Generations and Generations and Generations
It’s 3:00 a.m. I’m sitting in a Jewish deli in New York City, eating blintzes with three high school-aged, second-generation Jewish believers. They are all on Halutzim, a teen mission trip I lead each summer, and we are in one of the most compelling conversations I’ve ever had. We’d been talking since 10:00 p.m. about their hopes, struggles, fears—what gets them excited, what makes them angry—and ultimately about their place in the Messianic community. They are telling me they’re not so sure such a place exists.
I’m 30 years old—in the middle of what many have called Generation X—and part of the next generation” of the Messianic community. It’s quite an interesting perch from which to look ahead and behind. Before me came the starters, the movers and the shakers who either began or revitalized many of the messianic ministries that thrive today. I consider many of these people my heroes in the faith and am grateful for their vision and their accomplishments. As I look over my shoulder, I see a generation of young people who are quite different. They have been raised immersed in technology—especially computers. To them the Holocaust is an established part of past history, not an ever-present factor in their identity today. Stories of how their great-grandparents struggled to make it to this country evoke interest, sympathy and appreciation but for the most part, not a sense of identification. When I look back, I see the future.
So what am I going to do, what are you going to do, to make sure a place of service, of belonging, does exist for them in the community of Jewish believers?
Three recurring issues surface in my conversations with this next generation of Jewish believers: Jewish identity, the challenges of believers in a post-modern world, and a desire to serve God as part of a unified body. I hope this article might play some part in your efforts to offer words of wisdom to our younger brothers and sisters in the faith concerning these things.
In her book, Generation J., author Lisa Schiffman describes herself as follows: “I’m part of a generation of fragmented Jews. We’re in a kind of limbo. We’re…between a desire to believe in religion and a personal history of skepticism. Call us a bunch of searchers. Call us post-holocaust Jews. Call us generation J.” If that describes young people in the broader Jewish community, it describes the young messianic community even more. “Who are we?” is a question I hear over and over again. Kids are asking: “Are we 1/2 Jewish and 1/2 Christian?” “What’s a 1/2 Jew?” “What’s a 1/2 Christian?” “Why do some people say that I’m not Jewish when I attend a Messianic Synagogue, eat kosher and am studying for my bar mitzvah?” Our Messianic youth have a particularly difficult road to walk. Without a foundation of tradition, without significant youth programs, and without a vision for the future, our young people are really without answers when it comes to challenges to their Jewishness. I imagine that many feel they are not in “a kind of limbo,” but in a DEFINITE limbo.
My own view is that the best we have to offer to young people asking questions about their Jewish identity isn’t another type of service or ritual, but a solid understanding of who they are from God’s Word. I know that some may disagree, but my Jewishness was never defined by worship style, eating habits or any other outward sign, and that has not changed since I received Yeshua. God alone has made us Jews and that’s something that this generation needs to understand.
The cover of a recent issue of Newsweek reads, “God, Sex, Race, and the Future: What teens believe.” You’ve heard about post-modernism and how it purports that there is no non-negotiable truth that holds true for all people at all times. An article in that same Newsweek issue, “Searching For a Holy Spirit,” describes how teens navigate through this post modern world—a world where there are no religious absolutes. “For the bulk of the nation’s 22 million teenagers, religion and spirituality entail a quest not for absolute truths but for ways to live among relative truths.” (Leland, John. Newsweek, May 8, 2000, 63.)
Many Jewish teens who stand for Yeshua today experience something different from the mocking or even persecution that those who went before them experienced. They may hear something like, “Oh you believe in Jesus and are Jewish. Cool.” Many young people are eager to see what works. In my experience, this generation is far more attracted to the book of Ecclesiastes than to any messianic prophecy. They want to know who God is and how knowing Him affects life. We need to keep this in mind as we explain the gospel to our children, and we need to learn from them as they come up with ways of relating the gospel to their friends.
Recently I was talking with a group of messianic college students about a situation that made them angry, passionately angry, in fact. One student recounted a situation in which an older believer from one mission told her to stay away from a believer from another mission. She was actually turning red in the face telling me! If there is anything that makes young Jewish believers run in the opposite direction, it is what they perceive as rivalries in the body of Messiah. I’ve had countless conversations with young believers who are close to throwing in the towel on the messianic world because they say it is ridiculous that we can’t all work together. When they sense grudges and distrust, they are not interested in who is right or wrong or why. They are simply turned off. This young generation of Jewish believers in Jesus is not loyal to a particular group, they are loyal to Yeshua, which is as it should be!
So what does this all add up to? A generation of serious thinkers searching for their identity, a generation devoted to discovering and knowing God, and a generation committed to love. Doesn’t sound so bad, does it?
So how do you encourage kids who, in a sense want to do what their parents did—but as normal teens, don’t want to do what their parents did? This emerging generation needs leadership and mentoring to be sure, but it also needs people willing to step out of the way. They need people who will say, “Give it a try. I’ll be right here in case you make a mistake, but you are going to take the lead on this one.” This same leadership needs to understand that the messianic community of the future will likely look quite different from how it looks today. What we are passing on to this next generation in terms of their place and their identity is a seed, not a full grown plant. What grows up in the years ahead might look a little different, it may lean in a different direction, grow a little taller or shorter, but it will have grown from the same seed, the same core—that Yeshua is the only hope for our people.
The challenge for the younger members of the Messianic community is: are you willing to stay and work to make this community yours, realizing that at times, your desire to do things differently may have more to do with asserting your individuality than building community, and that your elders have some wisdom that should not be cast aside? And for the older Messianic community: are you willing to begin stepping aside to allow others to adapt what you have built into something that they also can call their own? Are you willing to see that they possess a freshness and a wisdom that is sometimes right in refusing old ways, particularly where finger pointing and pride are concerned? These are the critical questions that we need to face if we want to keep some of our brightest and best within the community of Jewish believers in Yeshua.
Josh Sofaer is the leader of the Los Angeles branch of Jews for Jesus. He is one of four boys, but no one else in his immediate family have come to faith yet. Josh previously led the organization’s New York branch and pioneered their children’s program on the East Coast. He received his theological training at Western Seminary. He and his wife, Annette, have two children, Eliana and Taliah.