My First Impression
From the start, I liked the sound of it. Six hundred Jewish professionals my age, flying in from places such as Los Angeles, Cleveland, and my own town, Detroit, for a Jewish-themed weekend at the posh St. Louis Ritz-Carlton.
I was drawn to the United Jewish Communities' (UJC) Central Region Young Leadership Conference because of the mid-March gathering's promise of deepening spiritual and cultural ties. Of course, as a young single woman, it wouldn't be a bad thing if I were to meet a nice Jewish guy. After all, the theme was "Architects of Our Jewish Future: Building Tomorrow, Today" and what better way to build a future than with a mensch? (I think my mom and grandmother would agree.)
As a TV news reporter in Metro Detroit, I spend my days running from point A to Z, reporting live from countless locations with a Fox 2 microphone. I was really anticipating stepping out of that role and blending in with others my age looking to add meaning to their Jewish lives.
Saturday Morning Fervor
At the opening plenary, I stood among hundreds of my peers. "Six hundred Jews in one place! It's like the High Holidays," said Mark Levine from Indiana, who was sitting beside me. Our keynote speaker was Rabbi Bradley Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism. Artson urged us to look into our souls to make a difference in our community. "God has no other hands in the world except yours," he said.
Artson talked about walking to synagogue with his son, Jacob, a protracted process, since Jacob is autistic. The rabbi said these initially burdensome, overlong Saturday morning walks ultimately reinforced the true spirit of Shabbat by forcing him to really notice the world around him. As a roving TV reporter guilty of rushing through life at breakneck speed, I was really struck by Artson's message.
Love in the Afternoon
Our afternoon breakout session was much more lighthearted. It probably won't surprise anyone to know that the lecture titled "Sex is a Mitzvah, and What Is Heaven, Anyway?" drew at least 100 people. By contrast, a concurrent discussion on Middle East policies drew a small crowd. Of course, rabbis Jay Perlman (Reform) and Phil Miller (Modern Orthodox) knew that the word sex is what drew us in. "Some of you probably thought we were going to have sex. Sorry to disappoint," Miller joked.
Despite their denominational differences, Perlman and Miller had great rapport, bouncing between them traditional and liberal perspectives on abortion, the afterlife, premarital sex. Both rabbis agreed that while sex is a mitzvah in marriage, premarital sex may not be. And, they added, since they "know what goes on in today's society," they advised us to reserve intimacy for loving, monogamous relationships. We figured as much.
On Saturday night, I went to the "Get Your Kicks on Route 66" party at the City Museum. There, I actually stumbled into an attractive, intelligent West Coast man. Let's call him "The Caveman," because we ended up hanging out inside a massive cave in the center of the room, watching others bump around in the dark. I also sat with a palm reader, who informed me that I'd have my next serious relationship before I turned 40. What a relief.
The Final Analysis
So did my friends and I achieve our goal of finding Jewish enrichment while having a fantastic time? Let's just say that we're all looking forward to Washington 13, the UJC's political action-themed national conference in February. By Sunday's closing plenary -- as I watched an on-stage medley of first-person testimonies and success stories by UJC-assisted individuals -- I realized that the weekend had passed too quickly.
Gary Stone, a friend I had met from Indianapolis, summed up the conference as "a good balance of socializing and learning." Others told me that they would have preferred longer panels. In the final analysis, there is something really empowering and fulfilling about being among those with whom you share so much common ground. On the cab ride back to the airport, I remembered what Patti Schneider, the Los Angeles-based Youth Leadership director for the UJC's Western Region, had told me.
"Everybody talks about how young people don't want to be involved -- how they don't care about being Jewish, but people just do," Schneider said. "Basically, I don't care why people come, whether it's to attend the lectures or hang out. I'm just glad they're choosing to be here, because a lot of what we are is in our souls; it's just a matter of rediscovering it."
Robin Schwartz lives in Detroit, where she works for WJBK-TV Fox 2 News. Staff Writer Michael Aushenker contributed to this piece.