What's the difference between ignorance and apathy? The answer to the old joke -- "I don't know and I don't care" -- has often been used to define young Americans of the past decade. It was tres en vogue to depict the rising generation of 20- and 30-somethings as disconnected, disillusioned and disenfranchised.
Today young Jewish professionals often are diagnosed with that same detached attitude toward their faith and their connection to Jewish culture. So goes the stereotype, along with the concern for the future of the Jewish community.
Yet on closer examination, it is evident that a growing number of young Jews are committed to preserving links with their heritage and with each other. The Journal recently spoke with several of these individuals to find out not only how they remain connected to their Jewish roots, but why.
Hailing from a cross-section of the community's diverse subcultures, these individuals may not be the most powerful or influential young Jews in L.A., but they may be among the most important. They comprise the builders of L.A.'s future Jewish community, using their abilities to participate rather than complain, to take good ideas and turn them into great actions. They have distilled and implemented Jewish values to help improve the world around them and around us. Ultimately, it boils down to the two sentiments absent from their philosophical lexicons: "I don't know" and "I don't care."
Lee Broekman: Activist and Dignitary
The most rewarding aspect of her public service has been the ability to make things happen, said Lee Broekman, the field deputy in Los Angeles Councilman Michael Feuer's office. She recently helped coordinate the project to create a playground at Griffith Park for children with disabilities, the first of its kind on the West Coast. "The kids were so thrilled," she said, recalling the grand opening of the park.
Feuer told The Journal that Broekman is exceptional. "I've been very fortunate to have worked with an array of outstanding young people in my career, but Lee certainly stands out as someone whose future has no bounds," Feuer said. "Lee wants to connect her academic training and her deep concern for people. For her, politics is something that has a reason. I see her with the potential to be a leader far beyond our city."
It's hard to believe that the Israeli-born activist is only 24 years old, given her deliriously dense résumé. She graduated magna cum laude from the University of Judaism's (UJ) College of Arts and Sciences in 1998, receiving UJ's Academic Excellence Award, and delivered the commencement speech on the topic of Jewish leadership.
Her push toward public life came in college, when she was galvanized by the impact made by her school newspaper, Catalyst. She became the paper's junior-class representative, then editor-in-chief. "People weren't just complaining but posing solutions to the issues they were not satisfied with," she recalled. Right after college, Broekman married schoolmate Jeremy Broekman (now director of the UJ's Alumni Affairs).
After graduation, Broekman accepted a fellowship with the Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs. As a Coro Fellow, she immersed herself in the world of public policy.
At Coro, Broekman found herself surrounded by people "like me -- idealistic, if not to change the world, to change their world. I went from thinking everyone's apathetic to everyone's involved," she said.
Within a year, she interned at the California Employment Development Department, the Federal National Mortgage Association, the L.A. County Federation of Labor, the AFL-CIO, L.A. Department of Water & Power, L.A. Urban Funders, the Department of Health Services, Los Angeles Unified School District and KCET's "Life & Times."
Broekman got into local politics in 1999, working on election campaigns such as Phil Angelides' bid for state treasurer and for County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. But it was her college experience as resident adviser that led her into her present position in Feuer's office. "It prepared me for dealing with quality of life issues. Here it's on a grander scale," she said.
Broekman continues to give back to the institutions that shaped her world view. She serves as a member of Coro's Alumni Association Board of Directors and at the UJ, she sits on the Alumni Steering Committee, lectures on journalism and is the Catalyst's faculty advisor. She also joined the Anti-Defamation League's (ADL) Young Leaders Committee after working with the ADL's Salvin Leadership Development Institute, for which she has spoken on everything from hate crimes to Mideast affairs.
"A lot of my other friends are not as participatory," Broekman observed. "I used to get discouraged about it, but I understand that not everyone has the desire to be involved. I don't think it's that they necessarily don't care about the world around them. Some are not intellectually stimulated enough to do something about it," she said.
Broekman's philosophy is simple: "To educate others, you first must educate yourself. That's what I feel right now -- that I'm laying the groundwork to inform people on issues of local, national, and international concern."
Come June, Broekman will serve as ambassador of goodwill in the Netherlands. As a Rotary Foundation ambassadorial scholar, Broekman will pursue graduate coursework in international relations and political economy at the University of Amsterdam. She will lecture on American policy to Dutch audiences and, in turn, will report on Holland upon her return to the U.S.
Born in Ramat Gan, Broekman spent her first decade in Israel before she moved to California in 1986. She grew up in the Valley in "a pretty traditional" Yemenite Moroccan family, she said, adding that both sets of grandparents were "very Orthodox."
It was while working on her graduation commencement address that Broekman contemplated the meaning of Jewish leadership. "I take my values, both cultural and traditional, and bring them into the world at large," she said. "I wasn't necessarily going to be a leader in the Jewish community, but a Jewish leader nevertheless. I cannot divorce the two. It's so part of who I am."