Last week, my father was looking for help. He’d recently teamed up with an Israeli nonprofit serving the mentally disabled, and wanted to recruit younger Jews to head up outreach in Canada. So naturally, he came to his 31-year-old son to help him bring young Jews aboard.
I called the first friend I could think of: a passionate Zionist who’d served in the Israeli army. “I can’t,” he said. “My father’s heading up a fundraising committee for Tel Aviv University, and he’s tasked me with recruiting young Jews as well.” One friend’s parents had roped her into bringing friends to a large federation event; another’s mother had cajoled her onto the temple’s youth outreach committee.
You hear it everywhere, from the bimahs of our synagogues to the boardrooms of our charities. “The young people!” our leaders cry out. “How are we going to get the young people?” Speak to any fundraiser, any committee chair, any macher with his name on a brass plaque, and they will all tell you the same thing: Our future depends on the young people.
The baby boomers know that their time is short and retirement beckons, as does the need to hand off the institutions they’ve built and managed to a new generation of Jewish leaders. But that next generation — my generation — isn’t taking up the reins as eagerly as hoped. Our donations aren’t flowing as freely, our volunteer hours aren’t as numerous.
This has led to bewilderment and frustration from many community leaders, who sometimes paint us as spoiled, selfish and entitled. All our fancy bat mitzvahs, instant online gratification, and free love with gentiles have caused us to neglect our Jewish responsibilities. We are wasting time on Facebook as our communities die a slow death.
There may be a kernel of truth to this, but it is just as easy to fault these same institutions for failing to inspire us. If the institutions that need our support want our talents and dollars, they need to keep a few things in mind.
First, our relationship to congregations and to Jewish charities is different than that of our parents and grandparents, in the same way our taste in music or clothing is. Your father supported the burial society and your mother the women’s temple auxiliary, but you threw your ideas and money behind Holocaust memorials and the campaign for Soviet Jewry, meeting the needs you saw as relevant to your own interests and the needs of the time. We are doing the same.
Second, we will see similar causes in a different light. Your involvement with Israel came from its birth as a fledgling state (complete with plucky kibbutzim), its harrowing survival in ’67, and the military miracles that followed. Back then, Israel was a startup, and the best way to support it was buying bonds to build the roads, forests and hospitals of the new Jewish state. For us, Israel is no less a passionate cause. But Israel isn’t a new nation anymore, and its political and military narrative is far more complex. Because of this, we support causes across the spectrum of Israeli society. Some of us donate to Peace Now, others start new settlements in the West Bank, and others join gay rights organizations in Tel Aviv.
Third, the best engagement with our community will come from institutions we build ourselves. Established organizations may scoff at younger Jewish startups like Hazon, (which promotes environmentalism), JDub (music) and Reboot (creative thinking), but these organizations resonate well with younger Jews because they were created and built by our peers to meet needs we see as important.
Finally, let’s remember not to panic. As long as there’s a Jewish community, there will be Jewish needs, institutions to fill those needs, and Jews there to staff, fund, and contribute to them. Just as the burial societies and Hadassah didn’t disappear when the baby boomers were born, so they won’t when their children take over. Some of us will follow our parents to their organizations, some of us will strike out on our own, and others will remain uninvolved.
And in 30 years, God willing, all of us Millennials will be pulling out our remaining hair, trying to figure out how to connect to the next generation of young people. The young people will just yawn, turn to their friends, and remake the Jewish world in their image.
David Sax is author of “Save The Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen.” He lives in Toronto, Canada.