Gary Rosenblatt’s column (“Back Off On The Bacchanalia,” April 1) about the downside of the recent TribeFest event in Las Vegas, sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), and other Jewish programs that offer alcohol to spark engagement in Jewish life, speaks to the larger issue and challenge of engagement of young leadership in the activities of our Jewish collective.
For some time the federation system has been struggling to articulate a message to its future generations of potential leaders. Many of those young people have opted out of the system of federated giving in favor of more boutique philanthropies where they might better “follow their dollars” for projects and purposes they more closely identify with. The raising of their spirits at TribeFest is but another example of reaching for a lowest common denominator to draft interest in an increasingly irrelevant and lumbering system of combined Jewish philanthropy.
The system continues to deny and ignore that the real training of future leadership must begin much earlier. Little attention is given to the mentoring of high school upperclassmen and women for community connection, career and character development. Mentoring programs abound in the Christian community and they recognize the great value of creating what I would call a “benevolent tether.” Such a “tether” would allow young people to remain connected as they set out for the atomizing experience of the college campus at a time when connections to home are severed as students become more independent. Yet studies clearly show that young people are desirous of connections that can assist them in their careers.
A mentor assigned to high school juniors and seniors can be a great link through which to network and apprentice in one’s area of occupational interest. Moreover, such a mentor illustrates to students that membership in a community has its benefits. These connections can be a dividend that will accrue not only to the student but the community; these young people will likely look back and realize that their career path was helped by one of their own who was in a position of influence to open doors and make introductions.
The mentoring of future generations is a system that has many antecedents in Jewish history and classical pedagogies, be it the “teacher-student” (rebbe-talmid) relationship, or the once-revered Jewish concept of “shimmush” (apprenticeship). Discipleship remains a strong Christian value but has lost its currency in Jewish life. Instead we wait too long, until our potential leaders have sown their educational and other wild oats, to attempt to repatriate them to the Jewish community; this usually doesn’t happen until they are finished with their professional education and training.
Countless dollars have been expended to reclaim these lost Jewish communal souls who, it is hoped, will begin to find a way back once they are established in their careers and with families. Birthright Israel is attempting to instill these connections at an earlier but still volatile age with the primary focus on Israel. But the results of the free trip likely won’t prove lasting beyond a measure of positive identification with Israel and an increased desire to remain within the fold. These are laudable achievements but do not reach the root problem of mass alienation and disassociation from the mainstream Jewish community.
Mentoring is nearly free, given the untold human resources in Jewish social capital. And it could be a source of fulfillment for those who give back to the community through their accumulated wealth of experience and knowledge. A person who is established in his/her career can leverage contacts, open doors and share experience and assist young people who face daunting challenges in college and professional training. Mentoring for “community connectedness,” which will also aid young people in their future life’s path, is easy and inexpensive, yet it is extremely rare in our more open and liberal Jewish communities. With such mentoring, even as young people eventually move beyond their home base and establish themselves elsewhere, they will maintain an awareness of what it means to be a part of a community.
We so easily allow our young people to leave our orbit at such a fragile stage of their lives. What is needed is not the “rear load” investment approach that the organized community has persisted with for so long, only to find itself in a perennial grab for the fumbled ball too late in the game. Instead, we need a more “front load” approach. At a time when young people could be prepared for the road ahead, setting out with contacts and connections could keep them within or closer to the mainstream of Jewish life. Rather than scramble for some kind of recovery of Jewish souls when the hour is already late, we might pass on first down, so to speak, to carry the football metaphor a little further. Such a proactive approach might move young people down the field but not entirely out of the game.
Rabbi Lawrence S. Zierler is the rabbi of the Jewish Center of Teaneck, N.J. He was a Mandel Jerusalem Fellow in Jewish Educational Leadership, from 2004-06, and is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.