April 6, 2006
Quick Passover trivia: How many times does the name "Moses" appear in the haggadah?
The answer is none, not once. The man who stood up to Pharoah and led us across the Red Sea out of Egypt doesn't even get a mention. And you thought "Brokeback Mountain" got robbed.
The standard explanation for this is that the rabbis who compiled the haggadah didn't want to make an idol out of the prophet. We are to read the story of our freedom and deliverance as a sign of the covenant between the people of Israel and God, or, if you like, between our own addictions and enslavements and our struggle for enlightenment.
In any case, Moses has left the building, and we are obliged to imagine how a great Jewish leader would look and act.
An understanding of Moses, after all, would help us understand how a person confronts the challenges of leadership. But there are ways to approach that subject. And that's why I went to Pat's last Friday night.
The upscale kosher restaurant on the corner of Pico and Doheny -- it's Mortons for the glatt set -- hosted a dinner for LiveNetworks, a yearlong intensive workshop in professional leadership for Jewish 20-somethings from around the country.
Los Angeles hosted the national kickoff for LiveNetworks last weekend, bringing together about 75 of the program's 87 participants. Hailing from five regional "hubs," the participants will meet about six times throughout the year in their hub location. In the process, they'll meet with local leaders and philanthropists, attend seminars and receive individual coaching and mentoring.
It's an impressive lot, chosen from about 300 applicants for their professional and academic achievement and their charitable involvement.
The young adults sitting around our table seemed to have this in common: They were curious or even passionate about Jewish life, and their Jewishness has imbued them with a desire to get more involved, but they were unsure what to do about it.
"I never imagined I'd be doing what I'm doing," Shira Landau told me.
Landau, an L.A. native, is assistant religious school director at Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades. She said she has found developing curriculum and working with intensely involved, professional parents rewarding, and she applied to LiveNetworks to learn new skills and meet peers who are similarly enthused.
She's among the half of participants already involved in professional Jewish life.
The other half are nonprofessional Jews, potential future lay leaders, with varying degrees of Jewish exposure.
Rachel Cohen, the daughter of a mixed marriage, had her Judaism awakened on her first birthright trip to Israel seven years ago. The trip changed her life: She switched majors from business to international relations, eventually getting a job with a U.N. ambassador and throwing herself into Jewish life.
Joshua Atkins, a studio game design director for Microsoft in Seattle, said he "came on a hunch." Although he had little Jewish background or education, he had begun looking for ways to get involved in philanthropy, and friends suggested he sign up. A program tailored to his age group made sense to him.
"This is a generation that understands things move very fast," he told me, speaking like a true video game designer. "They aren't going to be satisfied just watching."
Atkins took in the evening's program -- a quick, funny talk on making a difference from comedy writer Bruce Vilanch, and an energetic interactive Torah study with Rabbi Steve Greenberg -- and by the end of the evening was warming up to the idea he'd made the right choice.
This leadership exercise, to be sure, involves a certain amount of latter-day kowtowing to Generation Y or Z or whatever it is. Previous generations, including mine, had to get inspired without this sort of recruitment-style outreach.
Back when I first wanted to explore Israel, I visited the crusty youth program adviser at his dim cubicle at the old Federation building. He handed me some dated brochures for programs, and when I asked him the best way to get to Israel, his endearing reply was, "I'm not a travel agent."
Now, setting the hook in their eager young gums has become the new obsession of the uber-philanthropists and Jewish organizations. There is big money behind LiveNetworks: Michael Steinhardt (ID'ed in the information packet as a "demibillionaire), Detroit Pistons co-owner William Davidson and the Shusterman and Applebaum family foundations. Similar largesse has helped underwrite Reboot; the magazine Heeb; birthright; and other attempts to catch and keep these young'uns.
It's The Old Mensch and the Sea, where crusty, dying Jewish organizations fish desperately for the elusive life force that will land them a rebirth in the 21st century.
But while older studies, like the 2001 National Jewish Population Survey, showed a large number of these younger Jews don't attend synagogue or remain active in Jewish life, a slew of new studies prove the opposite. An up-and-coming generation is proud of its Jewish identity and culturally creative, JTA correspondent Sue Fishkoff writes. (See article on page 16.) It's "coming up with new methods of religious expression and feels part of a global community linked by Jewish Web sites and blogs."
Dining with this precious young cohort, I tended to believe the new studies. These Jews are not all that different from their older counterparts. They are not a different species after all, just a new generation.
This generation has the Internet to help educate and organize and connect to one another. At the same time, they have inherited a model of communal hierarchy and given that, being a new generation, they will challenge or even discard.
As Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion professor Steven Windmueller has written: "If the first 'revolution' launched the current Jewish Federation model 100 years ago, the second is now seeking to construct an alternative enterprise."
L.A. law student Gabriel Halimi said he and his friends wanted to raise money for Jewish causes but found mainstream Jewish organizations "too inflexible." So he helped found the Society for Young Philanthropists, which now raises and distributes thousands of dollars to worthy causes.
Today's Halimi could have been any one of the young lions of Los Angeles Jewish philanthropy circa 1950. In other words, I suspect these new "revolutionary" approaches are differences in technology and style, not substance. What I saw and heard at Pat's restaurant last Friday was passion, communication, a willingness to confront established power and a strong sense that the Jewish people have something to offer one another and the world.
Which, when you think of it, would be a good description of Moses.