It was a moment that almost perfectly defined this week’s United Jewish Appeal young leadership conference in Washington. In one section of the vast Washington Hilton ballroom, hundreds of young Jews were intently listening as special U.S. peace envoy Dennis Ross and Israeli Ambassador Eliahu Ben-Elissar gave sharply differing views of the current Israeli-Palestinian stalemate.
But just a few feet away, in an equally crowded area of the partitioned hall, Rabbi Debra Orenstein, leader of a synagogue on Long Island, exhorted listeners to find “spiritual epiphanies” in the mundane, and Rabbi Lawrence Kushner led the crowd in stretching exercises before exhorting them to work actively to bring more spirituality and meaning into their lives.
“The Kabbalists tell us, if your back hurts, it’s no fun learning anything,”
That mix — everything from sessions on raising Jewish children to a rousing campaign-style speech by Vice President Al Gore — represented the “yin and yang of this conference: Israel, and the connection people feel to the Jewish state on one hand, and the personal quest for a more Jewish life on the other,” according to one young leadership veteran.
Longtime observers described a continued shift in emphasis to a range of self-improvement interests, from Jewish spirituality to advice-column pop psychology, and at the same time a renewal of interest in Israel, which they say had been dwindling at recent UJA conventions.
“There is a real interest in making personal connections to Israel that I think has surprised some people,” said Rabbi Daniel Allen, executive director of the United Israel Appeal. “And the issues of Jewish spirituality and Israel are connected here. People are looking for a way to energize their relationship with Israel in a very personal way.”
That craving, he said, transcends politics, and it defies the conventional wisdom that the bitter religious pluralism controversy is turning Jews away from Israel in droves.
“This conference gives people a chance to focus on anything that may spark their interest in anything Jewish,” said Ron Klein, a conference co-chair. “It really gives people a sense of the unparalleled freedom and opportunity we are fortunate to have as American Jews.”
Klein, a veteran of five previous conferences, said this year’s event was different because “in the past there was always an issue of imminent danger to focus on. This year, we face the challenge of motivating people and raising their consciousness without overwhelming crisis.”
The result is a shifting focus “to our core values, to what makes us different as a people,” he said.
UJA young leadership gatherings are always a yeasty mix —part singles weekend, part spiritual smorgasbord designed to draw the young and the detached back to a more personal Judaism, part political action seminar for tomorrow’s leaders.
And the glitzy Washington event, in particular, is designed to inculcate the habit of lifelong giving. Participants are stroked and coddled and told how important they are — not an inaccurate assessment in a Jewish world whose philanthropic structures are threatened by assimilation and epidemic apathy.
“This year, people are talking about money again,” Rabbi Allen said. “For a few years it was taboo, but now we’re going back to UJA basics. There are sessions on how to raise money, how to solicit. Fund raising isn’t a dirty word to this generation. That, in my view, is very healthy for the Jewish community.”
This year’s conference represented a continuation of the recent trend to more spiritual content. “People asked for more spirituality and Judaism,” said Howard Friedman, the conference program chair. “Every year we’ve seen a greater interest in these kinds of programs, and we’ve responded.”
At the same time, he said, the event’s standing as a premier singles event has grown. “The conference has become more of an attraction for Jewish singles, which is wonderful; it’s the best possible setting for Jewish people to meet.”
UJA officials estimate that a little more than half of the 3,000 participants are single.
In a keynote speech that could serve as a summary of the convention’s underlying theme, Rabbi Donniel Hartman, associate director of the Shalom Hartman Institute of Jerusalem, called on delegates to find new ways to identify with Judaism and Jewish tradition.
“I am not in love with my Judaism because of the hatred of others; I need to find my own connection, a connection that gives me meaning,” he said.
He urged the audience to create a “covenant of meaning. If you’re looking for God and you’re looking for spirituality and you don’t find it in your synagogue, don’t leave — join your rabbi and your ritual committee and change your shul. It’s in your power to demand something more of Judaism.”
But in another example of the intriguing juxtaposition of styles that characterized the conference, he was followed by comedienne Rita Rudner, who described her own Jewish past in comic terms — including her family’s membership in “the Beth Israel Temple and Yacht Club. It was a very fancy temple; we used to read from the Torah in French.”
Rabbi Bradley H. Hirschfield, associate director for professional education at the Manhattan-based CLAL — the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, led an interactive workshop on “How to Make Your Sex Life Holy.” The topic, he said, was fully in keeping with the overall aims of the conference.
“This a human gathering: it’s social, it’s spiritual, it’s political — it’s about the whole person,” he said. “What people in this group were looking for was a sense of the whole person as a sexual person. There’s a sacredness to that, and there’s a Jewish language for that.”
Hirschfield, who praised UJA for “setting someone like me loose on this group,” said the conference is successful “because “it integrates … personal , familial, communal, dating and philanthropic interests. You don’t have to banish any piece of yourself to come into this community.”
The best attended session on Sunday — as UJA officials predicted — was a singles event featuring Jeffrey Zaslow, a syndicated advice columnist who offered advice on “the art and science of ending your status as a Jewish single.”
But there were a host of smaller workshops on meatier spiritual topics, including an overcrowded session with writer and talk show host Dennis Prager on finding the holy in the mundane.
UJA officials tried to downplay interest in the pluralism controversy, but sessions on the subject were among the best attended at the conference. But unlike other venues, there was little rancor.
“The religious pluralism issue in Israel is a major driving force for many people here,” said Alan Gallatin, a New York tax consultant and young leadership veteran. “Many people here are anxious to learn what is being said about it and what the different viewpoints are. They know it’s a big issue, but they don’t necessarily understand what the issues are. So they’re here to learn.”
Avrum Burg, top executive of the Jewish Agency, told participants at one session that “I am not at all sure the [pluralism] issue is solvable in our generation. But part of the solution is to start asking questions together.