How Jewish Federations can inspire a new wave of Organized Judaism
JERUSALEM, Israel – During a panel at this year’s JFNA’s General Assembly (GA), the moderator asked, “If you would compare the Jewish Federation to a car or animal what would it be?” Without a second thought, the legendary Ford car from the 1920s, the Model T, popped into my head. At 18 years old and a current participant on a BBYO gap year program studying at Tel Aviv University, it felt as though my singular presence in this room of more than 1000 individuals made the average age plummet to an amazingly low 55. But this feeling of being out of place, out of the loop, is unfortunately a familiar one for me and many of my peers.
From the conversations I’ve had in Israel and America, I hear over and over again that Jewish secular and synagogue life is generic and lacks passion. The recently released Pew Study, a report tracking the Jewish community in America, reflects this emotional sentiment. That is why the Model T came to my mind. In its day, the Model T was a marvel of modern technology and a car for the masses. The Model T changed America. But that was in the 1920s. The Ford Company knew that to stay relevant they needed to keep innovating and improving – they moved beyond the Model T.
This is the realization that the organized Jewish community is experiencing now. Awakened by the Pew research, leaders from across America and Israel realize that it’s time to start innovating again. We must improve Jewish life for the next generation, my generation. As I went to breakout sessions and speeches, it was this motif that I kept in the back of my thoughts. Yet something inside of me thought this was too steep a mountain to be climbed.
As a delegate representing MASA (the Hebrew word for “journey”), a program governed by the Jewish Agency for Israel, funded by federations including the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island, and involved in gap year programs for Jewish teens and young adults, I often heard the same thing from my fellow conference representatives. Many said they liked the spiritual power and social justice ethos of Judaism, but organized Jewish institutional practice lacked connection to these core tenets. I kept these comments in mind as I began attending my various plenaries and break out sessions.
The General Assembly opened in an unbelievably thrilling fashion on Sunday night and Monday morning with speaking appearances by top governmental officials, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli President Shimon Peres, and U. S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro. Monday afternoon was filled with meetings ranging from Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon deliberations about Iran to Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sachs preaching about the concepts of redefining the message of the “chosen people,” an amazing experience on its own. But it wasn’t until the next day that I was truly inspired. On Tuesday morning, I visited Net@, an organization that teaches kids from the periphery of Israeli society computer skills. I witnessed a young girl in ragged clothes type lines of computer code faster than I could type the lines you are reading now. I was first amazed and then profoundly inspired.
As I walked out of the community center that housed Net@, I noticed a small sign that said “Thank you Jewish Federation of Rhode Island for making this all possible” modestly embedded in a corner stone. It was in that moment that I realized that organized Judaism not only saves others but, indeed, can save itself. Our local and national Federations obviously do amazing things, but no one from my generation knows about it. Indeed, I had never even heard of the Jewish Federation of North America until I was asked to represent MASA at the GA.
The emotionally gratifying, philanthropic success that I experienced at Net@ speaks to the core of what young Jews like me see as their main connection to Judaism – social justice. Federations must first promote their current, successful overseas and domestic initiatives, and next design and implement innovative projects in conjunction with those tenets of Judaism that resonate with our values and ethos. By doing so, Jewish communities and local federations will be in a much better position to enlarge their numbers and, more importantly, seek to create deep and lasting connections with our younger generations.
We have a long way to go to make this happen. Some of the speakers at the GA confirmed my deepest fears that the current generation of Federation leadership is unwilling to change course. However, my experience at Net@, as well as numerous conversations I held with open minded CEOs like the Alliance’s Jeffrey Savit, give me hope that the organized Jewish community is able and willing to adapt to current thinking and innovation. I thus left the GA thinking that there will be a Jewish community I will happily choose to remain a part of which, indeed, currently and will continue to speak to me. That being said, our leaders, together with members of my generation, need to collaborate to make the Model T a Model for T(eenagers and young adults) – for Jews across the world.
David Meyers (firstname.lastname@example.org), a resident of Queens, N.Y., is attending the BBYO Beyond Gap Year Program in Tel Aviv, Israel, prior to college next year.