October 26, 2006
Students remind General Assembly they’ve got a lot to give, too
Helping college students connect Jewishly through volunteering is one way of ensuring continuity after graduation
In 1969, a group of college students staged a protest at the premiere gathering of the organized Jewish community, demanding more say and more attention to issues that mattered to them -- such as Soviet Jewry, Jewish identity and culture. They also wanted a younger voice to be heard within Jewish power structures.
The demonstrations and vocal disruptions at the Boston General Assembly -- an annual gathering of federation and other communal leaders -- lead to the formation of the North American Jewish Students Appeal, which was funded by federations until 1995. Ever since then, students have been a part of the GA, which this year is taking place at the Los Angeles Convention Center Nov. 12-15.
As it has for many years, Hillel -- the international student organization that is supported in part by federations -- will host 300 student delegates, many of them leaders on their campuses.
The students, who registered at a reduced rate, will participate in regular conference sessions and a Monday night program of film and interactive activities that will expose students to new approaches to building Jewish communities.
But Hillel is trying something new to expose even more students to the organized Jewish community -- and to demonstrate to the community that students care.
On Sunday, Nov. 12, 1,000 college students from Southern California schools and from universities across the country, including GA participants, will be deployed across Los Angeles to do social justice work. They will lend a hand at more than 20 community service projects, such as the Beit T'Shuvah rehab residence, the Venice Family Clinic, the Midnight Mission and Heal the Bay. The program, called "Just for a Day," will end with an exclusive concert by GUSTER and the LeeVees at the Henry Fonda Theater.
"We know that community service and social justice are the best ways of engaging students, so by doing that in conjunction with the GA we are letting the students know about the larger Jewish community," said David Levy, director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council.
About 30 students are also participating through a journalism track called Do the Write Thing, sponsored by World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Press Association.
Student journalists get access to high-level politicians, publishers and editors, and this year will focus on Israel's image in the media. Many of the issues that faced students in 1969 still linger today -- how to make the established community understand the desire for culture and identity, for spirituality, to get the oldsters to listen to the younger generation's concerns.
And with today's wired movers communicating and connecting in entirely different ways, cross-generational interface becomes even more challenging.
"This is a qualitatively different generation," Levy said. "The whole way we organize is not the way they organize, and the pressures that used to be on students are not the same as they are now."
Student identity has become more complex, as a generation raised by multitaskers comes of age.
"Students have multiple identities and multiple parts of their identities -- like windows open on a computer screen. They have multiple windows open at one time -- Israel, spirituality, social justice, being a sorority member. We need to give them an opportunity to connect through whichever window happens to be open at that moment, and working within one window can lead to others and strengthens them all," Levy said.
That multipronged identity, and the desire for real-life community, carries through to college graduates as well, as young 20- and 30-somethings try to integrate into the Jewish community.
"The age of wine and cheese is over," said Rhoda Weisman, director of Professional Leadership Project, which inspires and mentors young people for work in the Jewish community. "They are looking for a deep connection to the Jewish people -- a meaningful connection. There is a search for spiritual depth and intellectual depth, and a very great need for community among them."
About 100 competitively selected leaders in their 20s and 30s are part of Weisman's Live Network, which every few weeks brings participants together at five regional hubs for seminars in leadership skills, Jewish content, case studies and personal development. The first cohort will soon begin year two, which will entail working with each other and experienced mentors to develop and follow through on a project.
At the GA, 10 participants in the Professional Leadership Project will be teamed up with seasoned Jewish communal leaders.
"The purpose is for them is to shadow some of the influential leaders, professional and volunteer, to learn about the inside workings of the Jewish community and to make connections for the future," Weisman said.
The young leaders will also be filming a documentary, interviewing people of all ages at the GA about how the next generation of leaders can affect the community, and what sort of changes they can or should make. The film will be posted on the Web.
Mostly, Weisman hopes their presence will have an impact -- both by allowing established leaders to dialogue with the up-and-comings, and by helping participants learn about existing organizations and structures to see where they can contribute.
"You can't change things unless you already know what is happening," Weisman said.
At the same time, she encourages the young leaders to integrate themselves into the existing community.
"Whether it's by working with an established organization or creating a new one, you have to be connected to the greater Jewish community," Weisman said.