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Seeking the Next Jewish Leaders

Holidays are marked by a campaign to preserve young adult Jews' cultural identity.

September 16, 2004|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

As the Jewish High Holidays start today and synagogues prepare for their largest annual crowds, questions are growing over whether younger, more assimilated Jews can be coaxed into the fold as future leaders.

Jewish leaders say the vast organizational network that has helped perpetuate Jewish cultural identity in America is failing to attract sufficient young talent. Many of the jobs in schools, synagogues and community service centers offer lower pay and prestige and an insular culture unappealing to people in their 20s raised in a multicultural world, they say.

"I feel very alienated by people who are wholly focused on the Jewish community," said Matt Loebman, 22, an account executive with Passion Marketing in Los Angeles who promotes Haitian development and affordable housing as well as Jewish causes. "I am pulled to want to be part of the larger progressive community, fueled by Jewish values."

Declaring an impending crisis, Jewish leaders have launched a $3-million effort to coax younger Jews to consider professional careers in lay and religious organizations. The campaign to recruit and retain potential new leaders, matching them with mentors and marketing Jewish jobs more aggressively, marks the community's latest initiative to turn back the tide of assimilation.

In recent years, the Jewish community has poured millions of dollars into sending 70,000 mostly North American young Jews to Israel, and expanding a network of Jewish day schools and summer camps. Most ethnic communities in America experience similar erosions in cultural identity, but few if any have devoted as much energy to reversing the trends.

"Without strong Jewish communal institutions, our identity and survival are at stake," said Gary Tobin of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish & Community Research, which produced a study on the problems.

In what is probably the most extensively organized minority community in the U.S., American Jews have more than 6,000 national organizations and scores of local bodies that provide education, social services, civil rights and Israel advocacy. Today, however, community leaders say that many of the organizations are scrambling to fill the posts.

Last year, for instance, the Union for Reform Judaism issued a report on the growing gap between the declining numbers of rabbis, cantors and administrators and the increasing numbers of congregations, camps and schools needing professionals.

Among other things, the union has begun programs to recruit rabbinic students, improve lay-staff relations and advise interested candidates.

Despite such efforts, Jewish leaders say many younger Jews are losing their connections to traditional organizations as they seek other careers, intermarry, weaken their ties to Israel and donate to non-Jewish causes.

"The problem cuts across all aspects of Jewish life in North America and is getting worse," said Robert Aronson, chief executive of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, who initiated the current campaign to recruit more young Jewish professionals.

A recent Los Angeles gathering sought to understand why younger Jews are opting out. The Professional Leadership Project, which was supported by philanthropists William M. Davidson, Michael Steinhardt, Eugene and Marcia Applebaum, and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, invited 150 young Jews in their 20s for a weekend of focus groups, town hall meetings and a career expo with community leaders and entrepreneurs.

Most of the younger Jews had been raised with a healthy Jewish identity. But asked why they were not working in Jewish jobs, some said Jewish organizations had alienated them, others expressed a desire for broader work and still others said no one had ever asked them to consider it.

Joey Shapiro, a 24-year-old Hebrew tutor raised outside Chicago, said he had been actively involved in Jewish life until he felt disenfranchised by Princeton University's Center for Jewish Life during his second year in college. He said his efforts to begin reading groups and discussion circles to draw in more Jews who were not necessarily religious were rejected by the older staff. Discouraged, he said he began avoiding Jewish activities, including Shabbat.

"I felt I should have been a very easy sell to keep me involved, but when I tried to start programs I felt shut down by the staff," Shapiro said. His remarks echoed one of the most common complaints among younger Jews: that their voices are not heard.

In a recent study of 48 Jewish professionals, Tobin Belzer of USC's Center for Religion and Civic Culture found that low-prestige jobs considered as women's work, long hours, an uncertain career path and a sometimes suffocating family-like environment had alienated many. But she found that traditional organizations did not hold the same appeal to younger Jews in the first place.

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