The Harbinger of an Inspiring Generation

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published May 22, 2008, issue of May 30, 2008.
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If I were in a grade-giving mode, I’d give them collectively, an “S”, for spectacular (followed by an asterisk).

The “them” are the 44 applicants for the New Israel Fund Social Justice Fellowship whose applications I have just finished reading. (The selection of the five winners has already been completed. Though I am not on the selection committee, I have been intimately involved with this program since its inception, and the perquisite which thereunto pertains is that I get to see each year’s crop of applications.)

Contrary to the prevailing common wisdom, which fashionably laments almost every aspect of the current crop of Jewish college students — they are allegedly dumber, less connected to Israel and to Jewishness, less devoted to social justice than earlier generations — these 44 are quite remarkable. They seem to me to be light years ahead of where I was at their age.

The fellowship is for a post-college year in Israel, working at one of the many NGOs with which Shatil, the New Israel Fund’s “capacity building arm,” is involved. The organizations cover much of the social justice landscape: Arab-Jewish coexistence, human rights, the environment, religious pluralism, immigrant absorption, women’s rights, community development, the bridging of social and economic gaps.

First things first: They’ve studied at Yale, Harvard, Brown, Berkeley, Northwestern, Washington University, McGill, Ohio State, Kenyon, Bryn Mawr, Duke, Tufts, University of Michigan, Wesleyan, Johns Hopkins and more. Among them there are already a Harvard summa and several magnas, with a batch more to come as those just finishing their undergraduate work offer near perfect grades. The selection committee could just as readily have picked 5 or 10 or even 15 others without diminishing the quality at all.

But that’s only a small part of the story. All have spent time in Israel, some of them very substantial time. Almost all are proficient, and some entirely fluent, in Hebrew; a quarter of them are fluent in Arabic, and another quarter have begun studying Arabic. A bunch have been down to New Orleans to help in the Katrina aftermath, and a bunch have been very active on the issue of Darfur.

In general, they’ve done volunteering, often intensively, since they were kids. And oh, have they traveled, spending time, often a semester or more, in Morocco, in Bosnia, in Buenos Aires, in Thailand and South Africa and India and Italy and a dozen or more other places.

If there were the space here to quote extensively from their essays, you’d doubtless be as charmed — and impressed — as I. The single most heartening element that almost all have in common is that they “get” the intimate connection between Judaism and social justice. Most intend to live their lives at that connection.

By and large, they are very critical of Israeli society — and want to lend a hand to repairing it. They are, dare I use the word, Zionists or, better yet, lovers of Zion, and there is reason to think them less a throwback to an earlier time than a harbinger of an inspiring generation.

For many, September 11 was a wake-up call. Here, at some length, is one such:

“I grew up in an era of great optimism. When I was 10 years old, Nelson Mandela was released from prison, signaling the beginning of the end of apartheid. When I was 11, the Soviet Union collapsed, and gradually, the former republics began to declare their independence. When I was 12, I learned that the Israelis and the Palestinians were undertaking historic negotiations, and when I was 13, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn.

“Those two leaders won the Nobel Peace Prize shortly after my 14th birthday, and a year later, they signed the Oslo II agreements. My 16th year saw the first democratic elections of the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli withdrawal from Hebron. The following year, peace talks resumed in Northern Ireland, offering hope of peace to a land that had been fraught with violence for decades. When I was 18 years old, those talks climaxed with the signing of the Good Friday Agreements, and the Nobel prize was awarded to David Trimble and John Hume.

“While some of these events may have been lost on my friends… [for me it] was the stuff of dinner table conversation. It’s easy to see why I grew up an optimist…. To a young teenager in the 1990s, it seemed as though even the most complicated of problems had a way of working themselves out.

“Sadly, that era soon came to a close. By the time I was in college, most of these breakthroughs seemed to be unraveling. The former republics of the Soviet Union were awash in strife, and the second intifada brought tensions between Israelis and Palestinians to a new height. When the twin towers came crashing down in September 2001, it appeared that we were living in an era marked by a decisive rift between the Western world and the Islamic world.”

Yet for this applicant, as for others, September 11 was not a signal to retreat from the world’s madness to a more private sphere; it came as a wake-up call, prompting them to learn about Islam, prompting some to invest in Jewish-Muslim dialogue groups on campus. Indeed, of the areas of concentration the fellowship program provides, most choose Arab-Jewish coexistence as their first priority (with religious pluralism running a close second).

I’ll tell you more about them in a coming column; they are well worth the space.

Oh yes, the asterisk: It is shocking that so many failed to proofread their applications, confusing “affect” and “effect” and such. It is distressing that a significant minority write poorly, clumsily. But there are no more than half a dozen that might therefore be summarily dismissed. There may, after all, be a future to our past.

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