Regenerating That Old-time Jewish Spirit

Opening today, the Tel Aviv One conference brings together young Jews from the Diaspora and Israel.

NEW YORK - "Modern, contemporary, and dynamic, Tel Aviv is as inspiring as it is exciting." This flattering quote is not taken from a Tourism Ministry or travel agency poster, but from an information sheet distributed in the last few weeks by United Jewish Communities, an umbrella organization of North American Jewish federations and communities.

That's because Tel Aviv is the focus of a UJC conference called Tel Aviv One, which in effect aims to address what it sees as two threats to Jewish community involvement in North America: the ongoing reluctance of young people to be actively involved in Jewish life, and the dropping number of major donors. Basically, the cadre of young and promising Jewish leaders ready to take the place of the veteran donors appears to be more of a hope than a reality.

Between today and Wednesday, some 1,200 Jews aged 25 to 35 will be in Tel Aviv "to experience firsthand the power of community and the effects of living generously," as Tel Aviv One puts it. Most of the participants are from North America, but there will also be a few representatives of small communities around the world that preserve the spark of Jewish action, such as Serbia, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Uzbekistan.

The conference is meant to expose the participants to a Jewish urban concentration teeming with life, which represents modern and dynamic Israel.

The Tel Aviv One organizers see the conference as a unique Jewish mega-event that will become an impetus for an extensive national project reminiscent of the historic emergency operations and the challenges that American Jewry has taken upon itself in the last 50 years, and which it has excelled at implementing.

Unflattering image

In addition to the paucity of young Jewish leaders and donors in North America, the conference is also meant to address the worrying phenomenon of the unflattering image of Israel that prevails among many young Jews. Although studies examining young people's attitudes toward Israel have shown that the vast majority express a basic level of support for the state, they reserve the right to criticize the country and discuss its flaws. In contrast to their parents' generation, for whom Israel was always right, many young Jews tend to examine Israel's behavior and pass judgment on the positions it takes on various issues.

Some people in the 25-35 age range view Israel as a militaristic country that they don't exactly dream about and don't particularly care to visit.

But on this trip, the participants will not only visit the country, but will also meet about 150 Israelis who, like their counterparts from North America, are considered to possess leadership potential.

The goal, according to an internal document distributed to UJC activists, is to hold a dialogue between future leaders from both the American and Israeli communities. The document characterized the conference as an experiment aimed at providing a look at Israel from the inside, making the participants proud of Israel's accomplishments and strengthening a feeling of responsibility and caring for Israel's needs.

Tel Aviv One is one of the most important events that the UJC has initiated so far, said UJC president and CEO Howard Rieger. He said the conference expresses a concentrated effort to transform a visit to Israel into a seminal experience for young people, especially those who have never been to Israel.

But what makes Tel Aviv One different from other Israel travel programs is that its organizers' ultimate goal is not to encourage immigration or visits to Israel, but to facilitate an unmediated encounter with modern Israel and expose participants to the vibrancy of life in the country as a way of spurring a segment of American Jewry to get involved in community life and take on leadership positions.

Rieger said the UJC wants the trip, including participation in the planned symposia and workshops, to instill in young Jews the desire to get involved in their communities and impel them to become leaders.

The UJC represents 551 Jewish federations and 400 independent communities in North America and runs an annual General Assembly conference attracting thousands of Jewish activists. The last GA took place in November in Toronto.

Nahman Shai, the senior vice president and director general of UJC Israel, who oversaw preparations for the event, emphasized the Israeli aspect of Tel Aviv One.

"It's important to begin constructing the Israeli experience for the sector aged 25-40," he said. "Jews in this age group are missing the two seminal experiences: the memory of the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel. At best, they are familiar with Israel on a superficial level, as it is presented and reported on television, and the time has come to show them the diverse faces of the real Israel."

Shai said Tel Aviv was chosen as the main attraction because it is "more attractive, younger, more secular and less serious." Would it not have been more fitting then to call the event "Sheinkin One?," Shai is asked. "No, heaven forbid," he said. "There is no intention to provide the conference with a secular emphasis. The program includes an extended stay in Jerusalem and a visit to the Western Wall."

Critical problem

If Tel Aviv One is to be judged by its ambitions and goals, it appears to have revealed an important and noteworthy issue. Leaders of Jewish organizations and communities in the United States, and those considered to be responsible for shaping its internal agenda, have finally recognized that the critical problem facing the community, with which it must cope immediately, is a local one. It is on their doorstep, threatening to blow up and destroy everything that has already been built.

The head of a Jewish organization in New York said that after years of activities in a variety of important areas, a mood of sobriety has recently intensified among federation leaders and community activists, accompanied by a feeling of loss and of having missed the target. He said the activists had suddenly discovered that in the midst of worrying about the local community needs, raising money for projects in Israel and fearing for the fate of the Falashmura, young American Jews had grown increasingly distant and alienated from Israel.

The American Jewish leader said local leaders and community activists have been startled to discover that the generation of Jews aged 25-40 is fading away. He compared the shock of recognition to someone who arrives at the train station only to see his train disappearing in the distance.

The generation in question are children of the baby boomers who are mainly successful and talented, many of whom have become assimilated into American culture and have no guilt feelings about the way they view Israel. The New York Jewish leader characterized the age group as an energetic and gifted human resource whose abilities have yet to be utilized in public communal life.

The neglect of this Jewish resource has resulted in an increasing feeling of alienation from Israel and a decrease in its centrality among young North American Jews. At the same time, the existing supply of Jewish leaders has diminished.

Community activists complain about an increasing lack of potential community leaders. They attribute the situation to an outdated agenda that no one in the world of organized Jewry has bothered to update.

A veteran community activist explained how neglecting the young generation has had serious ramifications. For years, he said, the large federations focused on activities in key cities in an effort to raise money from wealthy community members, and honored the major donors. He cited studies showing that about 80 percent of the money collected in federation campaigns comes from a small, and diminishing, group of donors.

At the same time, he said, the federations did not make an effort to create a supply of donors among young Jews, and those that did contribute did not get any special attention or appreciation, as the big donors did. For instance, a contribution of $5,000 from a young new donor was not considered noteworthy. Ten years down the road, the activist said, the young Jews who were ignored have made a fortune in technology, but prefer to contribute to museums or other places that have no connection to the Jewish community or Israel.

Series of failures

Rieger, however, expressed doubts about the theories as to why young Jews feel alienated from Israel, preferring to discuss the goal of Tel Aviv One: to build a Jewish leadership in North America that will lead the community in the 21st century.

He said many people tend to exaggerate complaints that Diaspora youth don't consider Israel sufficiently important or that they don't contribute enough. Every aging generation, he said, has a tendency to complain about the young people.

Rieger said he believes Israel remains central to American Jewish youth. When it comes to financial contributions, Rieger sees the issue as a matter of time, saying that it just takes a while for young people to get used to contributing to the local Jewish community or Israel. I didn't contribute at age 21 either, said Rieger.

However, an internal UJC working paper clearly shows that the accusations that young people are not involved in the community and the effort to change that through Tel Aviv One come in the wake of a series of failures that have piled up over the last few years.

For instance, the working paper states that the federations' message has not been internalized by young Jews, some of whom have no confidence in the message. It also notes that there are not enough young donors to assure the continued existence of the federation system or the vitality of the Jewish community. The working paper refers critically to the results obtained by the UJC's young leadership conferences, which it has held in Washington, D.C. for the past 25 years. It appears that spending two days in Washington and courting senators is not the best recipe for getting young people involved in the Jewish community.

UJC leaders say that the conferences did not particularly engage participants, leading the organization to come up with the Tel Aviv One program.

The working paper also includes a summary of the findings of various studies conducted in the last few years that have examined young Jews' participation rate in various community activities. The conclusion is that the participation rate is diminishing, even though studies have shown that young people donate generously to Jewish causes. In addition, the federations are losing young donors at a faster rate than they recruit new ones. According to the document, Jews over 50 years of age are 10 times more likely to contribute to the federations than are Jews aged 18-34, and twice as likely as Jews aged 35-49.

The globalization effect

Amir Shaviv, the assistant executive vice president for special operations of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, said globalization has left its mark on the Jewish world, leaving its imprint on the patterns of young people's responses to community needs and their relationship with Israel. Paraphrasing columnist Thomas L. Friedman's book "The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century," Shaviv said globalization has made the Jewish world flat as well. He said it has increased the challenges of maintaining a Jewish identity and curbing assimilation.

The Joint helped the UJC locate promising young activists in countries in which the Joint operates. As a result of the Joint's efforts, some 25 young people from India, Russia, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania and Uzbekistan will participate in the Tel Aviv One conference. For Jewish youths in small Jewish communities in these countries, said Shaviv, participation in the event is highly significant. For a Jewish activist in Croatia, which has 1,500 Jews, attending the Tel Aviv event along with hundreds of people his age from different countries will give him a feeling of Jewish cooperation and increase his readiness to serve his community, said Shaviv.

Talks with officials involved in preparations for the Tel Aviv conference indicate that they see the event as a chance to create a significant turning point in the connection between the community and the younger generation, along with the connection between young American Jews and Israel. However, it is difficult to shake off the impression that the UJC leaders' primary and genuine concern is how to stop the decrease in the number of donors and the amount they donate. It appears that the event in a Tel Aviv that is "as inspiring as it is exciting" must, from the perspective of the UJC, help assure the future of financial resources, the majority of which have long been used locally.

Beth Mann, director of the UJC's National Young Leadership, said that alongside preparing for Tel Aviv One, the organization has also formulated a plan to monitor the results of the conference and follow through in the next few years on information gleaned from the discussions and workshops to be held during the event.

Marc Schneier, an Orthodox rabbi who actively reaches out to young Jews in New York, agrees that there is an urgent need for Jewish organizations to involve young Jews and train them for key positions in the community. However, he cautioned, this is a task that demands a lot of creativity and originality.