For most of my professional life, I have worked in the field of strategic communications and lobbying. I started in a small office in Moscow, moved to a bigger office in London working for corporate clients and political parties, and then spent a year as a freelancer. Though I had studied in a Jewish school in Moscow and my best friends were Jewish, I never thought of getting involved in the organized Jewish world. Being part of the Jewish people was something I always took for granted and I never considered making my Jewish identity a larger part of my life. I certainly never planned to build my career around it.
In 2006 I made aliyah to Israel to be closer to family; I did not think my Jewish identity played a big role in that decision. It was only later I realized I was wrong.
One conversation with my father made me change course. He shared with me his concerns regarding the future of the Jewish people and the lack of young Jewish leadership. At that point in my professional and personal life, I had just moved to Israel and begun working in philanthropy. I started out on a small project providing medicine for kids with cancer. This was the root of the Nevzlin Family Foundation, which I established. Later on, I created the Israeli Center for Better Childhood with my friend Sabby Mionis. The center worked to help underprivileged kids, including Ethiopian-Israelis. I later joined the Nadav Foundation and ended up being both a lay leader and full-time Jewish professional for all three foundations.
Now, after four years of being involved in Jewish philanthropy, I share my father’s concerns. Running the Nadav Foundation for the past two years (a difficult task with a one-year-old at home), I meet young Jewish lay leaders and professionals who are dedicated to Jewish continuity – but they are the minority. Many young people are not involved. Even if I choose to sit at the “young table” when I go to events, I find that I’m still 20 years younger than most of these “kids.”
Don’t get me wrong – I’m very happy to learn from the wisdom and experience of all the older people I meet – most of them have dedicated their lives to building the Jewish world as we see it today and they definitely deserve our deepest gratitude. What worries me is the lack of continuity in Jewish organizations and private foundations, the growing generation gap in the organized Jewish world and the diminishing interest that young Jews have in their Jewish identity. I fear these forces will have a dangerous impact on the future of the Jewish people.
The responsibility for this lies with all of us. This lack of young leadership does not occur because there are no talented young Jews or because the current Jewish leadership doesn’t trust those who are younger. I know many young Jews who are aware of their Jewish identity and want to be socially involved and active, but choose to dedicate their efforts to other issues or activities.
But I would challenge those young people to accept the responsibility to ensure the future of the Jewish people for the next generation the same way the current leadership shaped it for us.
At the same time, organizations need to better engage young Jews. Everybody in the Jewish world is worried about Jewish youth who choose not to be involved in structured Jewish life, yet most organizations still do not use modern tools to attract them. Organizations should speak to youth in their own language: the language of the Internet, Facebook and Twitter. Their interest in the Jewish world can’t come only from synagogues, community centers or books, but must come from cultural events, blogs and social outlets where they can communicate and talk to their peers from around the world. With the influence of social networking, Jews don’t have to belong to a Jewish community where they live – they can find one on the Web. If we use our modern tools, we will attract more young Jewish leaders to our important work.
I believe that the time for talking about the need for a new generation to be involved is over. Now has to be a time of real action to involve young leaders on both the professional and lay levels. This is a historic effort and we should be uncompromisingly determined. And I am happy to be part of it.
Irina Nevzlin Kogan is president of the Nadav Fund and Israeli Center for a Better Childhood. She earned a masters degree in Economics and went on to work in government relations and strategic communications in Moscow and London. Irina made aliyah in 2006 and chose to focus on philanthropy. She first established the Nevzlin Family Foundation, which directly assists children with cancer and blood diseases, and then launched the Israeli Center for Better Childhood, which focuses on improving the welfare and educational opportunities of disadvantaged Israeli children.
This article first appeared in TOGETHER: Jewish Giving Today, published by The Jewish Federations of North America. Reprinted with permission.