TEL AVIV (Mar. 7)
Sipping wine at restaurants along the sea and strolling through streets lined with designer boutiques and cafes, the next generation of potential North American Jewish leaders took in Tel Aviv and contemplated its significance back home. “When you’re in your everyday life you can let your priorities shift, but when you come here it’s the shot you need to get your priorities back in order,” said Elizabeth Kaplan, referring to taking an active role in one’s Jewish community.
Kaplan, 34, a financial planner from St. Louis, was one of 1,000 young North American Jews who gathered for the four-day Tel Aviv One conference, which ends Wednesday. The United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group, which organized the event, hopes that a connection with Israel will help jumpstart involvement among young Jews whose interest in the federation system has been lagging.
Younger Jews tend to be much less engaged with Jewish causes than their parents, and the challenge in cultivating the next generation of Jewish leadership is to find what will resonate with them, organizers say.
Jews of this generation who may think of giving to their local soup kitchen or environmental causes before Jewish ones are especially interested not just in writing the checks, but seeing where that money is going.
“It’s not enough to sit in a fancy living room in Baltimore and talk about the challenges a community faces. We need to get our hands dirty and have moments of meaningful connection,” said Jennifer Meyerhoff of Baltimore, a national co-chair of the conference’s development committee.
Making that connection means coming to Israel, she said, and the only way to make that happen on a large scale was to make the event affordable.
In past years, the federation’s outreach to younger members was held in Washington. The plan now is to rotate the conference between Washington and Tel Aviv.
Most participants paid $500 for this year’s all-inclusive trip, while the UJC subsidized the rest of the $2,130 price tag.
“We had to make the cost so attractive that they could not afford not to go,” Meyerhoff said.
She added that participants were expected also to make a $500 gift to their federations.
“It has to go hand-in-hand,” she said.
Steve Marlowe, who co-chaired the conference, said previous generations contributed to Jewish causes almost as a matter of fact.
“Our generation is looking for more accountability,” he said.
The decision to have the conference in diverse, cosmopolitan Tel Aviv was a bid to show young Jews that Israel is a compelling, modern country with which they can identify.
“There was a clear recognition that matching young leadership with the city would be an ideal way to spark a real interest in Israel,” said Glenn Rosenkrantz, UJC’s director of media affairs and marketing.
Participants had the opportunity to tour Tel Aviv — from its fashion houses and high-tech centers to its first neighborhoods — and to see UJC-funded projects such as programs for Ethiopian pre-schoolers or at-risk teenagers.
With an eye to promoting young philanthropy, individual federations brought their participants to see projects that their communities are funding.
Barrett Cohen, 33, an investment banker from San Francisco, hadn’t been to Israel since he was a teenager.
He said most of his friends back home were only nominally involved as Jews. He jokingly refers to them as “Passover Jews,” but said that visiting Israel might change their perspectives too.
“I think coming to Israel would vault them into re-engaging,” he said, adding that being in Israel “puts a tangible, tactile sense on what I feel.”
About 70 percent of the conference participants had not been to Israel before this trip.
For Cliff Spungen, 41, who works in information technology in Pittsburgh, it had been many years since his last visit. The program has inspired him to be more involved, he said.
“It’s not just money on a piece of paper, it’s people’s health and education or physical things like seeing how Israel has grown,” he said. “It’s not throwing money down a hole.”
Howard Rieger, UJC’s CEO and president, said one of the conference’s goals was to give participants a sense that they belonged to part of a global Jewish community that needs their support and involvement.
“We have no one to look to but ourselves,” Rieger said. “We don’t have another partner other than the Jews.”