Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Cool/Uncool Cycle

Recently, EstherK posted a great blog entry, her Manifesto:  Social Media and Jewish Organizations. In it, she made a great observation, while commenting about the changing dynamics on FaceBook, as more and more older folks were joining up, and younger folks were starting to leave. She wrote:

anywhere that their parents go regularly becomes a little less cool - which might B its own lesson 4 Jewish organizational life

Yes, Esther, there certainly is a lesson for Jewish organizational life in there. However, I’m not sure what the lesson is, or how obvious it is—for one primary reason. For the most part, the parents of students in supplementary Jewish education do NOT regularly participate in synagogue life (some hardly even participate in the small portion of synagogue life that directly involves the religious school.) Thus, by definition, since parents don’t seem to want to be at shul, isn’t shul a place where the teens and tweens should want to be, if for no other reason than that their parents aren’t there?

What are we overlooking here? Why isn’t the mass absence of parental presence like a beacon to the teens and tweens flashing “it’s cool here, because your parents aren’t here."?” The obvious answer is, of course, that the parents are requiring their teens and tweens to go to religious school and events at the synagogue. Here’s a radical thought—what if parents stopped insisting, and instead made a big, loud, and obvious fuss about how they would never be caught dead at shul? All of a sudden, being at religious school, youth and teen events, maybe even services, could climb way up in the “cool” department.

Perhaps it might be more interesting to have  a shul full of teens and tweens engaging and socializing, instead of bored adults ortho-mumbling their way through the motions (or, on the opposite end, new-age adults seeking their spiritual connection, chanting and drumming their way to nirvana, and spending 20 minutes on each and every syllable of the Shema.)

If older folks stopped using FaceBook in droves, would there be a resurgence of usage by younger people? Or has the “disturbance in the force” been enough to permanently taint FaceBook’s status and send the younger folks out to become part of the next big thing? Can “cool” status be re-attained once it has been lost? Is Jewish education doomed forever to be uncool? I sure hope not.

As a Jewish educator, I’ve always worked to make my school a “cool place to be.” I wonder, however, how much of that “cool” was only in my imagination. Does there mere fact that schools are being run by (for the most part) older adults make them permanently uncool, with no hope of redemption?

Shall we try an experiment? Should we ask parents everywhere to stop insisting their students go to religious school, and participate in synagogue life, while mounting a clandestine viral campaign through FaceBook to let the kids know “hey, there’s no adults around shul – it must be the coolest place to be.” Perhaps in no time at all, our religious school and youth groups will be overwhelmed with active, happy participants. Jewish kids will have found a place as cool to be as FaceBook. Judaism and Jewish education will experience a resurgence. Synagogues will become as hip as mosh pits or raves once were (hm-what are the modern equivalents of those now ancient but once cool things?)

Then, curiosity will set in, and adults will begin to wonder why all the kids seems to be hanging out at the synagogue all the time. A few intrepid early adopters will get their feet wet attending some Adult Ed program, or a service, or some social event at the synagogue. Before long, more and more adults will be coming to shul  just like more and more adults began to join FaceBook.

Then the cycle will begin again. The kids will realize “the shul is becoming uncool – too many adults here. Let’s go somewhere else.”

Are we forever doomed to repeat this tail wagging the dog cycle? How can we break out of it? How can we create a world in where there is a larger area of shared “cool” between the young and the old, with great respect for young and old alike at times choosing to be in areas that aren’t cool to the others?

Please help me believe that I haven’t chosen to dedicate my life to something that will forever be totally uncool.

Adrian (aka Yoeitzdrian aka Migdalorguy)

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