The Youngers Of Zion
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Nashville, Tenn.  — The tone of this year’s General Assembly (GA) of the United Jewish Communities was set from its opening moments when 300 college students marched into the vast ballroom of the Gaylord Opryland Convention Center on Sunday, waving school pennants, to the loud cheers of the adult delegates. The Hillel contingent made up about 10 percent of the estimated 3,000 participants at the 48-hour conference, billed as the largest annual gathering of Jewish leadership in the world, with Yeshiva University's 35 students the largest collegiate group. The dramatic entrance was an exciting moment, symbolic of the hope the organized Jewish community has that younger Jews will join the ranks of those committed to building and supporting the enterprise of Jewish collectivity. But studies indicate otherwise, showing that for the most part, Jews in their 20s and 30s feel far less connected to and interested in organized Jewish life and Israel than their elders — a matter of deep concern to communal officials. Whether out of pragmatism, devotion or desperation — or a combination of all three — the leadership of UJC, the Jewish federation movement of North America, chose to feature the next generation at this GA, front and center. In showcasing the efforts of those young people who are involved in innovative projects promoting Jewish life, UJC sought to send a message to communities across the U.S. and Canada that attention must be paid to the next generation before they become alienated to the extent that the future of federations will be in jeopardy. Some say it may already be too late, that the federation movement is in a steady decline. Critics note that UJC’s impressive fundraising numbers — the annual campaign brought in $900 million last year from 155 member federations in the U.S. and Canada — are coming from a smaller and increasingly older group of Jews. And philanthropic trends show that the minority of younger people who are interested in philanthropy prefer hands-on, or boutique, giving rather than the centralized giving that is the core of the federation system. So there is every reason for federations to reach out to younger people, but there is also a growing awareness that federations will have to change their approach if they are to survive and flourish. Howard Rieger, UJC president and CEO, told the delegates that “the consistent theme of this GA is the power of the collective,” which he called “our core mission,” adding that there is no guarantee that today’s younger Jews will assume the same degree of communal responsibility. But he said “we need to understand” the next generation “rather than lecture them because they have much to teach us.” This was the GA where the UJC establishment appeared ready to listen. Two years ago the conference devoted a plenary to the innovative work of young people but it was the closing session and many delegates had left. Last year’s GA, taking place just three months after Israel’s difficult war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, focused on an emergency fundraising campaign to help provide social services for Israelis who suffered from the war. Aside from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s address on Tuesday, making the case for high-level Israeli-Palestinian negotiations despite the high risks (see JTA Q&A with Rice on page 30), Israel was given a relatively low profile at this GA; few Israeli dignitaries were visible and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was not a presence, even by video. Lifting Morale This year it was the next generation that was highly visible, with younger people included on more panels, and an innovative plenary on Monday that featured social action, social networking and social entrepreneurship by highlighting the diverse efforts of seven young people. The host of the session was Ari Sandel, who charmed the delegates in telling how he turned a USC master’s thesis in film several years ago into “West Bank Story,” a musical comedy he called “dopey” but which won him an Academy Award in the Short Film category. It’s a light-hearted treatment of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, telling the story of two competing fast food companies, one Arab and one Jewish. Sandel’s overall theme, he said, was that “hope is not hopeless,” and he told of the welcoming reception the film has had around the world, including among Arabs. The other presenters, whose projects are funded in part through the federation system, included Sarah Chasin, a 21-year-old student at George Washington University, who spent a year as a volunteer helping students in Mississippi, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina; two Israelis who founded Ayalim, a program that combines college studies with working with youngsters in villages in the Negev and Galilee; Idit Klein, the director of Keshet, a group that seeks inclusivity in the Jewish community for gays, lesbians and transgender Jews; Esther Kustanowitz, a writer for a number of publications (including The Jewish Week) and blogger, who spoke of the need for more “techno-literacy” in the Jewish community; and Daniel Sieradski, director of digital media at JTA, who called for the creation of a “Jewish Robin Hood Fund for micro-giving and taking” to help grant makers and grant seekers connect. “We’re desperate for each other’s attention,” he said of young innovators and the federations. “You need us and we need you.” Many delegates felt the session was a highlight of the GA, but Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, noted that while the presenters were “impressive,” they represent only a tiny minority of their peers in terms of connection to Jewish life, and their projects attract a similarly small number of fellow young Jews. He said the GA programs featuring young innovators were good for raising morale but did not deepen the conversation on how to deal with “the big issues” posed by the lack of interest in organized Jewish life among the large majority of younger Jews. “Maybe the GA is not the forum for moving the conversation forward,” he said, observing that the emphasis on the next generation at the conference seemed to reflect “the anxiety of baby boomers and older leaders” in the community that “we have to do something for young people.” Zionism vs. Peoplehood One of the prime buzzwords at the GA was “peoplehood,” and there were two sessions on Jewish peoplehood — what it means, whether it is being lost after centuries of cohesiveness, as recent studies show, and what can be done to strengthen the sense of Jews around the world caring for each other. Indeed, the title of this year’s GA was “One People, One Destiny.” John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of UJA-Federation of New York, moderated one of the sessions and pointed out that seven years ago his organization ended the distinction between domestic and overseas services, and moved from agency-based planning to mission-based planning. “We are part of a global Jewish community,” he said, giving funds to Jews in Kiev, Israel and New York, depending on the level of need. Gidi Grinstein, founder and president of the Re’ut Institute, an Israeli think tank, posited that Zionism in Israel “bred arrogance and ignorance” in terms of caring little about diaspora Jewry. For centuries, he said, Jews were connected through ritual and religious beliefs. A century ago nationalism was added to the mix. But today, he said, the concept of Jewish peoplehood is challenged by the loss of millions of Jews in the Holocaust; Zionism's call to disband diaspora Jewry in favor of aliyah; and the openness of freedom of choice in an age of remarkable personal autonomy. “We need to rebuild and strengthen the network,” Grinstein said, calling for more study of Hebrew by Jews around the world, and more Jewish learning and content for non-observant Jews. (He described a “backlash” among many young Israelis who resent their parents’ generation for not providing them with sufficient Jewish and religious knowledge, noting that many are seeking spirituality and opportunities for Jewish study.) At a session featuring young leaders discussing peoplehood, David Bryfman, an Australian-born educator, said the teens with whom he works do not feel a shared common destiny with Jews around the world — their peoplehood is with their peers, he said. Ahava Zarembski, founder and president of the Israel-based Yesod-Masad Initiative, which provides strategic planning on issues of Jewish peoplehood, described the growing polarization in Israel between religious and secular Jews, and in America between those Jews who are engaged in Jewish life and the large majority who are not. She said the Jewish establishment “has to transform itself” in thought and action from a structure of “hierarchy” to one of “networking” with youth. Panelists at both sessions called for increased Jewish education as the primary means of making young people aware of their Jewish identity and history. Other highlights of the conference: Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean had even Democrats squirming when he gave a highly partisan political talk at the opening plenary and said the Bush administration has “squandered” America’s “moral authority” in the world; GA scholar in residence Rabbi Jacob Schacter spoke eloquently at the opening and closing plenaries, saying “our challenge is not survival but revival,” and calling for improvement rather than perfection; University of Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl lit up the GA with a high-energy talk about his Jewish pride. His key message – “focus on what you’re good at and become great at it” – could well apply to a UJC that still seems to be casting about for a brand for itself, puzzling even Federation executives seeking a clearer message from the national umbrella organization. But for this GA at least, the focus was on youth. E-mail: Breaker: “We’re desperate for each other’s attention,” one speaker said of his fellow young innovators and the federations. “You need us and we need you.”

Last Update:

10/09/2009 - 09:59

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