It was a moment that almost perfectly defined thisweek’s United Jewish Appeal young leadership conference inWashington. In one section of the vast Washington Hilton ballroom,hundreds of young Jews were intently listening as special U.S. peaceenvoy Dennis Ross and Israeli Ambassador Eliahu Ben-Elissar gavesharply differing views of the current Israeli-Palestinianstalemate.
But just a few feet away, in an equally crowdedarea of the partitioned hall, Rabbi Debra Orenstein, leader of asynagogue on Long Island, exhorted listeners to find “spiritualepiphanies” in the mundane, and Rabbi Lawrence Kushner led the crowdin stretching exercises before exhorting them to work actively tobring more spirituality and meaning into their lives.
“The Kabbalists tell us, if your back hurts, it’sno fun learning anything,” he said.
That mix — everything from sessions on raisingJewish children to a rousing campaign-style speech by Vice PresidentAl Gore — represented the “yin and yang of this conference: Israel,and the connection people feel to the Jewish state on one hand, andthe personal quest for a more Jewish life on the other,” according toone young-leadership veteran.
Longtime observers described a continued shift inemphasis to a range of self-improvement interests, from Jewishspirituality to advice-column pop psychology, and, at the same time,a renewal of interest in Israel, which they say had been dwindling atrecent UJA conventions.
“There is a real interest in making personalconnections to Israel that I think has surprised some people,” saidRabbi Daniel Allen, executive director of the United Israel Appeal.”And the issues of Jewish spirituality and Israel are connected here;people are looking for a way to energize their relationship withIsrael in a very personal way.”
That craving, he said, transcends politics, and itdefies the conventional wisdom that the pluralism controversy isturning Jews away from Israel in droves.
“This conference gives people a chance to focus onanything that may spark their interest in anything Jewish,” said RonKlein, a conference co-chair. “It really gives people a sense of theunparalleled freedom and opportunity we are fortunate to have asAmerican Jews.”
Klein, a veteran of five previous conferences,said this year’s event was different because, “in the past, there wasalways an issue of imminent danger to focus on. This year, we facethe challenge of motivating people and raising their consciousnesswithout overwhelming crisis.”
The result is a shifting focus “to our corevalues, to what makes us different as a people,” he said.
UJA young leadership gatherings are always ayeasty mix — part singles weekend, part spiritual smorgasborddesigned to draw the young and the detached back to a more personalJudaism, part political-action seminar for tomorrow’s leaders.
And the glitzy Washington event, in particular, isdesigned to inculcate the habit of lifelong giving. Participants arestroked and coddled and told how important they are — not aninaccurate assessment in a Jewish world whose philanthropicstructures are threatened by assimilation and epidemic apathy.
“This year, people are talking about money again,”Rabbi Allen said. “For a few years, it was taboo, but now we’re goingback to UJA basics; there are sessions on how to raise money, how tosolicit. Fund raising isn’t a dirty word to this generation. That, inmy view, is very healthy for the Jewish community.”
This year’s conference represented a continuationof the recent trend to more spiritual content.
“People asked for more spirituality and Judaism,”said Baltimoran Howard Friedman, program chair. “Every year, we’veseen a greater interest in these kinds of programs, and we’veresponded.”
At the same time, he said, the conference’sstanding as a premier singles event has grown. “The conference hasbecome more of an attraction for Jewish singles, which is wonderful;it’s the best possible setting for Jewish people to meet.”
UJA officials estimate that a little more thanhalf of the 3,000 participants are single.
In a keynote speech that could serve as a summaryof the convention’s underlying theme, Rabbi Donniel Hartman,associate director of the Shalom Hartman Institute of Jerusalem,called on delegates to find new ways to identify with Judaism andJewish tradition.
“I am not in love with my Judaism because of thehatred of others; I need to find my own connection, a connection thatgives me meaning,” he said.
He urged the audience to create a “covenant ofmeaning. If you’re looking for God and you’re looking forspirituality and you don’t find it in your synagogue, don’t leave;join your rabbi and your ritual committee and change your shul. It’sin your power to demand something more of Judaism.”
But, in another example of the intriguingjuxtaposition of styles that characterized the conference, he wasfollowed by comedienne Rita Rudner, who described her own Jewish pastin comic terms — including her family’s membership in “the BethIsrael Temple and Yacht Club. It was a very fancy temple; we used toread from the Torah in French.”
The best-attended session on Sunday — as UJAofficials predicted — was a singles event featuring Jeffrey Zaslow,a syndicated advice columnist who offered advice on “the art andscience of ending your status as a Jewish single.”
But there were a host of smaller workshops onmeatier spiritual topics, including an overcrowded session withwriter and talk-show host Dennis Prager, who spoke on finding theholy in the mundane.
UJA officials tried to downplay interest in thepluralism controversy, but sessions on the subject were among thebest-attended at the conference. But unlike other venues, there waslittle rancor.
“The religious pluralism issue in Israel is amajor driving force for many people here,” said Alan Gallatin, a NewYork tax consultant and young leadership veteran. “Many people hereare anxious to learn what is being said about it and what thedifferent viewpoints are. They know it’s a big issue, but they don’tnecessarily understand what the issues are. So they’re here tolearn.”