Reaching young Jews is key, says JFed speaker


The keynote speaker at the Jewish Federation’s Annual Meeting told the audience that organizations need to find new ways to engage young adults to ensure a strong, vibrant Jewish community in the future.

Rabbi Andrew Davids addressed the audience at the Jewish Federation’s 107th Annual Meeting on Sept. 4. Rabbi Davids, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), said the “Next Generation,” or Jews in their 20s, 30s and early 40s often view Israel, and their connection to the Jewish State in a much different light than earlier generations.


“Elie Wiesel, teaches that ‘The opposite of love is not hate — it is indifference.’ And what we are seeing is that the overall trend of greater ambivalence in regard to Israel that is felt throughout the United States is also being experienced here in St. Louis. And in some cohorts within the community, this ambivalence is being replaced by indifference,” he said.

Davids said a study by Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman suggests reasons for young adults’ feelings of alienation from Israel. “Their research points to a number of reasons for this distancing: the more morally-complex wars of Lebanon in 1982 and 2006 and the two intifadas; the perception of a right-wing tonality in regard to both Israeli politics and the Israel-oriented organized Jewish community; and the reformulation of Jewish identity in America which gives primacy to the private, internal, spiritual experience over the ethnic or collective dimensions of Jewish life that shaped earlier generations.”

Davids said his generation and those before viewed Israel as a safe haven from anti-Semitism, a place for Jews fleeing persecution and political and economic limitations, and they witnessed the strong support from American Jews which was critical in the creation and development of the State of Israel.

“These were critical and important activities,” Davids said. “But a new reality exists that is going to require a completely different paradigm in regard to our Israel engagement agenda.” Younger Jews are living in a world where Israel has become a well-established, strong and secure nation; anti-Semitism has been diminished in the West; and there are no longer the great population shifts of Diaspora Jews taking refuge in Israel, Davids said.

“Any campaign or initiative designed to bring the next generation of Jews into the Israel conversation — and for that matter — much of the communal Jewish agenda — will require us to accept that these core ideas that have guided our work for the past half a century or more need a complete rethinking,” he said.

Rather than thinking in terms of “best practices,” Jewish organizations need to acknowledge that what may have worked for earlier generations will not necessarily work with the next generation, Davids said.

Groups need to look for what Davids calls “next practices” which take into account the changing generational attitudes.

“This cohort will either be engaged in a manner that allows them to age into our leadership cohort and into positions of authority and influence within our communal structures or these alphabet soup of institutions that do the sacred work of the Jewish tradition will be emptied of new blood, fresh ideas and renewed commitment,” Davids said.

Jewish organizations need to recognize that young adults tend to be more interested in building relationships than becoming dues-paying members of groups, he said.

“As long as we continue to require paid memberships, time commitments for committee meetings with unbounded agendas or timeframes for accomplishment, and hierarchical power structures that demand years of belonging and giving to reach the centers of power and influence, we will fail at bringing this generation in to where the conversations are truly meaningful and interesting,” Davids said.

Utilizing social networking sites to help connect young adults in a fluid way, along with creating opportunities for personal and professional relationships is one key, Davids said. Another is finding new ways to connect young adults with Israel.

Research has shown that on Birthright Israel trips, young adults form strong connections to the State of Israel through the young Israeli soldiers that travel with the participants, he said. “How can we create opportunities for similar interactions here in St. Louis and in other communities around the world where the young Israelis who travel the world after their army service are brought into our communities to build personal relationships with young adults? In what way are we helping bring Israeli students to Washington U and other campuses filled with our young people and helping them — not us — create organic opportunities for interactions, interactions that can lead to a lifetime of relationship?”

Part of connecting the “next generation” to Israel must involve “intellectually honest and open conversation about Israel,” Davids said. Studies have shown that many young Jews perceive Jewish organizations are “monolithic in our thinking about Israel, are nationalistic and right-wing in that thinking and that there is very little room for debate.”

“If we cannot discuss our own moral concerns about how power is used by the Jewish State, if we cannot share our own feelings about issues related to the different status between the Jewish citizens and the non-Jewish citizens of Israel, if we cannot expose this generation to the tremendous variety of opinions about peace and security, Jewish identity and pluralism, economic structures and the countless other issues that are on the tips of tongues of every Israeli, we are actually sending a message that other opinions, whether right or wrong, are not welcome,” he said.

Davids praised St. Louis’ Focus Israel program, in which Jewish Federation and local congregations have combined to connect people to the Jewish State.

“Our ‘next practices’ are being shaped as we speak. The work that you are doing here in St. Louis makes your leadership of Focus Israel a part of perhaps 500 people around the world who are engaged in this new type of thinking, analyzing and doing.”

JFed to consider resolution on Agriprocessors

The Jewish Federation will consider a resolution at an upcoming meeting regarding Agriprocessors, the Kosher meat company that has drawn fire for allegations of labor violations, according to Sheila Greenbaum, Jewish Federation president.

Greenbaum, during the annual president’s address at the Jewish Federation Annual Meeting, said she had been asked to discuss at the annual meeting a resolution that would stipulate that the Federation and its agencies not serve any products from Agriprocessors.

“I have been advised, however, that according to our by-laws, the Annual Meeting is not the proper venue for such action. What we can do, and will do, is bring the matter to our governing body, the Federation Board of Directors, for discussion. I want you to know that the leaders of the Federation, take this matter very seriously.”

Grosberg honorees

The Jewish Federation honored two young leaders with its annual Grosberg Young Leadership Awards. Ian Silberman and Shana Singer were recognized at the Jewish Federation’s Annual Meeting.

Silberman is a graduate of Washington University’s Olin Business School and is currently a project developer with THF Realty, Inc.

Silberman is involved with Federation as a board member, and he serves as a member of the National Young Leadership Cabinet and on the marketing and education sub-committee for the Jewish Community Foundation. He is also a board member of CAJE, and he and his wife, Heidi, serve as co-chairs of AIPAC’s St. Louis Initiative.

Singer holds a bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Missouri and a master’s degree in social work from the University of Denver. She is a member of the United Jewish Communities National Young Leadership Cabinet and serves on the board of Jewish Federation of St. Louis’ Women’s Connection. She has also served on the boards of Jewish Federation, the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center and Jewish Family & Children’s Service.

Barry Rosenberg, Jewish Federation Executive Vice President, praised Singer and Silberman. “They are emblematic of the exceptional young leadership we have here in St. Louis. Over the years, many of our most accomplished volunteer leaders won this award early in the career. We have no doubt that Shana and Ian will follow their example.”