By Suzanne Selengut
At a World Jewish Congress (WJC) plenary in Argentina in March, where resolutions regarding the organization’s future were put to vote, over 40% of voting delegates from the organization’s North American chapter were under 45, with a similar percentage representing Canada. Also present at the plenary were 41 members of the WJC’s Jewish Diplomatic Corps (JDCorps), a network of young professionals who engage in diplomacy and public policy, 23 of whom were delegates from various communities with 18 additional observers.
The involvement of so many younger people was no accident, according to Aliyana Traison, 33, WJC director of public relations, but part of a larger effort being overseen by CEO Robert Singer, who joined the organization three years ago and brought in several staff members in their 20s and 30s. The younger staff members, delegates and diplomats are being tasked with helping to shape the future of the organization in a way that seems parallel to the JDC’s recent decision to ask younger people to join the executive board.
The World Jewish Congress (WJC) is one of the oldest and largest Jewish umbrella organizations representing 100 Jewish communities around the world, and is famous for advocating on their behalf towards governments and international organizations. But now it is also putting a priority on millennial engagement, aiming to attract this key demographic by appealing to the issues that they care about, and reaching out to them on social media.
One way the WJC hopes to do this is through an Israel counter-delegitimization department, which will be fully active within the year, according to Traison. As the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement has become more powerful worldwide, many college and graduate students find themselves having to defend the State of Israel. Although they may have nuanced views about Israel’s policies – and some may not even see themselves as Zionists – they are thrust into the role of ambassadors for the Jewish state and even for Judaism. In blog posts and campus events, many have vented their frustration at the lack of resources available to them.
In response, the WJC will be offering training for student leaders. Traison differentiates the WJC’s efforts from those of typical hasbarah organizations, which may not appeal to some millennials. “We are not primarily an Israel advocacy organization. We are a diplomatic Jewish organization, so our answer to BDS and other delegitimization campaigns will naturally reflect our mission.”
Notably, with Ronald Lauder as its president, the WJC has the political connections to provide young people with greater access to power players and more diplomatic positioning. For example, at an international summit that took place in May, in cooperation with the Israeli Mission to the UN, some 2,000 people, including many high school and college students, filled the UN for a daylong intensive seminar on combatting BDS.
Another ongoing project, the Campus Pitch Competition, aims to engage millennials through an emphasis on inclusivity and diversity, issues of importance to many in that group. The project, in cooperation with the Israeli Consulate, offers a cash award to the student group with the best exhibit to broaden the conversation about Israel and Jewish issues. Recently, Baruch College graduate students won with a display that emphasized Israel’s diversity including photos of Arab-Israelis, multiethnic citizens and members of the LGBTQ community.
Mladen Petrov, 34, WJC social media manager, says that celebrating diversity has also been integral to his strategy. When he started in his position some three years ago, the organization’s main English-language Facebook page had less than 10,000 page likes and this has grown to over 180,000 likes. In April, the page had 2.1 million unique users, all organic. The secret to the page’s success, explains Petrov, is twofold; stories are posted consistently and while they may be lighthearted, the page never speaks down to its readers. “Young people, like everyone else, want to be taken seriously. They want to learn about what is going on in Jewish communities in a real, dignified way. We are not a cutesy page.”
Acceptance and diversity is also key, from reporting on life in tiny Jewish communities in Aruba and Mongolia, to celebrating the full gambit of Jewish life experiences. With the full backing of the organization, Petrov promises he will never leave any group out. Despite occasional negative comments, he continues to post stories that sometimes push the envelope. Recent posts that elicited a flurry of online reaction included a picture of an interracial Hassidic couple, a video about a righteous gentile and a link to an article about a transgender Jewish member of the White House staff.
While the page is popular with all age groups, it has particularly struck a chord with millennials; on a typical week, about half of the total users active on the page were under 35 and some 63% logged in from mobile devices, a fact that often suggests younger users. But Petrov doesn’t pander to any particular age group, a fact that likely makes his page more popular with his peers. “Bottom line: we love all communities just the same and these posts, from viral to not-viral-at-all, are equally important for us. A community is a community!”
Connecting to diverse parts of the global Jewish community is also a big part of the mission of the JDCorps, perhaps the most well-known of WJC programs for young people. It took a hiatus from the WJC in 2009, returned to the fold in 2012, and now comprises a very exclusive cadre of 130 professionals, including lawyers, financiers and professors from more than 30 countries. Young diplomats meet with White House officials, make speeches at the UN Human Rights Council on issues affecting Israel, and participate in international seminars in Latin America, to name a few possible forms of activism.
Yfat Barak-Cheney, international relations associate and policy analyst for JDCorps, notes that the age of the participants, 27-45, makes it particularly attractive to those who join. While in high school and college, young Jewish leaders have many opportunities for communal activity, the period after is often a time when people focus more on their own lives and families, leaving a gap in their engagement.
JDCorps responds to this gap with a chance to do real-life diplomacy, but it also offers millennials something else they crave – flexibility. Participants can choose how they want to be involved, and those jaded youngsters who may be unenthused about their local community, get an opportunity to reach out to the larger world. “Not everyone has to do the same thing, or what they already know. Some want to be involved with Africa, some with issues surrounding Iran. A Canadian can advocate about a Hungarian issue and interface with someone from Chile, all at the same time,” explains Barak-Cheney.
Training young diplomats is just one way the WJC has chosen to invest in their future. But will millennials who comment on a post, or attend a campus training workshop, or advocate for Israel at the UN ultimately become active WJC donors who identify with this storied, almost- 80-year-old organization? Only time will tell.