What are young Jewish “leaders” and “thinkers” interested in?
If the 120 participants in the fourth annual Return On Investment (ROI) Summit last week in Israel are anything to go by, the answer seems to be: the same things as other starry-eyed idealists — student politics, human rights, multiculturalism and volunteering in the developed world. They also want to find other Jewish partners with whom to explore these interests.
The summit — organised by the Centre for Leadership Initiatives, founded by philanthropist Lynn Schusterman — is billed as a gathering of “young Jewish innovators from around the world”. Participants followed eight tracks, which ranged from Jewish Education to New Media. Four of the innovators were British; most of the others were from the US.
One of the Britons was Rachel Rose Reid, from London. A professional storyteller to adults, she lives with five other young people in the Moishe House in Willesden Green, one of 26 houses across the world which provide cultural and religious Jewish activities (see p25).
Ms Reid’s stories, which she tells in theatres and festivals, are based mainly on international folk tales. She sees her role as “melting cynicism and building bridges between different cultures”.
At first many adult listeners are skeptical about hearing a storyteller, “but by making direct connections to their lives through the stories, they understand the relevance”. Now she is trying to do the same with Jewish texts.
In the Jewish community, “people are sometimes nervous about doing new things”, says Ms Reid. For her, the ROI Summit has been an opportunity to meet others involved in similar projects in the US. Her hope is to break down the alienation many young Jews feel towards the ancient texts they are taught in Sunday schools.
“As a child, the biblical stories all seemed so distant and full of perfect characters. We need to hear about how they were complex and dealt with darkness, so people can connect that with their own lives.”
Dan Berelowitz, the director of Tzedek (which runs UK Jewish volunteer programmes dealing with poverty in the developing world, such as a project with 16 volunteers teaching at schools in Ghana) led workshops on the “Tikkun olam/service” track. It focused on “how to galvanise more young Jewish people to get involved in tikkun olam and how to engage at the same time with their Jewish values”.
From the discussions he learnt that most participants shared the problem of “seeking to provide a Jewish experience for young people, especially those not interested in going to Israel, while persuading the mainstream community that this is a Jewish thing to do”.
Also on the tikkun olam track was Hannah Weisfeld, who founded the Jewish Social Action and Innovation Hub — aka JHub — a forum for community volunteer and social projects. Meeting young Jews involved in similar projects “enabled us to think of ways of making young members of the Jewish community take part, particularly when they feel their views are often dismissed by the establishment”.
For Justin Korda, Director of Israel Programmes at the Centre of Leadership Initiatives, the goal “is to expand the definition of being part of Jewish communal life. Everyone here is working on projects that are innovative expressions of Jewish identity. Through these projects, people will get more engaged in Jewish communal life.”
While one main objective of the summit, like other conferences, was to create a global support network, the organisers also emphasised skill development.
They brought in professional trainers to provide 16 different workshops, which ranged from managing budgets and drawing up business plans to strategies for creating mass-gatherings.
After five days, it seemed that for most of the participants, the main thing they gained was a global support group and the feeling that they are not alone.