‘Reboot’-ing Gen Y

A lot of aging lefty Jews long for the good old days when, as they recall, Jews and blacks marched together for civil rights and liberal rabbis thundered about
brotherhood and sisterhood from their pulpits.

But those memories are selective. Not all Jews and African Americans got along, and only a minority of blacks and Jews powered the fabled black-Jewish alliance. But they were an articulate and forceful minority.

Their ranks included such leaders as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who, after returning from the Selma civil rights march in 1965, wrote: “For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”

Nor did the Zionist movement have wide support at first. Its founder, Theodor Herzl, a secular journalist (characteristics with which I identify), was angered by European anti-Semitism. As Paris correspondent for the Viennese newspaper Neve Freie Presse in 1894, he covered the trial of the Jewish Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, who had been wrongly accused of treason. Observing the anti-Semitic Parisian mobs, Herzl wrote a small book titled “The Jewish State.” Jewish leaders ignored him. Only a few Jews supported him at first. But like Heschel, Herzl had the gift of language, plus remarkable organizational skills. Half a century after his book was published, Israel was born.

The latest incarnation of an articulate Jewish minority can be found among young adults who are blending their own culture and style in an effort to create a Jewish life relevant to the famously cynical, ironic Generation Y– those born sometime after 1980 and who graduated from high school or college around 2000. This generation will be to the future what the boomers were to the ’60s.

I am interested in anything that would shake the Jewish community out of its insularity — its reluctance to reach beyond its boundaries to tackle problems that affect both Jews and non-Jews, such as the abysmal state of public education.

So, on the advice of my friend Robin Kramer, chief of staff to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, I contacted an organization called Reboot, a name that refers to what you do to get your balky or slow-moving computer working again. I talked to Rachel Levin, one of the founders. Levin, 38, is assistant director of Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation. “Every generation has the responsibility to examine what it means to be Jewish for itself,” Levin told me.

But that’s not so easy for this group. In a survey, Reboot found that “for American Jews in Generation Y, being Jewish is not their sole identity …. Today’s young Jews have multiple identities shaped by many factors, including intermarriage in their families, diverse social networks and dynamic boundaries around geography and other identity characteristics such as gender and sexual orientation. Being Jewish is part of a larger identity mosaic for today’s Jews.”

Or as Levin put it, “we live in a world where identity is not compartmentalized.”

How do you get them together? Not in the temple sisterhood or at federation fund-raisers.

The model is sort of like MoveOn.org, or other online organizations that bring people together for political fund-raising, action or talk. Reboot’s magazine, Guilt and Pleasure, runs interesting pieces that might make good conversation. In Reboot salons, young men and women discuss their own experiences, articles from Guilt and Pleasure or life around them. They have talked about what Jewish food says about Jewish life; living in Los Angeles; being the “chosen people”; and, of course, life’s guilt and pleasures, always a good topic for Jews.

Levin enjoys the salons. The daughter of a rabbi, she graduated from Fairfax High School and the University Pennsylvania. She is the mother of two children, ages 7 and 3.

After college, she became a Coro fellow, a program that puts the best and brightest young people into internships in government and other places.

One of Levin’s internships was with the Los Angeles Sentinel, an African American newspaper, where she worked with the late Dennis Schatzman, a tough and perceptive black reporter whom I got to know during the O.J. Simpson trial.

Schatzman, she said, seized on the opportunity to teach this white, Jewish young woman about South Central Los Angeles. It was a time of great tension, just before the 1992 Los Angeles riots that followed the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King. Schatzman took her around the community. Tension was everywhere in those days, especially after an African American teenager, Latasha Harkins, was shot to death by a store owner who mistakenly thought the girl was shop-lifting. Levin attended a press conference on the case and, observing the anger, she learned a lot.

My interview with Levin became difficult when I asked her to translate her experiences into specific goals. Levin, I thought, was a bit too general. I told her that if I had interviewed Heschel, he would have been specific, talking about marching in the south. If I had interviewed Herzl, my notebook would have been filled with his plans for a Jewish state. Couldn’t she be more specific?

Being Jewish, she answered my question with a question of her own.

What would have happened, she asked, if you had interviewed Herzl when he first encountered anti-Semitism? He would have been furious about the bigotry, she said, but probably vague about what to do about it. His proposal for a Jewish state came later.

“Maybe when you interview me in 10 years, I’ll be able to be more specific,” Levin said.

She was absolutely right. Movements don’t start with specifics or 10-point plans. They start with people meeting up and talking. Ideas are generated, plans are made and one day, action is taken. It’s a slow process.

This is where Reboot is now. Perhaps from this generation — prompted by leaders like Levin — an articulate minority will emerge and point the Jewish community in a fresh direction, just as Heschel and Herzl did many years ago.

Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Bill Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a Metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at bw.boyarsky@verizon.net.