When Jonathan Schulman went on a mission to Israel 1995, he said his life was forever changed, because he started getting involved. "I got engaged because there were opportunities for me to build on that experience," said Schulman, director of the recently established Young Leadership Program of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
Schulman, who is in his mid-30s, hoped that the other 61 Los Angeles young Jewish leaders would be similarly inspired at the United Jewish Community's (UJC) Young Leadership Regional Conference, which took place March 7-9 at San Francisco's Westin St. Francis Hotel.
While many in the Jewish establishment bemoan the lack of involvement of young people and wonder how to get the next generation interested, the conference attendance proved that many -- 600 people from the Western Region -- are eager to become involved in the Jewish community and even lead it.
"People want to be involved and appreciated and want to make a difference," Schulman said. "Some people are looking for social opportunities or something more educational or to make a difference; all three of those things can overlap."
And overlap they did, at a weekend replete with lectures, workshops, prayer services, meals and the after-hours hanging out, as politicians, lay leaders and Jewish professionals gave guidance on how to make a difference.
The conference's theme was, "If you will it, it is no dream." Throughout the lectures, the conference stressed personal responsibility and activism. The topics ranged from the practical to personal, like "The Fine Art of Fearless Fundraising" and "How to be a Media Maven," to "From Humdrum to the Holy: How Can Jewish Values Transform Your Life?" and "What's So Funny About Being Single?"
"My hope is that you will pursue whatever it is that you find meaningful and that you will institute change," said Stephen Selig, UJC national campaign chairman, at the opening event at The Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.
For many young leaders, it was less about finding motivation to take action and more about learning how to exercise their influence.
For the majority of the participants, Israel was first on their agenda.
"There's a lot of anti-Israel sentiment, and it's hard to know how to answer it," said Gretchen Koplin of Minneapolis.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee led the effort with workshops such as "Becoming Effective Advocates for Israel" and "Political Action That Makes a Difference."
Three participants who came to the conference from Israel said they were touched by the eagerness to help.
"We're stunned by it," said Roni Madmoni, a representative of the Partnership 2000 Israel Leadership Project, a community service program in Israel. "Jews from all over the country coming together to help."
"All the Jews here have quality of life, but they understand that it wasn't always," the 27-year-old continued. "They understand that in order to stay Jews and enjoy life, they have to keep Israel out of the water ... not drowning."
The conference also provided an on-site opportunity to record video messages to Israeli soldiers, staged a book drive for Israeli children and conducted a Jewish bone marrow drive. In addition, there were boutiques selling Israeli-made products.
"There's a very action-oriented point of view," said Minneapolis resident Tali Veiner. "To hear these talks reminding us that you can make a phone call, you can do XYZ, you can make a difference ... it's important."
As the weekend progressed, Jewish leaders continued to prepare participants for the challenges that lay ahead, all the while posing the ultimate challenge to take action within their own communities.
The weekend's keynote speaker, radio talk show host Dennis Prager, told participants, "We are living in a decisive time in human history.... You, as an American Jew, are at the center of history, and I suggest that you like it."
Some participants were motivated by the speakers.
"We're really in need for people to speak up for us," said Richard Aranow. "It's important to connect with others; I'm hoping to arm myself with more knowledge about what people think and how things work."
Others enjoyed the networking opportunities.
Â "In New York it's easy to meet and talk with Jewish folks every day," said Keith Gottfield, an executive from Silicon ValleyÂ who moved from New York two years ago.
The conference gave Gottfield a chance to meet people and exchange views.
"It's reassuring that there are channels in the West Coast to be able to connect with the Jewish community on whatever level you want," he said.
But whatever aspect of the conference they enjoyed, most of the participants left armed with awareness of the power of one.
"Each of us has hopes and dreams, and the beautiful thing,"Â said Mark Wright, "is that we have the opportunity to make them come true." Â