The Upgrade Generation

I often think about the kind of life my grandfather led.In his small Jewish neighborhood of Marrakesh, the days resembled each other — you worked, you prayed, you learned, you spent time with family and neighbors. The days and weeks followed the same Jewish pattern, year in and year out.

The environment also followed a predictable pattern: You were born without a phone, and you died without a phone. The same things that were there at the beginning of your life were there at the end. If anything caused agony or disrupted the rhythm, it was an unforeseen event, like an illness, accident or personal setback.

Rarely did Jews agonize over their Judaism. They were more likely to agonize over which tomato looked more ripe at the local souk.

Well, like they say, if my grandfather could see me now.

In particular, if he could have seen me last week while I attended a three-day conference in Atlanta called “The Conversation,” sponsored by The Jewish Week, which brought together Jews from across the country to engage each other on the big Jewish questions of the day.

There we were, at least 50 of us, agonizing, debating, challenging, questioning, brainstorming and schmoozing during every waking minute on subjects as weighty as the future of Judaism in America, and what it means to be Jewish in today’s world.

I can just see my grandfather, wherever he is, looking down and saying, in Arabic: “Daouid, my boy, are you feeling OK? Why don’t you lay down a bit?”

We are living in interesting times.

What I found most remarkable about my experience in Atlanta was how familiar it all felt. It reminded me of these business retreats with clients, where we spend days trying to reinvent and upgrade everything about a company. In those retreats, the big question is always: How can we better understand our consumers so we can better cater to them?

To answer this, we put everything on the table: Reinvent the product, eliminate failing programs, test new approaches, upgrade the technology, change the advertising, challenge all assumptions — in short, be open to anything that will make your brand more relevant to the consumer.

We did pretty much the same thing in Atlanta, but with Jews and Judaism.

Here’s a sampling of what we debated in break-out groups: Can personal Judaism be reconciled with communal Judaism? What’s the difference between Americanism and Judaism? How do we leverage tech trends to build community? Is compromising selling out? Is Birthright Israel useful or a waste? What are rabbis for? What’s the next big idea? Is there a distinction between Jewish values and human values? What do we teach our kids if we don’t believe what we were taught as kids? Do Jewish artists have any special obligations? Why can’t we talk about Israel without feeling like we’re being censored? And so on.

Believe me, I’m glad I brought my Tylenol.

For three days, we dissected Judaism like a group of Apple engineers trying to upgrade the iMac or create an iPod. We had Jewish “engineers” from all walks of life — professors, activists, spiritual leaders, musicians, community leaders, historians, a stand-up comic, a gay Orthodox rabbi, a poet, a Chabadnik, a New York Times reporter, a filmmaker, web geniuses and, yes, even a Sephardic Jew (me).

Now, you’re probably thinking: Did anything come out of this “conversation,” besides lots of e-mail addresses and a hangover from a great selection of kosher wines? The answer, of course, is that it depends on what each person took away.

I took away two things: One, I love my people more than ever. I can’t tell you what it feels like to spend three days with Jews who absolutely, undeniably and positively care about their Judaism. Sure, I didn’t agree with everything I heard, but like a client once said to me: “I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care.”

These Jews cared.

The second thing I took away is that Judaism in America is going through a whirlwind like we’ve never seen before. A generation of Jews has been raised on a culture of continual upgrades — with an ever-changing technology keeping this generation constantly wired, stimulated and connected.

Like the technology that fuels them, they want their Judaism “upgraded” so it can help them navigate their speedy lives. This means everything is open for debate and up for grabs — peoplehood, the synagogue, Zionism, community, prayer, rituals, philanthropy and denominations. In a 100 million blog world that glorifies personal expression, this group is not defined by their Judaism. Rather, they define their own Judaism, and only as one of many facets of their lives.

And these are the Jews that have not turned their back on their faith.

A lot of what we talked about in Atlanta was trying to understand this restless “upgrade generation,” and how — or whether — Judaism needs to adapt to become more relevant to them. We are at the beginning of this debate. Since we can only assume that the frenetic, wired world we have entered will only get more frenetic, the Jewish world should buckle up for a wild ride.

Luckily, Judaism can hold its own in this wild ride — because it already has a very big “buffet” that can appeal to a wide range of different tastes. We get in trouble when we focus on only one part of this buffet as if it’s the whole thing. That smells like dogma. If we can display all the spiritual, cultural, mystical, intellectual, historical, ritual, artistic and communal courses of the great Jewish feast — and invite Jews to partake in its many delights — maybe the new generation will stop dismissing or trying to “upgrade” Judaism, and, instead, will explore what’s being offered until they find something that turns them on.

And when they do, who knows, they might even marry Jewish, move to a Jewish neighborhood, make Jewish babies and become as predictable as my grandfather was.

Now that would be a serious upgrade.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and He can be reached at