12/05/2008

In the Trenches: A Cri de Coeur from two Jewish generations

In the Trenches: A Cri de Coeur from two Jewish generations

By David Harris, Executive Director American Jewish Committee

I've never visualized myself as a matchmaker, but in this particular case, I'm more than happy to give it a try.

Last week, AJC held its 102nd Annual Meeting. Among the more than 1,200 registrants, we had large contingents of Jewish leaders from literally dozens of countries. Similarly, we were blessed by the presence of young Jewish leaders, many representing student and youth groups from around the world.

In the interstices of the five-day meeting, I met privately with as many of these individuals and groups as possible. It's important to know what's on their minds and to see where, if at all, we might be in a position to help.

At the risk of generalizing, while Israel's challenges, Iran's ambitions, Durban's repeat, terrorism's menace, and anti-Semitism's drumbeat all loomed high on the agenda, they yielded to another issue for "pride of place" at the top of the list.

Jewish leaders identified attracting and engaging Jewish youth to community ranks as their top challenge.

And Jewish youth identified being attracted and engaged to community ranks as their top challenge.

Sounds like a deal made in heaven, doesn't it? But, wait, it's not that simple.

The leaders - by the way, I can't resist noting that in my more than 30 years in organized Jewish life, I've yet to meet any Jewish followers, which may in the end explain the secret of our survival as a people - voiced concern that younger Jews can be tough to lure.

Whether it's because they appear to have little interest in organized Jewish life, insufficient time, itchy feet, inadequate patience for formal structures, or too much temptation from the larger world, the younger people are seen as an often shifting and elusive target.

Yet, without those younger people, the leaders rightly reason, what?s to be the future of Jewish communities? Who will fill the seats of the synagogues that were so lovingly built and maintained? Who will keep the schools, centers, and clubs thriving? Who will sustain the organizations that defend Jewish interests, advocate for Israel, raise funds for Jewish needs, and engage, as Jews, with other societal groups?

In sum, to whom will the leaders one day pass the baton in this extraordinary generational journey called the Jewish experience? They seem less certain, they say, of the future than those who preceded them and from whom they received that baton.

Let's set aside the very understandable, even predictable, anxiety that every generation has about what?s likely to follow, most cogently - and famously - captured in the legendary essay "Israel: The Ever-Dying People" by the late Brandeis University professor Simon Rawidowicz.

In 1948, he wrote of the trajectory of the Jewish people:

I am often tempted to think that this fear of the cessation in Israel was a kind of protective collective emotion. Israel has indulged so much in the fear of its end, that its constant vision of the end helped it to overcome every crisis, to emerge from every threatening end as a living unit, though much wounded and reduced. In anticipating the end, it became its master. Thus no catastrophe could ever take this end-fearing people by surprise, so as to put it off its balance, still less to obliterate it, as if Israel's incessant preparation for the end made this very end absolutely impossible.

A people dying for thousands of years means a living people. Our incessant dying means uninterrupted living, rising, standing up, beginning anew. We, the last Jews! Yes, in many respects it seems to us as if we are the last links in a particular chain of tradition and development. But if we are the last - let us be the last as our fathers and forefathers were. Let us prepare the ground for the last Jews who will come after us, and for the last Jews who will come after them, and so on until the end of days.

In this globalized era, when young people feel they have practically limitless opportunities on the world stage, it's entirely understandable that an older generation frets about the future.

But then the young people come along and, when probed, they're more likely to fret about the present. They have their own list of concerns, which are well worth considering.

High on the list is the sense that "concern for young Jewish leaders" is more a mantra than a mission. They cite many instances where they have felt a lack of support and sustained interest. Instead, they assert that they're often treated as "kids," to be seen but not heard. They are in their twenties and early thirties and are invoked as props, when needed, but not taken seriously.

Perhaps the most plaintive plea came from Olga Israel, the immediate past chair of the European Union of Jewish Students, who has eloquently written of the difficulties that her group, and its constituent national bodies, have had in being taken seriously and given adequate assistance.

But the issue, as these young people point out, is not simply about financial assistance, important though that may be, since they are not yet in a position to underwrite fully their own activities. It?s also about, as Olga has repeatedly said, recognizing that these young people are not only tomorrow's leaders, but today's.

They're on the map. They are in the frontlines in the struggle to defend Israel's good name in sometimes hostile campus settings. They are working within national, regional and international youth organizations to advance Jewish interests. They are forging ties with other groups, such as Rwandan survivors of the 1994 genocide, to advance Holocaust education and genocide prevention. They are learning the diplomatic tools required to stand up to hostile forces in the UN system. And they are seeking to instill a sense of Jewish joy, pride, and enrichment among their peers.

Moreover, these young and impressive Jews have so much to offer the rest of us. Obviously, there are the passion, idealism, and energy - the toolkit of every young generation. But also, in a world which is moving at breakneck speed in the realm of technology and communications, they can help us understand how to utilize effectively the extraordinary opportunities now available for enhancing advocacy, education, and connection. And they are the ultimate Jewish ambassadors in the global village - comfortable in a variety of settings, often fluent in several languages, and cross-cultural experts par excellence.

None of this is to suggest, heaven forbid, that the rest of us have become historical artifacts who have outlived our usefulness and should be shipped off to the family farm. Experience and youth ought to be complementary. It is to say that the generations need each other, as much now as ever. That means making place at the table for young Jewish leaders, supporting their efforts, and seeking their views.

Want to know how to reach disaffected young people who show little interest in Jewish life? Ask their peers who've discovered the beauty of our tradition. Want to figure out how to instill a sense of linkage to Israel and connection to Jews around the world in Jewish youth? Again, ask their contemporaries who have found answers for themselves. They may not always have all the responses, but surely they have insights and ideas well worth soliciting and pondering.

It may also mean, at times, changing the way we do business. Many young people I've met complain that Jewish life is overly bureaucratized, prone to endless discussions, rife with petty antagonisms, set in its ways, closed to out-of-the-box thinking, and replete with overbearing egos. Sound familiar? That's not exactly a calling card for those younger people with limited time on their hands, a romanticized view of the Jewish world, and a can-do spirit that seeks outcomes.

Rawidowicz was right. "Let us prepare the ground for the last Jews who will come after us...," he astutely wrote.

I heard a cri de coeur from two generations of Jews. It's a matchmaker's dream. Each needs the other. For those who care about "the last Jews who will come after us," it presents not only an immediate challenge, but, even more, a golden opportunity.

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