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David Yarus: Connecting Jewish millenials

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David Yarus (Danielle Perelman photo)

David Yarus is the founder of JSwipe, a Tinder-like app for Jews. He was in Toronto on June 12 for The House’s annual JEDx talks.

What have you learned since you founded JSwipe in 2014?

I have developed a much deeper understanding of the millennial Jewish experience. How is it distinctly different than that of generations past, our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, what are our values, what are we looking for in life and in Judaism? I believe that the entire context of how people are identifying religiously or spiritually, and the practice of tradition, is changing.

Millennials, including Jews, are known to be the least traditionally religious generation in recent history. What I’ve learned is that there’s a disconnect between them and the governing bodies of the Jewish world, which are run primarily by our grandparents’ and parents’ generations, with agendas and programming and interests driven by those cohorts.

Much of that isn’t resonating with the modern Jewish experience or the millennial mindset. I feel that I have a pretty solid understanding of what I call “Big Jewish,” which is all of the infrastructure and foundations and federations and powers that be, and their interests. But I also feel fully embodied as a modern millennial Jewish person. So I’ve found real meaning and a calling in playing a role as a bridge between the two.

What is the disconnect between Big Jewish and millennial Jews?

Our parents’ and grandparents’ generations experienced the world differently than us. We’ve grown up in a much more global, universal, empowered experience. We connect and understand ourselves, each other, community and the world in different ways.

I believe if you talk to most federations, most synagogues, people are pretty alarmed at the disinterest, or lack of engagement, among younger community members. Personally, I believe it’s because Big Jewish is pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into what’s essentially the Jewish Oldsmobile, to try to push it forward and appeal to us, while Jewish millennials want the Jewish Tesla. I don’t know specifically what that means, or what that looks like, but I know that it’s distinctly different than an Oldsmobile.

The question then becomes: how do we get there? How do we empower the younger members of our community to co-create, in their image, the Jewish future that they want to be a part of? Right now, we have these puppet boards, where you donate a certain threshold of dollars and put your name on the Facebook event that they have and send out a bunch of invites. And to be honest, I think everyone’s starting to see through it.

But when I go to these global convenings of the Jewish world – it has all the lay leaders and professionals from all around – they seem to me to be a little more like pep rallies than having vulnerable, honest, reflective dialogue around why the majority of younger Jews are not connecting in the ways that we have. It’s not: Why are they finding community connection, vulnerability, conversation and love elsewhere? And what can we do about that today, with them? What do they want? What do they care about?

That’s not the conversation that’s happening. It’s usually, “Bring everyone together, all of this is great, look at how many good things we’re doing and, by the way, here’s a token millennial panel for about an hour.” And that’s cool, that’s fine, but for me, that’s not something I’d bet on.

What would you like to see?

The difference is, for me, the core premise is a couple of things. One of them is, there’s this idea that the millennials are walking around, missing their Jewish neshamah, and life would be much better if they were only turned onto it.

My personal belief is: none of my friends who are Jewish but not particularly engaged (which are, I think, most of them) are walking around feeling empty or sad. They’re walking around feeling particularly fulfilled and engaged with communities – alternative communities, alternative activities, alternative ways of filling what 50 years ago Jewish community structure filled for the community.

The questions are: Why is that happening now? What does the Jewish future look like, a future that all Jews can care about? And what can we start doing today to get there?

I personally feel that I don’t see enough of those conversations. Instead, I see that the most innovative Jewish programming and the most innovative Jewish entrepreneurship, other than the few biggies that are the core of the system, tend to be lone wolf, on their own, trying to figure it out and spending more time figuring out how to sustain their organization than actually doing the innovation that I think they’re so good at.

It’s a shame, because the system is not designed for innovation, it’s designed for upkeep. Different communities have different levels of openness to innovation. That’s the general idea. The powers that be have a different way of living and experiencing their Judaism and the world than we do as millennials. If there isn’t real, authentic dialogue and sharing between the two, and co-creation from there, of what we all collectively would like the Jewish future to look like, I’m concerned that people will continue to grow less engaged and continue to fill the void with all sorts of other things that are now easily accessible to them and non-dogmatic.

READ: INSPIRING JEWS SHARE THEIR STORIES AT JEDX

You may not know exactly what that Jewish Tesla looks like, but what are some characteristics that might define it?

My core struggle is a question that I was only recently able to express: what is the role of particularism in universalism? Personally, I had a very affiliated upbringing. I grew up in Miami Beach, Fla. I went to Jewish day school, shul every Friday night, Shabbat, kosher, the whole shebang. I went on Birthright, I learned in Israel, I did all those things.

I personally identify first as a human, then as a universalist, which means to me that everyone’s truth is equally true to them as mine is to me. This is my flavour, my frequency, but I respect and love everyone else’s. And yet, I spend most of my days actively working on building a Jewish future and working on the Jewish community.

And so, I grapple with things within Judaism that disconnect us. Like the idea of the Chosen People – the phrasing, it makes me feel uncomfortable. So my question is: in a growingly universal human experience, what is the role of particularism and a particular identity? And how then does my Jewish identity, which is equally true for me, play into that? Through exploration and through conversation and through contemplation, I have found that that is a shared question by many of the people that I’m talking to who are sort of on this journey with me.

I get that. It’s important for me to be Jewish, but also important to be part of the broader society as a whole, and I’m not always sure how to balance those things.

For sure, yes. I think that is correct and that’s what I’m contemplating. One other thing I find fascinating: much of Jewish experience is based on our history of persecution, which leads Judaism to function seemingly from a wounded state, from a state of fear. We have to stay alive, we have to maintain, have more Jewish babies.

Not to downplay that, because I understand how that would be the frame of mind with much of recent and ancient history, but now, in a world where, at least in the communities that you and I live in, where we are much more integrated into society, we have the freedom and the pleasures of designing and creating lives in any which way that we choose. What would it look like for Judaism to function from a state of love or abundance, rather than a state of fear? That’s a newer exploration for me, but it’s an interesting one because it’s mostly connected to the universalism piece.

I hope I don’t come off dismissing much of what is. I have great respect for what is and what was. But like any other modern brand or product, innovation is key to remaining relevant and my hope is that we can have real, meaningful dialogue about what that looks like in the Jewish world.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity

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