Jewish Telegraphic Agency
Heeb. Matisyahu. Guilt & Pleasure. Times are flush if you are a young, culturally-minded Jew.
Indeed, the last few years have seen an explosion in artistic and cultural activity by and for Jews. For example, Matisyahu, a Chasidic reggae singer, has sold more than 500,000 albums. And Heeb, a Jewish magazine aimed at young, hip Jews, has been the subject of much chatter and numerous articles in the mainstream media.
|The debut issue of Guilt & Pleasure, a new Jewish literary journal that, along with a host of other creative ventures, is geared for the young and hip.|
"There's a mammoth market for this," said Roger Bennett, publisher of Guilt & Pleasure, which defines itself as "a magazine for Jews - and the people who love them," and which sold out its first issue in November.
With intermarriage rampant, synagogue membership among young Jews on the decline and a general sense that younger Jews are less connected to Judaism, Jewish communal leaders are on the lookout for ways to get the younger generation to connect, and to engage them in a conversation about Jewish identity, community and meaning.
Some of these young people, and, increasingly, some of their elders, say that the way to their hearts, minds and pocketbooks is through artistic and cultural exchange: Jewish music, books, movies and art.
But along with this explosion of creativity come many questions. At its recent conference in Denver, the Jewish Funders Network offered several panels and discussions on the place of arts and culture in today's Jewish milieu. At the conference and beyond, Jewish thinkers are asking whether the arts should be viewed as a gateway to further Jewish involvement, or are valuable as a destination in and of themselves.
The debate may be meaningless to a group of Jews dancing at a Matisyahu concert, but it has practical applications in terms of funding for Jewish culture. Artistic endeavors cost money, and the people with the money tend not to be the same young people attracted to reggae music, even if it is being sung by a guy in a long beard and black hat.
Others, while acknowledging culture's appeal, wonder whether such pursuits are likely to produce committed Jews or are apt to fizzle out.
"I think that everything that we've learned in the last 100 years teaches us that the bonds of religion are actually much stronger than the bonds of culture," said Jonathan Sarna, a professor at Brandeis University and a leading commentator on American Jewish history.
Still, Sarna believes that just as venture-capital firms fund numerous startups knowing full well that only a few will succeed, some Jewish cultural initiatives - those that appear, for instance, to be successful and cost-effective - ought to be funded by the community.
'Numbers Exceed Expectations'
It is clear these cultural endeavors are popular.
Ari Kelman, a research fellow at Hebrew Union College, recently completed two studies of contemporary Jewish culture in New York along with sociologist Steven M. Cohen.
He discussed the findings at the funders conference.
"The numbers exceed anybody's expectations," he attested. "People are dying for it."
Young Jews, the studies found, are less and less interested in taking part in activities that are strictly Jewish. And while taking part in a Jewish cultural activity may not spur many to join a synagogue or give to their local federation, they may go to another cultural event.
Funders young and old are having to grapple with this new phenomenon.
"The generation that is older has to understand that engagement that looks different than the way they engaged is still engagement," said Danielle Durchslag, 25, of New York, a board member of the Nathan Cummings Foundation and a founding member of Grand Street, a network of twentysomethings who are involved in their family philanthropies.
For Sarna, the long-term implications of approaching Jewish culture as a destination rather than a gateway to involvement are troubling.
"If it remains a destination," he stated firmly, "then I fear that we may find that many of these Jews deeply committed to secular, cultural Judaism may discover that their children and grandchildren are happy to view that culture as part of their ancestral background, but will not see the same need to pass it on to their generational offspring."