Listening to Younger Voices at the GA

By John S. Ruskay

Many in Federation leadership spend considerable time focusing on what will most effectively engage the next generation. In today’s open society, how can we strengthen the likelihood that Jews will self-identify not because they have to, but because Jewish life provides meaning, purpose, and community? How can UJA-Federation, an organization closing in on a century, attract those who seem to prefer the glamor of a start-up? These questions weigh heavily on us. So you can imagine the delight for many of us attending the General Assembly (GA) in Denver when the case for Federations was being made by some of the younger voices with unexpected passion and eloquence.

The GA is the largest annual gathering of the Jewish philanthropic world. This one was somewhat different. Instead of inviting the young to listen to the leaders of the largest organizations and veterans, many from the next generation were given significant platforms to speak — and speak they did. Hillel students and Masa graduates. Young rabbis and entrepreneurs at the helm of start-ups (often supported in part by Federations). Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, co founder and executive director of Mechon Hadar, served as scholar-in- residence and presented inspiring Torah-based perspectives on critical issues.

Sure, we also heard some critiques on how “the organized Jewish community” could do better. But we also heard talk about collective responsibility and the unique role of Federations to provide vital services for the elderly and the poor, strengthen Jewish identity, and build strong Jewish communities throughout the world. It appears that in the process of learning more about their communities and those beyond, some of the young have begun to gain a newfound appreciation for Federations. A small but growing contingent wants to determine how we might collaborate more effectively. Ideally, we will continue to challenge one another while we learn to partner, all with the hope of strengthening the Jewish future.

All of this was made even clearer when I returned home and found an email in my inbox with the subject line: “Time to Write a Check to Federation.” No, it wasn’t from UJA-Federation. It had been dispatched by Nigel Savage, founder of the Jewish environmental group Hazon, one of the most successful, innovative organizations and a leader of the informally connected world of Jewish start-ups for over a decade. I invite you to read the piece.

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