Russell Radwin came from Alabama to meet people, because there are so few Jews in Birmingham.
Judy Feldman came from Beverly Hills to get ideas from other cities on how to plan Jewish leadership programs for Los Angeles in the wake of recent Federation cuts.
For Claude Furman, a Buenos Aires native who lives in Washington, D.C., this was the first step toward greater political involvement on behalf of Israel.
And I? I came to Washington 13, the United Jewish Community’s (UJC) Young Leadership biannual conference, in order to find out what concerns the 2,500 Jewish 25- to 45-year-olds from North America who will be our future leaders.
What I found, of course, is no one thing, except this: They are interested. Interested in meeting other Jews around the country — yes, to socialize — but more importantly, to ultimately marry Jewish. Interested in how to make tradition more meaningful in their lives. They are interested and very confused about the situation in Israel and, like most Americans, concerned about the aftermath of Sept. 11 in the United States.
They came to the Washington Hilton for all of these reasons and because they are interested in getting direction from the generations before them.
For three days, beginning Sunday, Feb. 10, direction came from politicians, rabbis, terrorism and media experts, entertainers, social activists and Jewish community professionals. From Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.); to comedian Richard Lewis and “Survivor” winner Ethan Zohn; to Israel’s Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Michael Melchior and the Israeli prime minister’s son, Omri Sharon; to Rabbi Elliott Dorff from the University of Judaism and Rabbi Levy Shemtov of the American friends of the Lubavitch, the impressive roster of speakers charged the attendees to take a more active role in the community.
“Leadership is a lifelong experience,” Shoshana Cardin, chairman of the board of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, said at a leadership forum session designed to motivate leaders to inspire their peers. “I believe that skills can be taught, but what can’t be taught is your vision, your fire within to see that your goal is accomplished. What we can do is help you define your vision.”
Not every person had a clear vision, though. And some people weren’t clear on what they would do with all they learned at the conference but said the advantages were more internal. Anthony Lowenstein came from San Francisco for his second conference and said it has “recentered” him. “I learned that I’m part of something bigger than myself, bigger than my career,” the criminal defense lawyer said.
The “leaders” at this conference aren’t necessarily at the forefront of their communities, either, though most are involved with their local federations. Yet the message throughout the conference was that everyone can be a leader, and every Jewish youth there can make a difference.
“Seize the moments of your youth to be not only the future leaders, but lead us today,” Lieberman told a packed plenary. “Judaism is about a dream. It’s about a future more perfect than the present,” he said. Deborah Lipstadt also echoed Lieberman’s sentiments, when the professor, who took on Holocaust denier David Irving in England, told a session that she couldn’t just sit back and “let someone else deal with it,” but to “stand up and be counted.”
Following the heavier political sessions, such as “Life in the Arab Street,” and even the less heavy relationship sessions, such as “Kiss My Tiara: How to Rule the World as a Smart-Mouth Goddess,” heated discussions followed into the hallways, dining hall and the bar.
“I don’t know the solution. Is there a role for American Jews to empower the Arab man on the street to help change them?” Sammy Kashy, a 35-year-old business developer from St. Louis told his friends on Monday night, with a cocktail in one hand and a plate of appetizers in the other. Kashy told me that there was a lot of information presented at the conference, but he wished there was more practical advice on what do with the information.
“What are we going to do now? I haven’t seen them provide impetus to action,” he said, quoting the conference theme: Abracadabra, Transforming Words Into Action.
But others felt a profound influence from lectures. Wearing a silver-and-black snug dress, Heather Greenberg from Los Angeles said at the black-tie cocktail party that she was very intrigued by the session “30-something, Jewish & Single: Am I Normal?”
“It made me think that you have to stay involved. I really need to marry Jewish! I always say, ‘He’s too Jewish,’ and I have to stop that.” She learned from that session that “there’s no such thing as too Jewish.”
For some, the conference reinforced their beliefs. David Crohn, a North Carolina native living in Los Angeles, first got involved last year at a regional conference in Phoenix. This year, he met up with his brother, Randy, from Atlanta. “I think it reinforces what I’m really interested in. Being involved Jewishly needs to be reinforced.”
For others, it was a chance to explore Jewish identity. Evan Busman, a 39-year-old from Atlanta who lives in Chicago, said what he got from the “30-something” session was that the elderly hold the key to identity. “A lot of the younger generation, 25-40, don’t have a clue,” he said. “We don’t have as much to put down, and that’s a big issue.”
Another big issue at the conference was Israel. Omri Sharon delivered an off-the-record meeting for UJC major donors, and smaller sessions dealt with the media bias, the chances for peace, foreign aid, and if we still needed Israel. (In one sad commentary on the price of terrorism, at a plenary, the audience was asked, “How many people plan on visiting Israel in the next year?” Only some 10 percent stood up.)
Israel’s needs, local Jewish community needs and international religious freedom were addressed as UJC followed up on its theme of turning words into actions by culminating the conference with a visit to Capital Hill. On Tuesday morning, the attendees divided into delegations and met with members of Congress and senators to discuss support for Israel and the war on terrorism, support for social service block grants (which restores $2.8 billion for essential community-based services) and to lobby for Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities.
Feldman of Beverly Hills said she was excited to go to the Hill. “We really need to be out there,” she said. The 29-year-old used to belong to The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ young leadership program until it was cut in December. Feldman once worked on the Clinton campaign, and said she enjoyed the conference’s bringing together politics and the socializing.
The social aspect was definitely the big draw for most people, though some said they found it “overwhelming.” Even comedian Lewis, disheveled from his trip from Los Angeles, took note of the mostly single masses and jokingly advised: “Mate like crazy. We need it.” Lewis confessed to finally dating an older Jewish woman. “If I had to explain Yom Kippur one more time to a 25-year-old….”
The socializing continued into the wee hours of the morning. Sunday night, each city hosted a party in its suite, with New York’s delegation (300 people) the big winner, with a DJ, knishes and hot pretzels. Los Angeles, with a smaller delegation of 80 (down a third from the last biannual conference, according to Monique Maas Gibbons, chair of the UJC National Young Leadership Conference from Los Angeles) was the only party with its own congressman, Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), wandering around.
Miami, D.C., Chicago and Philadelphia all had sizable delegations, and there were impressive shows from San Francisco, Colorado, Las Vegas, Toronto and Israel.
As in Hollywood industry parties, Washington political circles and New York business affairs, it’s all about networking. And so was the UJC National Leadership Conference.
The conference brought together 2,200 people from all over the country, and a fiery ball of energy could be felt. They are interested, involved and wanting to contribute. Now, when they return to their homes, it is up to us to utilize it.