It comes as no surprise that in a world where many neglect the importance of community, iPhones, iPods, iMacs and iPads constantly and consistently appear as the trendiest gadgets. These devices represent a culture that desires to deconstruct the power and purpose of community, placing all importance on the needs of the individual.
Despite this societal disposition, I believe the young people of this generation possess an ever-increasing eagerness to live lives of meaning. With all the serious setbacks brought on by our new economic realities, the “Gen-Y” generation has still had the opportunity both to amass so much material stuff and to travel with unprecedented frequency.
They still feel hungry to live meaningful lives. For instance, every year the Yeshiva University Center for the Jewish Future sends close to a thousand young adults on various service-learning experiences across the globe, and the center cannot keep up with the demand on the part of even more students to participate. Organizations around the country that work with young adults have seen a similar phenomenon and are working in partnership to create structures enabling all of us to respond to this yearning.
In contrast to this vitality, we increasingly hear of grayer boardrooms, the passing of philanthropists who supported our organizations, the thinning of the ranks of dedicated volunteers and a dearth of professionals to service our many worthwhile organizations.
So how do we in the Jewish communal and educational world leverage the hunger of the Gen-Yers to insure the future health of our institutions? More importantly, how do we ensure that this new generation brings its creativity, charisma and capacity to the leadership table with a commitment to Jewish ideals, guaranteeing the perpetuation of the soul of our sacred community?
We need look no further than service-learning programs as a start, for they transform young adults. To be sure, such opportunities have a profound impact on participants when these experiences begin with proper preparation and enable those who are engaged to serve as real change agents. Counterpoint Israel, a Center for the Jewish Future-led summer program in the development towns of southern Israel, affords 200 underprivileged children and teens a summer experience focusing on self-esteem and skills like English and computer science.
The real beneficiaries of these summer camps are the 23 students from YU who run these programs. This experience enables them to actualize their potential and speaks to them about their ability to change the world around them. I have often shared with the Counterpoint counselors and college students on other service missions that they now understand why the Hebrew word for giving, NaTaN, is a palindrome. For when one gives to another with the sole purpose of effectuating change, what one receives in return is as great as or greater than the efforts expended.
The impact on Jewish continuity as a whole is equally noteworthy. Nearly 10 percent of the student participants change their career paths to fields of education, the rabbinate and social work, and 95 percent pledge to bring their professional skills to serve the greater community. I am sure that American Jewish World Service and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee have realized similar results from the many initiatives in which they engage students in service-learning opportunities.
It is a tragic paradox that an old joke told among service providers begins with a participant asking how does one say “tikkun olam” in Hebrew? Leadership experiences, whether in Israel, the FSU, Thailand or around the corner, must be contextualized with the ideals of Jewish leadership. We must share the paradigms of leadership found in the Bible: that of the kohen (priest) and the navi (prophet). Rooted in externals, the priest realized his holiness through the wearing of his special garb and his lineage. As the custodian of ritual for the Jewish community he guaranteed that the form and the function of the Temple and the Jewish community passed on from generation to generation.
We must share with our young adults that participation in the identical rituals in which our great-grandparents engaged (and perhaps even using their candlesticks or kiddush cups for the Shabbat/holiday experience) creates a sense of continuity and immortality to the Jewish story. As the kohen must do, our leadership experiences must engage our young adults in knowing our story.
Yet that is just half the job, for they must also embrace the role of the prophet. Dress and lineage possessed no consequence for the prophet. His/her concern rested in the substance of the religious experience, in the effort to ensure that the ritual did not become robotic or devoid of meaning and purpose. Like the prophet, our young adults must experience a tradition imbued with passion and principle. We must ensure the placement of service-learning initiatives and leadership opportunities within a rich Jewish context; this allows our experiential opportunities to give voice to the immortal and contemporary traditions of our people.
The Gen-Yers wish to live lives that matter. They are hungry for community, and where they do not find ones that welcome them, they will create their own. They do not wish to escape, but to engage; they do not want to judge or to be judged, but to join. They are not interested in being silent partners in an organizational bureaucracy but want to matter and will accept process only if it leads to purpose.
If we create portals of entry for them, share with them our story undiluted or whitewashed, and find the courage to let them make it their own, they will do something that we can’t: guarantee our future.
Rabbi Kenneth Brander is the David Mitzner Dean of Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future. The CJF hosted the Fifth ChampionsGate National Leadership Conference last week in Orlando, Fla.