It comes as no surprise that in a world where many neglect the importance of community, iPhones, iPods, and iPads constantly and consistently appear as 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 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 has 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 where sheirut leumi was once the sole purview of the religious Zionist community; recent years have seen a rise of new organizations 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. These organizations are collectively serving thousands.
One illustration of the same development appears at Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future. We send close to a thousand young adults on community initiatives, service learning trips, and experiential learning missions across the globe and cannot keep up with ever-greater student demand.
Organizations around 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 and has even created a website allowing adults to find various short- and long-term volunteer opportunities around the world (http://search.werepair.org/service).
In contrast to this vitality, we increasingly hear of grayer boardrooms, 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 Gen-Yers to insure the future health of our institutions? More important, how do we ensure 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 one says tikkun olam in Hebrew. Leadership experiences, whether in Israel, the FSU, 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 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, whose concern rested in the substance of the religious experience in the effort to ensure that the ritual not become robotic or devoid of meaning and purpose. Like the prophets, our young adults must experience a tradition imbued with passion and principle. We must see to the placing of service learning initiatives and leadership opportunities within a rich Jewish context, allowing our experiential experiences to give voice to the immortal and contemporary traditions of our people.