Speaking to More Than One Generation at the Same Time

In a review of Jewish sermons, speeches, and articles across denominations, one of the salient themes is the use of secular facts, figures, and arguments that are brought into a religious context. The greater world is understood as complimenting and enhancing our beliefs and our religious worldviews. Obviously, this overview is broad and there are many instances where the denial of reality comes to the fore. Climate change is one of those instances, even in the well-educated niches of the Jewish world.

Many climate organizers have experienced a huge gap in perceptions between the oldest and youngest adult cohorts. When I speak to audiences that skew older, the most common question is, “Is climate change really going to happen the way ‘they’ say it is?” When I speak to younger crowds, the most common question is “Are ‘they’ doing anything to help? This gap in the generations is documented both statistically and anecdotally.

Lacking in these conversations is a successful melding of the adult generations to address climate change to act effectively. This great divide is reflected in part by the low numbers of young families and young couples affiliating with synagogues or identifying with UJA or JCCs, or any number of Jewish social justice entities, most of whom are demographically older. ‘They’ do not want to be where ‘they’ are.

For anyone attempting to expand their message to different demographics, understanding this divide is crucial. The two largest pools of volunteers in climate change organizations is under age 32 and over age 65 with professional staffing typically populating the age cohorts in between. These two volunteer groups approach the issue differently, not even using the same vocabulary for the same phenomena unless they are specifically trained to do so.

Despite the communications, volunteers are not where the organizing needs to be unleashed. Building for consensus on climate change actions a series of minefields. Some organizations avoid disparate age cohorts. Interfaith Power & Light (IPL) skews older while Sunrise Movement targets the youngest adults. However, a Jewish response to Climate Change requires an embrace of all Jews, regardless of age. Thus, organizing is more complicated in the Jewish world than a few broadcast emails. The message changes, images must be substituted, and even the vocabulary must be examined.

A fresh example of this age cohort divide has been published on the web in a secular setting with unsettling political tones suffusing the conversation. (Political organizing also operates differently by age cohort.) The conversation is heated. The author/moderator unpacks the exchange between the two cohorts. While I wanted to dismiss one side or the other with a judgment of the personality of the speaker, the autopsy of the exchange convinced me that the voices are representative. Reflecting on my own experience as well, I have experienced this divide but was unable to bring it into focus. You can read the write-up and watch the conversation here.

Imagine the young woman who chooses climate change for her Bat Mitzvah project and she chooses one on the Aklim website. With a clear presentation within the Shabbat speech and a foam-core board presentation at the service and party, this research demonstrates that the student is only communicating to her age cohort. The ideal of the Bat Mitzvah project is communicating to the entire congregation though; after all, her Bat Mitzvah is a congregational event. Therefore, effective transmission of the student’s project is dependent upon the synagogue committee or the assigned staff person to magnify this student’s work to the greater congregation. The same motif of translating and rebroadcasting for different age cohorts holds true for Jewish agencies and organizations as well.

When it comes to organizing for Climate Change in the Jewish community, there is no such creature as an effective one-shot program. Whatever role Jewish institutions take in the fight to pass Climate Change legislation, the role will be a process, a series of mixed programs instead of one group executing one task.

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