BALTIMORE — Many in the organized Jewish community believe that young Jews with no religious affiliation don’t care about being Jewish, but it’s not that simple, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said Sunday at the 81st general assembly (GA) of Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) in Baltimore.
“Some don’t care at all, but others do care, even deeply, about their Jewish identity and spirituality,” he told an audience of more than 3,000 delegates at the opening plenary. “But Jews in their 20s and 30s are hungry for meaning and purpose in their lives. And too many of them assume that they will not find what they are seeking in the organized Jewish world.
“Tikkun olam is the pathway for most young Jews to live a life of Jewish commitment,” Rabbi Jacobs said. He lauded federations and synagogues for being “prepared at a moment’s notice” to feed, clothe and shelter countless people in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
Such work “can surely inspire the wider Jewish world to join this work of fixing the brokenness in our world,” said the rabbi, who was scholar-in-residence for the three-day event.
The recent hurricane highlights the way the federation system responds to emergencies, Genine Fidler, GA co-chair with Linda Hurwitz, said. “No less than two weeks ago Jewish federations through JFNA raised more than $1 million to help victims of Hurricane Sandy.”
The JFNA, which represents 155 Jewish federations and 400 non-federated “network” communities, distributes more than $1 billion annually for social services and educational needs locally and overseas.
Jerry Levin, president of UJA-Federation of New York, thanked JFNA for its allocation of funds in the immediate wake of the hurricane, when cash was needed.
Kathy Manning, chair of JFNA’s board of trustees, said that after becoming involved in federation work more than 20 years ago, she realized that she had become part of something “much larger than myself, and much larger than my community.”
She also spoke about the next generation, noting that some people say the federation system is “an old model that won’t survive, because today’s donors are more independent, less connected to Israel, and less connected to the Jewish community.”
But Manning doesn’t believe it, she said. “I’ve seen how Jews of all ages find meaning in the work we do together as a community.”
David Gergen, CNN senior political analyst, said the recent U.S. election should remind everyone, not just those in politics, that it’s time “to understand we have to be part of a more diverse society in which we listen to more alternative voices… We don’t have to leave the table, but we have to make a bigger table.”
On a larger scale, he said that recently re-elected U.S. President Barack Obama sees the United States’ relationship with China as “the most important bilateral issue in the world.” Gergen added that Obama and his team would “basically like to reduce the amount of engagement and time they spend on the Middle East.”
However, he said, they realize they can’t do that because too much is at stake in the Middle East. Gergen cited the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Arab Spring, and – above all, the “one issue that could explode in the next 24 months” – the United States’ relationship with Iran.
There is “a serious possibility we could have a serious crisis in Israeli-U.S. relations,” Gergen said. “I think what’s most important in the next few months is to open a new chapter in U.S.-Israeli relations.”
Gergen, a Protestant who said he was at the GA as “a friend of Israel and the Jewish community,” traces his views in part to a trip to the Middle East when he worked in the White House during Richard Nixon’s presidency, and also to his daughter’s conversion to Judaism.
Following the plenary, Toronto physician Elyse Lackie, JFNA’s chair of national young leadership, echoed some of the concerns expressed at the opening event. She told The CJN, “We’ve got to become more relevant to the next generation [by] meeting Jews where they’re at.”
Allen Chankowski, a father of two day school students, became involved in federation about 18 months ago. He said that Lackie is introducing him to the world of Jewish leadership at the GA. “I understand what Jewish education does for the community. I’m here to further my own understanding of that.
Adam Singer, president of the Calgary Jewish Federation, said he hoped he would bring back new ideas and “the sense of our community’s connection to a very vibrant Jewish world… There are good reasons for us to be optimistic about the next generation’s engagement, and we have to recognize that they are going to engage in ways that are going to look different from our generation, and we have to be ready to embrace that.