By Leanne Gale and Rebecca Krevat
As college students, we were the definition of plugged-in Jewish leaders; one of us created a Jewish feminist organization, and the other served as president of the Reform Jewish Community at her campus Hillel. We were also deeply committed to social justice, as Jews and as human beings. But neither of us were strangers to the growing distance between young people and the establishment Jewish community.
We’ve watched our communal leaders sponsor surveys and initiatives to engage young adults for as long as we can remember. This is why we were pleased to experience, through the National Council of Jewish Women, a moment in which we were genuinely engaged and our voices elevated. Instead of building a program “for” millennials, NCJW decided to make space for us to be heard.
Through the support of the Dobkin Family Foundation, NCJW gathered 37 women under 40, including ourselves, to participate in a convening last March in New York City to test the hypothesis that women in this bracket are interested in social justice from a Jewish (and gender) lens.
For the first time we were given the opportunity to meet young Jewish feminist thinkers and activists from across the country and develop our collective vision for progressive political action. None of us could recall a similar gathering in our lifetimes, and for many of us, it was validating to experience this community in-person.
We represented broad diversity of religious affiliation, geography, profession, education, race, LGBTQ identity, and social justice interest, and we were very excited at the prospect of sharing our experiences to help make NCJW and Jewish communal life generally more inclusive of our age group. Throughout the day, we explored our interest in social change from a Jewish lens, examined which issues we are most passionate about, and discussed how we identify as feminists. It became clear that we shared some key hopes and dreams:
- Local, community-based organizing: We feel responsible to the communities in which we live, and we know we can have the greatest impact on a local level. From fighting abortion restrictions in Louisiana to combating voter disenfranchisement in Florida, we are drawn to grassroots organizing on the ground.
- Time and talent, not treasure: Money is often a barrier to involvement. Young adults do not have the capacity to pay dues, donate generously, pay for travel to national meetings, or take time off during the day for our social justice work. How can the Jewish communal world make us feel valued for our passions and skills while we do not necessarily have the financial capacity to give?
- Intersectionality: We are not interested in single-issue struggles; we are interested in how multiple forms of oppression, such as sexism, heterosexism, transphobia, racism, ableism, and others, are experienced together. We embrace an intersectional approach in our activism (acknowledging a debt to Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term “intersectionality” in the late 80s.)
- Reproductive justice: When asked to identify the issues about which we care most passionately, the top two were reproductive justice and civil rights (Last on the list: advancing civil society in Israel, and tax reform.) And we’re moving beyond the basic legal “right to choose” toward a broader reproductive justice framework, developed by women of color – the right to have full autonomy over our bodies, to have or not have children, to birth and/or parent our children with dignity, and to live and/or raise a family in a safe, healthy environment.
Without the investment of young individuals, the organizations that the generations before us so boldly established will become unsustainable. Some might argue that it doesn’t matter, that we should have “out with the old, in with the new” attitude. But we see value in intergenerational activism, the sharing of wisdom, and the exchange of ideas. We see value in Jewish social justice organizations creating space to grapple with our history of anti-Semitism, our experience of privilege, and our struggle to work in solidarity.
Because our community has raised us to take the reins and ensure the continuity of Jewish life in all of its forms, we’re telling it like it is: for organizations that consider themselves progressive, it is time to progress.
Engaging us without condescending requires more than strategic thinking; it demands face-to-face conversations with Jewish young adults. At a major Jewish conference that one of us attended, a prominent and well respected leader bemoaned the fact that the next generation didn’t care about the future of the Jewish people, and that millennials were not living up to the standards of Jewish advocacy that his generation had set on Israel, Russian Jewry, and rebuilding communities in a post-Holocaust world. Ironically, listening to this leader speak were thousands of students active in Hillel programming and young professionals dedicated to the future of Jewish communal life.
We’re sure that most Jewish organizations would like to avoid this type of situation. Take this as a challenge and an opportunity. How can we listen to young people and honor their profound talents? How can we make space for young people to claim the power they so richly deserve in our communities? How can we allow our institutions to radically transform as we bring new voices to the table? Get in touch – we would love to talk.
Leanne Gale lives and works in Washington, DC as a Grassroots Associate with a focus on reproductive justice and sex trafficking for NCJW. She received a BA from the University of Pennsylvania and served as New Israel Fund-Shatil Social Justice Fellow in Jerusalem.
Rebecca Krevat lives and works in New York City as a Community Engagement and Communications Associate for NCJW. She received a BA from the University of Maryland, and serves as an Advertising Manager for Know Your IX, a national survivor-run, student-driven campaign to end campus sexual violence.