Niche activities, not shuls or big organisations, are the key to keeping youngsters engaged
Last week I was a delegate at the ROI summit in Jerusalem, a powerful initiative to support Jewish innovation and impact the global community’s destiny. With me were 119 other young Jewish activists from around the world, including several from the UK, there to network and explore potential collaboration. Now in its third year, ROI —- an acronym for the Return On Investment that the Jewish community gains by funding young people and projects — provides a picture of a rapidly changing model of Jewish activism and leadership.
We have moved a long way in the past 20 years. University campuses in the 1980s were primarily focused on fighting anti-Zionism, with only three paid sabbatical students working for the Union of Jewish Students. There are now more than 25 full-time young community professionals and several Jewish campus organisations to complement the work of the UJS. While there were just 300 participants at my first Limmud conference in 1993, there are now 3,000 people annually attending Limmud events in the UK alone and over 20 international spin-off events.
But it’s not just a question of manpower and scale. Survey after survey has shown that Jews in their 20s and 30s are increasingly alienated from mainstream institutions such as synagogues and are looking for more individual ways of expressing their Judaism. At the same time, as we passed the 60th anniversaries of the state of Israel and the liberation from Auschwitz, community funders have had the opportunity to broaden their focus. While the mid-’80s was largely focused on battling attempts to categorise Zionism as racism, and therefore ban it under the “no platform for racists” policy, as well as promoting Holocaust-based education, there is now a shift to residential conferences that cover a wide variety of topics. Donors who used to be focused on funding Israel-based programmes are increasingly prepared to nurture
educational projects for diaspora Jews.
The ROI conference provided a glimpse of where the community is heading. Fellow participants included people running social entrepreneur companies, Jewish music festivals, teaching Torah through circus skills, eco-friendly Jewish sustainability projects and a plethora of initiatives based on individual expression that all go to strengthen the Jewish people. Much of my time was spent focusing on arts and culture, and our 20-strong group of writers, performers and producers has collectively reached four million people during the past five years. Singer-songwriter Michelle Citron had over a million views of her YouTube videos Rosh Hashannah Girl and 20 Things to Do with Matzah, while music promoter Erez Safar (aka DJ Handler) regularly stages Sephardic music events for thousands of partygoers and manages artists such as Chasidic rapper Y-Love.
It seems we are on the verge of what Malcolm Gladwell calls “the tipping point”, with Jewish events to suit all interests. The emphasis will be on highly individualised, minority projects — not “one size fits all” schemes and events. It won’t be long before UK Jewry, like its American cousin, is treated to regular holistic retreats, environmental seminars and Jewish technology conferences. Our children will be given a clear message that we have the capacity to encourage their individual expression and that the community has the ability to facilitate the realisation of dreams.
Financially, sponsors will certainly receive a return on their investment. Participants in ROI — which is funded by American philanthropist Lynn Schustermann — have all been sponsored to the tune of £5,000 to attend various leadership and skills development seminars, working on their own projects. This means that for every £1 invested in us, we’ve reached 800 people. That’s pretty impressive leverage.
But when it comes to nurturing individuals, the returns are about reaching out to disenfranchised Jews rather than showing bottom-line profits. Although it’s hard to measure the growth of spiritual capital, the sheer number of active participants in Jewish programmes suggest we’re on the right track.
There are always naysayers to the alternative programming, questioning whether this growing trend might splinter the community. All of the evidence is to the contrary, and rather than destroying our common fabric we end up with a cloak of many wonderful colours. Increased specialisation can only be a good thing, whether it is a summer camp that provides training in musical theatre or a super-geek techno retreat.
We still have the need for mainstream communal projects and organisations such as UJS, but now is the time to open events to a far wider audience by providing specialist options that are creative and authentic.
Philanthropists can be reluctant to fund individual projects, preferring established organisations. We can only look to the successes of the now-defunct Jewish Continuity, which took a punt on previously unproven
applicants, resulting in successes like the ingenious Besht Tellers theatre company. Funders, take note.
Marcus J Freed is a performer, writer, educator and creator of Bibliyoga (bibliyoga.com)