This past August the OU sponsored a Youth Conference that included Conservative Rabbis, sponsorship by non-orthodox institutions including JTS, and participation by leading liberal advocates of social action such as Ruth Messinger. This seemed an under-reported story; the reversal of a thirty year trend of insularity. In order to verify that this perception was correct, I emailed three participants for confirmation. They responded over the holidays. Hence, I am only getting to it now.
In the 1980’s, OU Orthodoxy stopped attending events where the other denominations had representatives. This change and the rhetoric created was collected by Jack Wertheimer in his A People Divided: Judaism in Contemporary America (1993). Wertheimer’s angle was the decline of the Conservative movement as the vital center . More recently, Adam Ferziger documented the breakdown of this divide in paternal situations of kiruv; Orthodoxy feels it can participate in their events and enter liberal institutions in order to teach them. Now we have a return to working together.
The program had a focus on the trendy topics of spirituality, social media, social justice and organizational management. They sought to bring together best practices and have mutual learning. They had Ruth Messinger on social action and equal time to an opponent of social action. They created a rouges gallery of Chabad and JTS, social action and Aish haTorah, 36 under 36 meets AJWS, Camp Ramah and Federation. Session speakers included Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt of the RJC and Rabbi Yael Buechler a graduate of Jewish Theological Seminary speaking on manicure midrash. Media included the formerly hip JEWCY, the hip G-dcast and general media consultants. Sexuality was discussed by a liberal participant as sexuality, not the Centrist euphemism of “intimacy.”
The program was disproportionally Orthodox but something had changed. Even on youthcon’s own blog we find:“I felt as if no ideas were off limits.”
An anonymous senior NCSY official who was there wrote the following in an email query:
I think Youthcon is an attempt not to solve – the denominational issue – but to ignore it – in light of accomplishing something more important. We are all facing similar challenges in engaging the next generation of youth. Those of us “on the ground” are beginning to see assimilation turn from statistics – to real time numbers issues – in running programming. The well of traditional – but not observant kids – is drying up – and it is becoming increasingly challenging to engage “unaffiliated” Jewish teens. I think youthcon is trying to put aside the denominational issues – and not talk about difference – and not debate and resolve differences – but simply ignore them so that we can share ideas and emerge with new models and approaches. I think the openness is refreshing – and I may not agree with the presence of every speaker – but I am comfortable attending a conference with them for this purpose.
Another person wrote me that he still cringed at some of the talks for their provincialism.
The language of Youth Con is similar to the language used about the Mormon YouthCon and the Baptist YouthCon. New models from the American religious landscape are being used.
In prior posts, we have seen that Rabbi Burg expressed interest in Mormon outreach models and that he reversed the ascetic Nahmanides to express an Eyn Od Milvado” embrace of the world. However, one of my inside sources wrote that Burg was “bringing greater creative vision to the different departments of the OU and pushing them beyond their comfort zones.” If he keeps up this work, Burg may find himself in the list of the Newsweek top 50 rabbis.
I saw an under-reported story but one of those who supplied information thought the most notable part was that “the salmon was great, as was the dessert table.”