The Generation Gap

by Manny Waks

In the article, Give Us the Tools to Define Our Involvement, Joshua Einstein cogently articulates the major challenges and obstacles inherent in the global predicament of Jewish continuity. The term “continuity” is ubiquitous in contemporary Jewish community discourse. Broadly, it defines the continuity of “Jewishness”, both as our collective identity and as a values framework.

In his article, Mr Einstein rightly criticises the existing structures of the mainstream Jewish community. He states, “Rather than focusing on giving the younger generations the tools to define their involvement and their identity – empowerment and enfranchisement – the vast majority of the organized effort has been geared toward retention and replacement.”

Mr Einstein refers to not only the futile focus of the current leadership to retain younger members of the Jewish community within an unsatisfactory framework, but also the need to ensure a succession plan whereby these future leaders will take a leadership role. He makes clear the urgency for an autonomous younger generation to launch their own initiatives with the moral and financial backing of the existing community leadership.

I am one of the small minority of the Jewish population in Australia who are in their mid-thirties and deeply involved in Jewish representative groups. All too often I hear criticism from young Jewish adults who perceive their community structures as irrelevant, lacking a contemporary framework, and at times alienating. This is more than a hackneyed gap between the generations.

Dissociation from the Jewish community plays a large part in the current crisis in Jewish identity and continuity and poses a challenge of great magnitude to the future of the global Jewish community.

Despite claims that young adults are indeed involved in community leadership, a closer examination reveals a dearth of representation, apart of course from tokenistic Board representation and the increasingly popular Israel-focussed young adult groups such as Young UIA, Young MDA, JNF Next Generation etc.

Anyone concerned with the future of our community should be willing to assess the effectiveness of the existing organisational structures. Certainly I can attest to the great work undertaken by many of our community organisations, but unaccountably they do not engage those who will shape the Jewish community of tomorrow. Despite important tasks such as lobbying and policy development, any representative body must also be just that, representative of every demographic. The younger generation seeks to be heard, or at the very least, have a substantive and ongoing exchange with those that claim to have a representative agenda. Currently, however, they are not finding enough opportunities that are relevant and engaging.

Moreover, young Jews are regrettably alienated by prevailing approaches to the advocacy of Israel. I am unequivocally supportive of Israel – my birthplace and spiritual homeland – and at the age of 18 I travelled to Israel to serve in the Golani Brigade. I have also published widely in support of Israel and accept its centrality in the Jewish consciousness. However, and tragically, many young Jews are at best indifferent, and at worst antagonistic towards Israel.

In his 2010 article, The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment, Peter Beinart notes that, ‘In recent years, several studies have revealed, in the words of Steven Cohen of Hebrew Union College and Ari Kelman of the University of California at Davis, that “non-Orthodox younger Jews, on the whole, feel much less attached to Israel than their elders,” with many professing “a near-total absence of positive feelings.”’ Inevitably, many within the younger demographic are alienated by the uncritical alignment with Israel of our structured communal roof bodies. National and State communal roof bodies should focus largely on matters that concern the local Jewish community. Advocacy of Israel should instead be the province of those organisations who unambiguously have this mandate. This would, to some extent, prevent the alienation of those Jews who do not have a favourable view of Israel.

Jewish communal politics can be complex, a fact often intensified by a rotating leadership structure, where often the same small groups of individuals fill positions in one organisation after another. The range of experience they take with them is certainly valuable, but instead of evolution we get stagnation. This is not a path to leadership that attracts the average young adult nurtured in a world of individual empowerment, social networking and green politics.

Unfortunately, the debate on “organisational territoriality” (geographical or otherwise) that arises all too frequently also entrenches the negative attitude of many in the younger demographic towards the existing communal framework.

Gary Rosenblatt, Editor and Publisher of The Jewish Week, recently wrote an opinion piece, Marking A Centennial And Worrying About The Future, based on a panel discussion he moderated at the Kesher Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C. This discussion was aptly titled New Generations, Old Institutions. Panellist Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, commented that one reason that “young people are creating their own institutions” in the Jewish community is because “we talk too much and listen too little.”

It is time we look more closely at the American attitudes toward Jewish social entrepreneurship. We are certainly far behind the US, which has been led by the visionaries at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation who solely fund the ROI Community and contribute to PresenTense, among others. There is also a range of other newly-formed incubators for Jewish social entrepreneurs, both in the US and in Europe, such as Jumpstart, Bikkurim, Joshua Venture and Paideia.

Last year I was privileged to undertake the PresenTense Fellowship in Israel to further develop my community initiative, the Capital Jewish Forum (CJF), a non-partisan Jewish professionals’ group, which offers an alternative communal model based on inclusivity and personal empowerment, aiming to enrich the existing communal structures through direct engagement and interaction with intellectuals, dignitaries and leaders on topics of importance to the Jewish community. (For more information please see capitaljewishforum.org). PresenTense is a US/Israel-based organisation, which is incubated within an atmosphere that lauds and encourages youthful, dynamic initiatives.

Dr Misha Galperin, President and CEO of the Jewish Agency International Development, observed in a recent article, “We may not look at the decline in Jewish identity and collective responsibility as a crisis. It doesn’t have the same urgency as a war or as a rescue effort of a persecuted minority in another country. Rather, our failure to strengthen Jewish identity is more like a slow and steady leak that turns into a flood only over time.”

Dr Galperin concluded his article, somewhat ominously, stating, “The declining of Jewish peoplehood is a crisis. It’s a crisis of disengagement. It’s also an opportunity. Our schedules cannot be too busy to overlook this opportunity.” Professor Steven Cohen, a leading sociologist specialising in trends among Jewish young people, agrees that there is a need “to help people create an intensive Jewish community rather than make them fit” into existing models.

Recently the Jewish Agency for Israel took a bold step in essentially re-defining their mission – that of Aliyah and being the Jewish world’s first responder to crises both in Israel and around the world. Rather, it is now “redirecting its primary focus toward the greatest challenge we currently face as a people – strengthening the Jewish identity of young Jews in both the Diaspora and Israel,” as stated on its website.

It is long overdue that courageous individuals within the community and philanthropic leadership in Australia empower the younger demographic, thereby ensuring the sustainability and viability of our community. As Mr Einstein notes, “No amount of Jewish-themed bar nights, holiday-related parties, or outreach classes will successfully recruit the next generation of leaders and followers in a community that doesn’t serve their needs. Jewish young adults want Jewish community on their terms.”

Many in the younger demographic do indeed have a commitment to Judaism – they only need opportunities to engage and be nurtured in an environment that is relevant to their contemporary world.

We must take urgent action or all too soon we may find ourselves with a handful of leaders with no one to lead.

Manny Waks is President of the ACT Jewish Community, Vice President of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry and Executive Director of the Capital Jewish Forum.

An edited version of this opinion piece was originally published in the 1 April 2011 edition of the Australian Jewish News.