The Young Leaders

Israel is on its way to becoming a back-burner issue in much of the American Jewish community. Studies show that the younger the Jew, the less connection he or she feels to what is, let’s try to remember, the Jewish homeland. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which used to give Israel 50 percent of the funds it raised, has cut that figure by nearly half. One of the Federation’s “old leaders” pointed out to me that Israel isn’t even mentioned any more in Federation advertising — it’s bad for business. Israel has become a wormy apple for many American Jews — all this unpleasantness with the Palestinians and, on top of that, a hot, fuming plateful of disrespect for Conservative and Reform rabbis and the Judaism they practice.

Meanwhile, Israel no longer needs the money of American Jews, and American Jewry is noticing its own needs, especially addressing the ignorance and apathy of its native constituency. So priorities are shifting. That the Federation, despite all this, cares enough to mount projects in Israel and to maintain an Israel liaison office, directed by the indefatigable Marty Karp — well, it makes a person happy.

And, now, here come Los Angeles’ young leaders — aged 25 to 40, the next generation of Jewish Federation movers and shakers, currently still in training. As part of the “twinning” of Tel Aviv with the Los Angeles Jewish community, 14 of them came to Israel to see what has already been accomplished by the partnership, to meet their counterparts in Tel Aviv, and to think up new joint projects.

These young leaders too know all the bad news back home — the great sea of the intermarried; their uneducated children, high and dry out there in America; the great masses of the unreachable unaffiliated; and a dwindling of any sense of connection to Israel or to other Jews. Even anti-Semitism is way down, as if the rats are abandoning the sinking ship. Certainly these are profound issues for their generation to face, but, as one of them asked rhetorically, “How can anyone be a Jewish leader without a connection to Israel?”

Nonetheless, they came with a lot of inaccurate preconceptions — that, for example, your typical Yossi on the street, since he speaks Hebrew, knows all about Judaism. In fact, a surprising number of Yossies don’t know nuthin’, just like in America. Then there’s the surprise that the denominational labels and divisions that are the fabric of American Jewish life mean little in a country that knows only “religious” and “secular.” More confusing still, many “secular” Israeli Jews turn out to be quite religious by American standards.

For this generation of American Jews, Judaism has become, as one of the young leaders put it, “fully optional.” These people have chosen yes, and many of them have set themselves the project, not just of learning about the Jewish community they hope to lead but of investigating Jewish spirituality and Judaism’s classical texts, drawn to texts and observance because that is Judaism’s irreducible core. What one of the group called “mere ethnicity” will not long sustain Judaism in America; in the end, only religion will. That much has become clear.

So what do the young leaders want? One stated ambition is to “change the corporate culture” of the Federation. Another is to get “our generation’s agenda” recognized. They were light on specifics, though — none could name a “cultural” change more far-reaching than not scheduling meetings during workday hours or an agenda item more revolutionary than outreach to the unaffiliated, which the Federation has been trying to do for years, with limited success.

But their tone and style is new, and so is their focus. Maybe it takes fully acculturated American Jews, born in the second half of the century, to draw in others like themselves. “We’re role models,” said one woman, pointing out that Dor Shalom, the Israeli “peace group” founded after the Rabin assassination (whose young leaders our young leaders met with), has been successful in involving apathetic Israeli twentysomethings in a social movement.

But it’s not really so surprising. There’s an old story about a student who asked his rabbi what a person could learn from a modern invention such as the locomotive. The locomotive, his teacher replied, shows us that one hot one can pull along a hundred cold ones. I hope these young Los Angeles leaders can do the same. It seemed to me they were definitely going to try.

David Margolis writes from Israel.