Los Angeles — The Jewish community is obsessed with continuity and survival, worrying endlessly about attracting the younger generation to Jewish life, especially since polls show that Jews in their 20s are less committed than their parents to affiliation with synagogues, organizations and Israel. Who, the elders wonder, will be the communal leaders of the future, both lay and professional?
Ironically, but not surprisingly, a select group of 150 Jews in their 20s who took part in a unique three-day conference here last week voiced concerns that they lacked access to and were being ignored by the very community that seeks to attract them.
The sponsors of the conference were philanthropists Michael Steinhardt of New York, Lynn Schusterman of Tulsa and Bill Davidson and Eugene and Marcia Applebaum of Detroit. They created the program, known as the Professional Leaders Project (PLP), in an attempt to help young people learn about opportunities in the community and, through a series of focus groups, help the community understand how it is perceived by Generation Yers.
The sense of disconnect between the organized community and the younger generation was palpable throughout the conference, whose subtext was networking as a means of bridging the gaps. Rhoda Weisman, the energetic executive director of the newly formed PLP, stressed from the outset that the conference was all about making connections, personally and professionally. “We want to inspire you to choose a career in Jewish life,” she said at the opening session, and to hear what the attendees had to say about bringing change to the community. And Robert Aronson, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit and key founder of the PLP, told the group: “I’d like each of you to feel a door has been opened” to the possibilities for a Jewish future.
Still, what came out in focus groups and open-mike sessions was that while many of the participants wanted in, they felt closed out. These young men and women — college and graduate students or recent grads working for non-profits, including Jewish organizations — were by no means typical of their generation. At least one-third of them had been on birthright israel trips to Israel, many of them had attended Jewish schools or camps or youth groups, and all of them were intrigued enough by the invitation to attend the conference and explore the possibility of working for the community and to share their perceptions of it.
Sarah Myers, who works for the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles and was one of about 20 young people who helped planned the conference over several months, described her peers as “educated, hungry and resourceful,”
searching for truth and meaning and “ready to be inspired and to inspire.” But even though these young people were far more committed to Jewish life than an average cross-section of Jews their age, many were either baffled by or turned off to how the organized community operates.
A young woman from New York questioned how she could work for the Jewish community when she is made to feel that she must support Israel “at all costs.” A young man from the Midwest wondered what was being done to improve efficiency among Jewish defense organizations that seemed to have overlapping goals. A number of participants complained about being made to feel they must pay their way into the community, from synagogue dues to day school tuitions. Others described rabbis and Jewish leaders as intolerant of those with non-traditional beliefs. And several warned not to assume that they were opposed to intermarriage; indeed a significant percentage of the participants were the product of such unions.
Unlike most Jewish conferences, this one had a genuine sense of openness and willingness to listen. Among the innovative sessions on the program were three “town hall” meetings for participants to offer suggestions and voice concerns; a rousing “Friday Night Live” Sabbath prayer service (on Monday night) with Craig Taubman, an L.A.-based musician, composer and producer, with his band; offerings in theater, literature and music from young artists-in-residence; study sessions on Judaism, Israel and other issues with rabbis and educators; and a mentoring program where professionals in the Jewish community met one-on-one with interested young people. (A select group of about 20 participants stayed on an additional two days to “shadow” professionals in the Los Angeles Jewish community and learn more about what they do.)
I attended the conference to teach, mentor and report, but mostly to learn — from the participants and the planners — about what was on the mind of these talented young people and how best to reach them. In the mentoring sessions and private conversations, I was struck by the level of accomplishment already achieved: a business journalist who, at 27, has spent a year reporting at The Jerusalem Post and has completed a business-related book due out this winter; a former National Public Radio producer who wants to get an advanced degree and work for a Jewish organization but is not sure which one; a multi-talented young woman unsure whether to use her graduate degree, try journalism or follow up on an entrepreneurial business plan she wrote.
Money did not come up as a major factor in these and other conversations. The people I met were looking for meaning in their careers and for ways to connect their professional and personal lives. They wanted to know if working in the Jewish community could fill that need for them.
A number of Jewish professionals say that while attracting young people to the field is a major issue, the toughest problem is retention three to five years down the line. That’s because, with a few exceptions, the pay is low, the training is poor, and respect is lacking. What’s really needed is sweeping change in a system that claims it wants to attract the best and the brightest but makes little effort to do so in a serious way. Women still lag behind in promotions to top jobs; lay leaders often clash with professionals about how best to run an organization; and executives spend too much time raising money and carving out a niche for their organization among the myriad of similar groups out there.
“If this group of 20-somethings can be used as a wedge to shake up the system, that would be exciting,” one Jewish professional observed. “But if the goal is just to get them into the system, it’s doomed to failure.”
The jury is still out on the initial PLP attempt; the data compiled from the focus groups and questionnaires needs to be digested and analyzed. But what’s promising is that the founders are committed to making PLP (www.jewishleaders.net) an ongoing effort, dedicated to working with and nurturing a new generation of Jewish professionals. It will focus on a key segment of the community that until now has been allowed to drift, in part because federation executives have concluded it’s not worth the effort to fund-raise among them.
“They don’t have much income and tend not to be involved in the community until a decade or so after college, when they’re married, have young children and are looking for a Jewish nursery school,” one fund-raiser told me about the 20-something generation. “That’s when they resurface and we find them.”
But how many talented young Jews are lost forever to the community, alienated by the lack of outreach or interest during their post-college years? Assuming they will want to come back is a gamble we can’t afford.
One final challenge to veteran Jewish professionals: recognize the need for new definitions of identity and affiliation in understanding the younger generation. They may not join their parents’ shuls or organizations, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t forming their own services (like Hadar in New York and the DC Minyan in Washington) or struggling in their own way to bring their Jewish values to their jobs in business.
Dan Jossen, a participant at the PLP conference, helped me appreciate that point. Jossen taught for two years in a Washington, D.C., public school as part of the Teach for America program and is now a program associate at Panim: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values. He believes that many of his peers who attended the conference will become involved in organized Jewish life at some point, though “we may well demand changes to the Jewish Establishment before we join it.
“In many ways,” he said, “we are mirror images of the diverse programs we were offered over the years. Our choices sometimes appear at odds with one another — for example, Jewish activism on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — but many of them are based on Jewish values and our internalized sense of what it means to be a Jew.”
Most important, then, is to recognize and value that while the younger generation may not want to duplicate their parents’ ways, it doesn’t mean their interest in bringing Jewish ideals into their lives is any less.