2011 CSJO Conference Keynote by Mark Neuman
Hello, bonjour. So, how's everyone doing today? I'm doing okay, thanks for asking. A little nervous, but it's understandable, right? Let me begin this speech by introducing myself to those of you who aren't familiar with me. I'm Mark. I was born and raised in West Philadelphia. In my youth, I spend most of my days playing basketball outside of my school. One day, I got in to one little fight and my mom got sc-. Oh wait, hold on. (throw cue card) Sorry about that. I'm actually from Vancouver. I attend the University of British Columbia where I'm studying Land and Food Systems. For everybody who doesn't know what Land and Food Systems are, look it up and tell me. I'm really not too sure. I'm also a member of the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture where I sit on the board of directors as the Communications Secretary. I'm also Canadian… like really Canadian. I have my speech in French for anybody who is interested. (hold up French speech) It had it lovingly translated by the brilliant minds at Babel Fish Translator.com. I also have taken the liberty to translate my speech in to Hebrew and Yiddish, but, in an effort to save time and money, I hired a monk to write it on a grain of rice. (hold up rice) You guys can share, right? (toss in to audience) Okay, time to get a down to business. I don't believe it is a stretch to say that continuity is the largest issue that is currently being faced by the Secular Jewish community. Across North America, everybody is facing the exact same problem; our members are aging, and very few new members are coming in. Not only that, but the members who do seem to come in don't often stick around or get involved in the larger community. Our united fear is that in a couple generations our culture will become extinct and frankly, that's terrifying. Our hopes for the future rest on new members. Seeing new faces in our midst creates peace of mind, financially and mentally, and provides relief, with the knowledge that our beliefs will live longer than us. Honestly though, this is only a short-term solution to the troubles we face. Continuity has a much, much larger impact in our communities. It creates the leaders of tomorrow. This is needed with absolute desperation in many groups. Actually, "tomorrow's" leaders were probably needed years ago. Every year, during the Peretz Centre's Third Seder, we applaud all of the people who are attending our Seder for the first time. I have a theory which states that we applaud because it means salvation. Our smiles say "look, new friends!" but our eyes say "please, please take my job. I don't even know what a communications secretary does! I've spent that last three board meetings finding an excuse to abstain from all of the votes and drawing penguins"… Ahem… In many organizations, the majority of the work is being done by a very small group of people many of whom feel that, if they were to leave, nobody would be there to take their place. My dad once said that the Peretz Centre was like a dragon boat, except our poor Program Coordinator Donna Becker was the only one rowing and everybody else was shouting "Stroke!" As the years go by, I get the feeling that "Stroke" will go from being a joke to a prophecy.
So, where does continuity come from? Let me start by saying that, in my opinion, I don't represent continuity. I actually think that I'm where continuity failed. I'll show you… I graduated from my B'nai Mitzvah class in 2003 with 12 classmates. (set up 13 cups) We spent our days discussing Jewish holidays and history and celebrities... everything. Now, many of us would consider that a victory. Look! Jewish children! And they're talking about Jewish things!... Mission Accomplished! But look at this. (stop to put a crown on one, and maybe a cape) Since the day I graduated, I haven't heard anything about 5 of them. (crush 5 cups) Of the remaining 8 of us, only 5 of us attend Peretz functions. (crush 3 more cups) Now 5 is not a bad number, but consider this. I'm blood related to 4 of them, (slide 4 cups behind the cup with a crown, then move 1 a little further away) although I sometimes wish I wasn't… This is the reason I'm not more connected with my community centre. This isn't going to be good news, but continuity in the Secular Jewish community has nothing to do with what the Secular Jewish community can offer. See, everybody seems to believe that to establish continuity; education comes first for our youth, then connections with other youth, and finally continuity occurs. This is completely wrong. What comes first, is connections with other youth, then continuity, then education. Take a second to think, how many of you met your best friend by talking about a math assignment with them, or working on a social studies project together? Unless you both happen to love math or social studies, I'd bet none of you. You met your best friend on a playground. Plutarch said "the mind isn't a cup to fill; it is a fire to be ignited." I think this fire is not igniting and this is where we are failing. Our youth aren't inquisitive and enthusiastic; they're bored, and likely somewhat resentful for us taking up their Sundays. We didn't drop the ball; we simply threw it in the completely wrong direction. So, yes, I'm a failure of continuity. I'm an opportunity lost. My group has been referred to as the 'lost generation'. And I'm pretty sure I know the reason. I wasn't given a chance to actually connect with any of them.
If our final goal is to see the growth of continuity, educating our children on Secular Jewish culture and customs needs to take a bit of a back seat. I'm not saying we need to stop, that would be ridiculous. What good is a secular Jewish upbringing if there is no secular Judaism? What I am saying is that, when kids are brought together, the emphasis shouldn't be on the lessons but on each other. Here's a good example. In 2009, the Peretz Centre set up a brief trial for a post-B'nai youth group. Of course, I was voluntold to run it. Due entirely to my inability to be organized, the first meeting of the youth group had 7 kids in attendance. We essentially threw them in a spare room, tossed in a couple bags of chips for good measure, and said "have fun." 2 hours later they had spent an hour playing hand-and-go-seek tag and had planned a bowling and sushi night. At that event, we had 21 kids show up. Now, you might think that, besides the sushi, the kids were not getting a Jewish education but at the next Passover Seder most of them were in attendance. This is what I'm getting at. We'd been struggling for years to get more youth turn out for Peretz events and suddenly, there it was. And all it cost was some time and a bag of cool ranch Doritos.
You're probably wondering, what's the take-away message here? It's simple. Kids love cool ranch Doritos. For the most part, they also like each other and CSJO is a testament to that. It's success isn't based on our workshops, or our brilliant keynote addresses… (pause) It's based on the people who surround us. We are never going to achieve growth if we spend the time with out kids trying to give them a complete education in Jewish culture. Their drive to educate themselves will come when they have a vested interest in the community as a whole.
Leave kids to their own devices and, as a great man once said, we're "never going to give you give you up, never going to let you down, never going to run around and desert you."