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The General Assembly’s Youth Deficit

Upon entering this year’s General Assembly of United Jewish Communities in Los Angeles, one is immediately greeted by colorful pictures of young Jews hugging beside the slogan of this year’s gathering, “One People, One Destiny.” The slogan reflects both the G.A.’s focus on the aftermath of Israel’s war with Hezbollah as well as widespread concern following studies reporting that there is a marked decrease in the younger generation’s identification with Jewish peoplehood.

One would think that, in light of this perceived crisis, the G.A. would have sought out young Jewish activists and that the Jewish professionals who had gathered from around the country would be lining up to interrogate us and find out what makes us tick. The entryway photo montage notwithstanding, this did not prove to be the case.

True, an assembly attendee would have found young people staffing the numerous booths on the convention floor. But when it came to substance, when it came to the nearly three-score sessions that focus the conversation of the G.A. and reflect the agenda of the organized Jewish community, the youth voice was largely silent. In fact, the number of sessions in which a young activist under the age of 35 appeared on a panel could practically be counted on one hand; the one session in which the state of young Jews was directly addressed, titled “Identity, Israel, The Jewish people, and the Next Generation,” included three young activists — each of whom were given only three minutes to respond to a presentation by Brandeis University professor Leonard Saxe.

This is especially ironic given outgoing UJC president and CEO Howard Rieger’s explicit promise at last year’s assembly to include more young voices. At an event billed as a midnight conversation with Rieger at the previous G.A. in Toronto, when Rieger was asked why more young voices weren’t included, he said, “I suppose we have to mature beyond the notion that engaging students at the G.A. is done through a shabbaton. [We need] not just a track for students but an intersection with others.”

This year there was no shabbaton, and nearly no intersection. This was certainly evident to Melissa Feld, a woman who went to Israel for the first time on a UJC program called Tel Aviv One. Since then, Melissa, who was previously disconnected from the Jewish community, has been searching for ways to get involved. She came to the G.A. because she had been told that every Jewish option would be on display. “I’m 25 and as I’m walking around, I either see things for college kids or graduate school, but nothing for me,” she told me. “Since I haven’t made my first million, there just doesn’t seem to be a way for me to get involved.”

Had Melissa made her first million, or at least had a good amount of disposable income, she could have donated $1,000 to her local federation and become a member of the Ben-Gurion Society. The society, a young philanthropy group UJC has put together to encourage young people to become givers to the federation system, was offered up by Rieger when asked why this year’s program included so few young voices. But the Ben-Gurion Society is anything but inclusive — and if this is the way UJC seeks to involve my peers in the organized Jewish community, it shows how very little the older generation of leaders understands about my own.

My generation might not have disposable income, but we have passion and a yearning to commit to projects and become part of a community. The Internet social-networking sites that are so popular among my peers are successful because of this desire to connect, to build, to express ourselves and our identities. And as a generation that came of age following the post-1967 revolution in Jewish self-image — when Jews went from powerless to powerful, from Diaspora-centered to members of a people with a sovereign state and its attendant responsibilities — ours is a moment in which the very meaning of being Jewish is up for grabs. Out of this uncertainty and change has come enormous creativity — inspiring blogs, movies, music, minyans and magazines — many of which are completely unknown to the thousands of dedicated Jewish communal professionals attending events such as the G.A.

Without understanding the needs and views of young Jews, how can the organized Jewish community plan for the future? If UJC truly seeks to make the G.A. an opportunity for communal conversation and reflection, it should make sure that our voices are front and center. If the organized Jewish community seeks to ensure its continuity, it needs to develop avenues for new leaders to help navigate the Jewish people through the next stage in our history. As Yeshiva University’s president, Richard Joel, said in a panel discussion titled “The Jewish Future” — a dialogue that, for all its brilliance, sorely begged for a young voice — in order to develop young leaders, you need to first let them in.

Ariel Beery is the editor and publisher of PresenTense magazine.

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