by Wayne L. Firestone

At first blush, it is flattering that there is a no-holds-barred race on campuses around the country to “get” (or connect with) the next generation of Jewish student leaders. An increasing percentage of the approximately one hundred thousand Jewish students who enroll annually in college participate in birthright, MASA, Yeshiva Gap Year, alternative service learning and camp counselor immersive experiences, domestically and around the world. They head back to campus with a revitalized appreciation of Jewish identity, Israel and the importance of Jewish values in an era of global citizenship, but also with probing questions that they want to explore further.

At this year’s General Assembly in Denver, feedback from student leaders and young professionals in their twenties and thirties – representing more than seventy campuses – spoke volumes about how best to engage these students as they further pursue both their Jewish journeys and their vision of a community in which they will want to invest their time, talent and tucheses. A few examples from recent campus and next-generation professional leadership initiatives indicate how this generation is establishing a revitalized relevance of Jewish values and teachings to address contemporary issues, promoting Israel affiliation as a driver of Jewish identity, and leveraging their local peer networks to re-imagine a global Jewish people.

The Campus as Crucible

During the unfolding public crisis at Penn State University, local Hillel leaders introduced a curricular guide with textual resources and framing about “what are my responsibilities as a witness.” The materials – quickly adapted from Hillel’s Ask Big Questions (ABQ) pilot initiative on thirteen campuses – are meant to benefit the entire campus and local community at a time of polarization and pain. The broader ABQ initiative launched at Washington University in St. Louis this summer deepened students’ and supervisors’ listening skills and encouraged students to engage diverse groups of people on their campus in “conversations that matter.” In contrast to other campus-based approaches that seek to entertain, inebriate or, at times, dumb down Jewish content, ABQ is a moment to elevate discourse when students are exposed to the market place of universal and particular ideas in their classes. It turns out that Jewish learning and texts have tremendous value and authenticity for this generation, and not merely for nostalgic or tribal reasons.

With the rapid expansion of Israel travel over the past decade, Hillel has grown its portal of support and affiliation for Israel in partnership with the Jewish Agency, AIPAC and ICC, as well as through grassroots efforts. Nowhere is there a greater opportunity for us to proactively advance the cause of Israel than on campus if we empower students to lead with an adult sensibility and standard of behavior for what our community stands for. While many in the community are busy blaming one another (or Israel) over who is “losing Israel,” young adults are taking constructive actions that are not tied to a particular organization or partisan view. At the University of Michigan, for example, two parallel student initiatives – Tamid, which connects business-minded students with the Israeli economy, and Makom, an intra-Jewish discussion group – respectfully draw-in students with divergent political views to contribute tangibly to advance Israel society by investing in it. One group contributes their money, the other contributes their concern and viewpoints. Both invest their precious time.

Lest one think these trailblazing efforts are occurring only at large state schools or the Ivies, consider the ascension of commuter campus Baruch College in NYC. Baruch is embracing its small-but-diverse Jewish student body – rich with ideas and languages (ranging from Portuguese to Yiddish) – to create connections and relationships through ongoing Jewish learning and coexistence activities conducted collaboratively and locally with students at universities in Kiev, Herzelia and Rio. While Jewish organizations and think tanks are debating whether there is such a thing as “peoplehood,” our young people are again creating facts on the ground that will redraw the map of Jewish life for years to come.

Of note, perhaps the biggest news coming out of Colorado this past month, was down the road in Boulder, college town home of the University of Colorado, where a group of young innovators, together with an array of professionals and community leaders across the age spectrum, were convening for NetWORKS, hosted by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. With a goal of creating and not merely discussing a trans-organizational network-driven Jewish world, it appears that we have a lot of young adults and organizations already living and breathing life into this new frontier. But are we learning from them quickly enough to benefit our children and grandchildren?

Tapping into the Power of Today’s Young Leaders

Prior generations of Jewish leadership helped enable this generation to have unprecedented educational and leadership opportunities, as well as a global perspective. Now that young adults are more visibly on the communal radar screen, it remains to be seen who will really “get” (understand) this generation’s leaders. Here are three recommendations for all who want to strengthen our community with these young leaders’ presence.

First, if we want to engage them, don’t lecture them on what we think they want. Put them on boards and panels and invite them to participate meaningfully and directly.

Second, if we want to encourage them to ask questions of our community (because this is how they grew up processing information and advice) we can’t insist only on the answers or structures that worked for a prior generation.

Third, get to know them in a work setting. Hire them as paid interns during school and summer breaks. Hire them after they graduate not only because they can help us build an online presence but because they can help us learn how to build community by using social networks to organize and share information and mobilize their friends in new ways. Invest in their social entrepreneurship and ideas.

It is simply disingenuous to say “I love you” collectively to the next generation until we succeed in knowing their names, their questions and their stories.

Even Siri – the oracle voice of the new iPhone 4 – when told “I love you” by an enthusiastic user, reportedly responded: “But we just met!”

Let’s “get” these young leaders before we try to get them.

Wayne L. Firestone is President and CEO of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.