Shaping Tomorrow

June is rapidly approaching and with it the annual installment of Jerusalem Conference Season. A month where up and coming communal activists, the high and mighty and the wannabees come to network, interact, shmooze and pontificate.

In addition to three high-visibility events – the annual ROI Summit, the Israeli Presidential Conference, and the Taglit academic conference – are a host of board meetings, seminars and other gatherings, missions and visits, all planned to build on the synergies created by the other.

Probably the highest visibility event will be The Israeli Presidential Conference. Planned around celebrations in honor of President Peres’s 90th birthday, guests this year include former President William Clinton; former Prime Minister, the Hon. Tony Blair; Mikhail Gorbachev (the last President of the Former Soviet Union and General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union); and actresses Barbara Streisand and Sharon Stone. However, despite all the star power, we would be remiss in not pointing out that once again those planning the program have negated the role of women in our society.

Honestly, with 26 plenary speaking positions available, couldn’t the planners find more than three qualified female presenters to speak on the Conference theme, ‘The Human Factor in Shaping Tomorrow’?

Though it is more difficult to ascertain from the program, we also suspect the number of public slots allotted to those under 40 is minimal, thus calling into question the planners understanding of who is ‘Shaping Tomorrow’. But not to worry, we expect that in the halls of Jerusalem’s Convention Center, there will be no absence of younger faces, as ROI Community members, PresenTense and Pardes almuni – among others – are out in force, bringing their enthusiasm and ideas to the hundreds of ‘hallway conversations’ that will surely take place.

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Gabriel Webber, a Deputy for the Union of Jewish Students in the U.K., recently wrote: “I’m glad I was able to laugh at the 14th Plenary Assembly of the World Jewish Congress… otherwise I’d have cried.

I spent three days listening to old men reciting a litany of woes, saying how terrible and dangerous and wearing and life-threatening it is to be Jewish in Europe these days.”

Shifting Thought Shifting Action

Participants at Shifting Thought Shifting Action at the Berlin Wall.

It’s a shame that neither Gabriel, or the “old men” she refers to, had the opportunity to be in Berlin a few months back. For there, under the auspices of the ROI Community, Paideia – The European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden and Zentralrat Der Juden in Deutschland (the Central Council of Jews in Germany), and just a seven minute walk from the Berlin Wall, 50 of Europe’s most talented community organizers gathered for serious conversation, to learn new skill-sets to propel their work forward and to network with other Jewish young adult activists from across both Eastern and Western Europe. The Gathering highlighted European Jewish life that was anything but threatening; in fact, it was a magical three days.

In a city where practically every month some organization or another convenes a gathering, what made Shifting Thought, Shifting Action (STSA 2013) stand out?

First, the program – designed, and executed, by the participants – consisted of a series of presentations, skill sessions and workshops exploring how to create meaningful conversations in their individual communities. The organizers, and the facilitators, had no direct stake in the outcome(s) – unlike JFNA, or local Federation-convened community conversations ultimately intended to inform the hosts’ own work.

Participants looked at the challenges, and opportunities, for Jewish life in Europe today. Programs were framed around “weaving together histories of the past with histories of the present creating histories of the future.”

Those of us in attendance witnessed a fascinating social phenomenon: the vast majority of participants – most who did not know each other previously – were between the ages of 25 and 35. The mix was instantaneous; the energy level a continuous high. The languages spoken, an unconscious mix of English, German, French, Polish, Russian, Hebrew, and more. The attendees shared a frustration working with the established community yet yearned to work collaboratively with other organizations to learn how to do things better.

The most asked question over the three days, “who is not in the room?”

As participant, and Berlin resident, Martin Schubert expressed, “We see a new generation that has consciously decided to live our lives in Europe. A generation that knows no walls and no borders.”

Participant, Moti Ipacs, CEO of the Seidner Foundation (Budapest), spoke of the importance of a “global community working together, sharing knowledge.”

Ilja Sichrovsky of Vienna and founder of the Muslim Jewish Conference, related his thoughts of the “established European organizations not investing in their own leadership, and most worryingly, not investing in the next generation.” He continued, “I continually meet inspiring young Jewish leaders from around the world – they explain why they started their own initiative outside of the established community … The Jewish people are creating their own brain drain. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to get them back into the ‘established’ world”.

And Shawn Landres, co-founder/CEO of Jumpstart, whose 2010 Survey of New Jewish Initiatives in Europe found that there are more Jewish nonprofit startups per capita in Europe than North America, shared the thought, “STSA 2013 demonstrated to me the possibility of pursuing a strategy of institutional replacement rather than reform and the importance of supporting entrepreneurial initiatives – both within and outside of the establishment.”

In Berlin we witnessed the future of Jewish Europe – and it was alive and exciting.

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Writing on his Wise Philanthropy Blog, Richard Marker says, “how can it be that I don’t believe in “NextGen”? Let me count the ways:

  • NextGen too easily implies that one is not yet worthy to sit at the grown-up table. In many cases, that is pure nonsense. What it often really means is that the “grown-up” table isn’t ready for younger members to sit with them to make real decisions and engage in constructive deliberation.
  • Too often, NextGen is nothing more than a marketing tool. An organization wants to show that it appeals to or is bringing in the young folks. Using this term is a way to demonstrate that they “get it”, are committed to new modes of expressions [but rarely their models of community], values their participation [but rarely their values], and are bridging the generational divide. Some organizations really do get it and are appropriately re-inventing themselves; far too many others, though, simply confuse branding with substance. Declaring that you are NextGen friendly doesn’t make it so.
  • Most important of all: NextGen really is THIS generation. The world has changed. Our categories have changed. Our daily experiences have changed. How we get information, communicate, create communities, pay bills, educate ourselves is owned and mastered by those who have come of age in the last 15 years.

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Just yesterday, a reader commented on eJP,

“Whether by design or by result, are we as a community effectively stifling new Jewish leadership? No one can deny the fact that Jewish communal institutions are led by vested interests who are hesitant to let go of the reigns of power. Lay leadership are not open to new ideas and approaches that threaten their control of the communal agenda. The professional class do not want to lose their jobs and be shown up as the ineffectual foot soldiers that they are. All this would be fine, really it would, if things were going well. However, our community is beset and overwhelmed by challenges on multiple fronts that threaten our continued vitality in the US…”

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Circling back to where we began, whether or not you are in Jerusalem this June, we encourage you to think about shaping tomorrow - not just as an organization professional, but how you can influence the broader community. In doing so, think about what young activists are creating in WJC’s “dangerous” Europe. Think about Richard Marker’s comment, “the “grown-up” table isn’t ready for younger members to sit with them to make real decisions and engage in constructive deliberation.” And think about what Shawn Landres had to say, “the possibility of pursuing a strategy of institutional replacement rather than reform.” In our mind, that’s not solely true in Europe.

At all levels, you can begin by triggering meaningful activities or outcomes that will not only align with organization mission and objectives, but will help build a stronger future.

If you’re in the “C” suite, stop paying lip service to conversation about the dismal numbers of women and younger professionals in management roles and move some key mid-level staff up the ladder, today! Get your board in balance with the reality that [for the first time in history] there are four adult generations important to your organizations’ future.

And lastly, whether you are in the “C” suite, or a senior lay leader, get off your expensive desk chair, away from your computer and get out in the field and meet those who will determine your legacy. Not your program recipients; not your regional staff. Now is not the time for photo-ops with other “old men”, but the time to embrace new generations of stakeholders. Otherwise, your epitaph may well read, “Here lies “xxxx” – a good, dedicated, hard-working man, though one who couldn’t comprehend the world had changed around him.”

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Comments

  1. What if a Jewish future conference had under-36 speakers and invited the older generation to respond and to listen? Would that get funded?

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