Change of Generation

Press coverage aside, the biggest news in the recent study sponsored by the Avi Chai Foundation is not its facts and figures. After all, it is hardly remarkable that young Jewish leaders are not monolithic, or that attitudes of nonestablishment leaders are different from those in more traditional roles. It has been clear for some time that younger Jews are less concerned with Israel and anti-Semitism than their older counterparts. And it will surprise no one that the denominations of American Judaism are in flux.

Two conclusions of a very different kind have much more striking implications. One – based on the work of Vanderbilt’s Prof. Shaul Kelner – is that foundations have, as a sector, fundamentally redefined leadership in their own terms through leadership training programs. The report points to “an intergenerational partnership in which the grandparents’ generation has played a leading role as philanthropists, establishing independent foundations staffed by foundation professionals, who themselves are mainly baby-boomers and Generation Xers, in the service of offering guidance and training to still younger Jews currently in their 20’s and 30’s.”

It goes on to say, “this partnership has fundamentally shaped the character of early 21st century American Jewish life.” How?

The foundation sector has built the field, enshrined in it the counterculture’s ethos of pluralism, created structural forces that undermine tendencies toward denominationalism and isolation into separate silos, and, in the process, defined an entire American Jewish conversation about youth.

The personal capacities commonly understood to be central to the cultivation of leadership and innovation – vision, risk, change, and effectiveness – are equally viable as descriptors of the organizational strengths of independent foundations. The foundation world has created a model of personal leadership in its own image. (emphasis added)

This is a stunning conclusion, and it is borne out by the way leadership is now defined.

For purposes of the study, leaders are people who have spearheaded new initiatives, and those who direct existing groups; professionals and volunteers; culturally creative people, and people who “make things happen through their contacts.” Examples include rabbis; authors, musicians, and filmmakers; and creators of blogs, websites, independent minyanim, social-justice organizations, and affinity groups.

Dictionary definitions of leadership include “a person who directs a military force or unit; a person who has commanding authority.” Young Jews, on the other hand, are considered leaders not because they have authority or power but because they are believed to have “influence.” Unlike traditional leaders, the “Generation of Change” is typically expected to have new ideas more than to take responsibility for outcomes.

These young leaders also have enormous advantages and privileges that are not enjoyed by the great majority of their generation. More than 60% had parents who were active in Jewish life. Over a third went to day schools. Between 92 and 96% have spent time in Israel, and some 56% have participated in Israel experiences of four months or more. Although this study does not explicitly track them, several hundred young Jewish leaders have also been brought to exclusive, invitation-only retreats and conferences with foundation support.

In short, these leaders – like the philanthropists who sponsor them – have the benefit of networking, education, and financial resources that are not typically available to other Jews their age. Whether or not they are truly leaders, they do constitute an elite, a group of insiders who have special access to one another and to philanthropists.

What’s more – in the second remarkable statement in this study – this survey may not accurately describe anyone besides the people who participated in it. As the executive summary noted, “This report does not claim respondents to the survey are precisely representative of the entire population of Jewish leaders.” The research team tried to compensate by seeking out certain respondents and conducts interviews, but there is still no way to know if the responses accurately reflect attitudes among Jewish leaders generally.

The bottom line is that, whatever we know or don’t know about them, the hopes for the emerging generation’s leadership are placed in an elite group who are unlike most of their contemporaries. This has long-term implications for the evolution of Jewish communal life, and that will be the subject of tomorrow’s column.

Bob Goldfarb, a regular contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy, has conducted research studies for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts. He is president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity.