to say that the use of “heretic” and “apikorsim” do not seem to be linked to a system of beliefs (aside fom the Conservative / think for yourself) rather people who are doing non-Orthodox things – especially sexual ones.

    • Presumably “Rabbi Q” would not be as shocked if you told him you were a heretical academic as if you told him you were a cross-dressing sex worker.
      (Does anyone care if you are a “heretic academic” if you live in Bergen County and send your kids to day school)

      So the criteria are really about whether you have queered yourself to to the extent that your lifestyle is incompatible with bourgeois suburban modern orthodoxy and thereby achieved otherness.

  5. What is perhaps most amazing is that the group is still in contact, sharing/comparing their stories, and thinking of themselves as a group (even one that needs a support group).

  6. God this was a profoundly depressing post for so many reasons personal and communal. I became religious over this same time apart from any day school, but it makes sense of the pervasive apathy I see in the communities made up of such people, a disinterest at best of attracting people to the Judaism of the riotous remnant – the communally-committed Orthoprax, vacation-frei and suburban O resigners. Let any comers to Torah be drawn into the orbit of Haredi kiruv disneyland it seems. And even they’ve changed; the tag lines used to be about “search for truth”, basecamps for truth quests since abandoned for selling Jewish “pleasure principles”, etc, etc…

  7. Anonymous group member

    Although I don’t dispute that the 80’s and 90’s had their own particular cultural challenges, it could be that most of the members of this group happen to be from the 90’s (it is not “for” class members from the 90’s, it just HAPPENS to be the core group that joined — so far –are ages 30-40 or so) because people older than we are don’t use Facebook as much as we do, and people younger than we are are still too young to want to reflect back on their high school experience in a truly adult, mature, 20/20 way. A younger alum commented on the group to the effect that he can’t believe what losers we are, still talking about high school, and that we should “get over it.” We told him to wait another 5 or 10 years and perhaps he’d feel differently.

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