It comes as no surprise that in a world where many neglect the importance of community, iPhones, iPods and iPads are the trendiest gadgets. These devices represent a culture that desires to deconstruct the power and purpose of community, placing all importance on the needs of the individual.
Despite this societal disposition, I believe that many young people of this generation possess an ever increasing eagerness to live lives of meaning. With all the serious setbacks brought on by our new economic realities, the Gen-Y generation still had the opportunity to amass so much material stuff and travel with unprecedented frequency. But these fleeting objects and experiences do nothing to quench their thirst for a purposeful existence.
Just look at the new phenomenon in Israel in which “sheirut leumi”—alternative voluntary national service for those who cannot or do not serve in the military—once was the sole purview of the religious Zionist community. Recent years have seen a rise of new organizations such as Ma’ase, Shlomit and Sheirut Leumi Mamlachti empowering young adults of Israel’s secular community to volunteer for a year of service before their obligatory time in the army or enabling those exempt from army service who still wish to impact the destiny of the State of Israel. These organizations are collectively serving thousands.
One illustration of the same development appears at Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future, which sends nearly a thousand young adults on community initiatives, service learning trips and experiential learning missions across the globe. And the center cannot keep up with ever greater student demand.
Organizations throughout North America that work with young adults have seen a similar phenomenon and are working in partnership to create structures permitting all of us to better respond to this yearning. Recently a new organization, Repair the World, was established to help coordinate and fund successful models of this kind of engagement. It has even created a website allowing adults to find various short- and long-term volunteer opportunities around the world.
In contrast to this vitality, we increasingly hear of grayer board rooms, the passing of philanthropists who supported our organizations, the thinning of the ranks of dedicated volunteers and a dearth of professionals to service our many worthwhile organizations.
So how do we in the Jewish communal and educational world leverage the hunger of the Gen-Yers to insure the future health of our institutions? More importantly, how do we insure that this new generation brings its creativity, charisma and capacity to the leadership table with a commitment to Jewish ideals, guaranteeing the perpetuation of the soul of our sacred community?
We need look no further than these forms of experiential experiences as a start, for they transform young adults. I have often shared with students that their experiences on service missions should empower them to understand why the Hebrew word for giving, NaTaN, is a palindrome. For when one gives to another with the sole purpose of effectuating change, what one receives in return is as great or even greater than the efforts expended.
No more can we hear the old joke told among North American service providers that begins with a participant asking how does one say tikkun olam in Hebrew? Or why doesn’t Judaism have a concept similar to tikkun olam? Leadership experiences, whether in Israel, the former Soviet Union, Thailand or around the corner must be contextualized with the ideals of Jewish leadership. We must share the paradigms of leadership found in the Bible: that of the kohen (priest) and the navi (prophet).
Rooted in externals, the priest realized his holiness through the wearing of his special garb and his lineage. As the custodian of ritual for the Jewish community, he guaranteed that the form and the function of the Temple and the Jewish community passed on from generation to generation.
We must share with our young adults that participation in the identical rituals in which our great-grandparents engaged (and perhaps even using their candlesticks or kiddush cup for the Shabbat/holiday experience) creates a sense of continuity and immortality to the Jewish story. Like the kohen, our leadership experiences must serve as an incubator to engage our young adults in exploring and knowing the Jewish story.
Yet that is just half the job, for they must also embrace the role of the prophet. Dress and lineage possessed no consequence for the prophet. His/her concern rested in the substance of the religious experience in the effort to insure that the ritual not become robotic or devoid of meaning and purpose. Like the prophet, our young adults must experience a tradition imbued with passion and principle.
We must insure the placing of service learning initiatives and leadership opportunities within a rich Jewish context. This allows our experiential experiences to give voice to the immortal and contemporary traditions of our people.
The Gen-Yers wish to live lives that matter. They are hungry for community, and where they do not find ones that welcome them, they will create their own. They do not wish to escape but to engage; they do not want to judge or to be judged but to join. They do not desire indictment; they seek inspiration.
They also are not willing to accept the community silos of the past but are interested in models that perform. They are not interested in being silent partners in an organizational bureaucracy but want to matter and will accept process only if it leads to purpose. They are looking to change the spelling of their gaming console, the Wii, from two i’s to an “e.’’
If we create portals of entry, share with them our story undiluted or whitewashed, and find the courage to let them make it their own, they will do something that we cannot: guarantee our future.
(Rabbi Kenneth Brander is the David Mitzner dean of Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future. Its missions focus on helping impoverished individuals, Jews and non-Jews, around the world.)