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We need Jewish Continuity, not Organisational Territoriality

May 1, 2011 – 9:15 pm24 Comments

A "Meshugga" Beach Party may not necessarily be the panacea some Jewish organizations believe it to be.

By Manny Waks

In the article, Give Us the Tools to Define Our Involvement, Joshua Einstein cogently articulates the major challenges and obstacles inherent in the global predicament of Jewish continuity. The term “continuity” is ubiquitous in contemporary Jewish community discourse. Broadly, it defines the continuity of “Jewishness”, both as our collective identity and as a values framework.

In his article, Mr Einstein rightly criticises the existing structures of the mainstream Jewish community. He states, “Rather than focusing on giving the younger generations the tools to define their involvement and their identity—empowerment and enfranchisement—the vast majority of the organized effort has been geared toward retention and replacement.”

Mr Einstein refers to not only the futile focus of the current leadership to retain younger members of the Jewish community within an unsatisfactory framework, but also the need to ensure a succession plan whereby these future leaders will take a leadership role. He makes clear the urgency for an autonomous younger generation to launch their own initiatives with the moral and financial backing of the existing community leadership.

I am one of the small minority of the Jewish population in Australia who are in their mid-thirties and deeply involved in Jewish representative groups. All too often I hear criticism from young Jewish adults who perceive their community structures as irrelevant, lacking a contemporary framework, and at times alienating. This is more than a hackneyed gap between the generations.

Dissociation from the Jewish community plays a large part in the current crisis in Jewish identity and continuity and poses a challenge of great magnitude to the future of the global Jewish community.

Despite claims that young adults are indeed involved in community leadership, a closer examination reveals a dearth of representation, apart of course from tokenistic Board representation and the increasingly popular Israel-focussed young adult groups such as Young UIA, Young MDA, JNF Next Generation etc.

Anyone concerned with the future of our community should be willing to assess the effectiveness of the existing organisational structures. Certainly I can attest to the great work undertaken by many of our community organisations, but unaccountably they do not engage those who will shape the Jewish community of tomorrow. Despite important tasks such as lobbying and policy development, any representative body must also be just that, representative of every demographic. The younger generation seeks to be heard, or at the very least, have a substantive and ongoing exchange with those that claim to have a representative agenda. Currently, however, they are not finding enough opportunities that are relevant and engaging.

Moreover, young Jews are regrettably alienated by prevailing approaches to the advocacy of Israel. I am unequivocally supportive of Israel—my birthplace and spiritual homeland—and at the age of 18 I travelled to Israel to serve in the Golani Brigade. I have also published widely in support of Israel and accept its centrality in the Jewish consciousness. However, and tragically, many young Jews are at best indifferent, and at worst antagonistic towards Israel.

In his 2010 article, The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment, Peter Beinart notes that, ‘In recent years, several studies have revealed, in the words of Steven Cohen of Hebrew Union College and Ari Kelman of the University of California at Davis, that “non-Orthodox younger Jews, on the whole, feel much less attached to Israel than their elders,” with many professing “a near-total absence of positive feelings.”’ Inevitably, many within the younger demographic are alienated by the uncritical alignment with Israel of our structured communal roof bodies. National and State communal roof bodies should focus largely on matters that concern the local Jewish community. Advocacy of Israel should instead be the province of those organisations who unambiguously have this mandate. This would, to some extent, prevent the alienation of those Jews who do not have a favourable view of Israel.

Jewish communal politics can be complex, a fact often intensified by a rotating leadership structure, where often the same small groups of individuals fill positions in one organisation after another. The range of experience they take with them is certainly valuable, but instead of evolution we get stagnation. This is not a path to leadership that attracts the average young adult nurtured in a world of individual empowerment, social networking and green politics.

Unfortunately, the debate on “organisational territoriality” (geographical or otherwise) that arises all too frequently also entrenches the negative attitude of many in the younger demographic towards the existing communal framework.

Gary Rosenblatt, Editor and Publisher of The Jewish Week, recently wrote an opinion piece, Marking A Centennial And Worrying About The Future, based on a panel discussion he moderated at the Kesher Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C. This discussion was aptly titled New Generations, Old Institutions. Panellist Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, commented that one reason that “young people are creating their own institutions” in the Jewish community is because “we talk too much and listen too little.”

It is time we look more closely at the American attitudes toward Jewish social entrepreneurship. We are certainly far behind the US, which has been led by the visionaries at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation who solely fund the ROI Community and contribute to PresenTense, among others. There is also a range of other newly-formed incubators for Jewish social entrepreneurs, both in the US and in Europe, such as Jumpstart, Bikkurim, Joshua Venture and Paideia.

Last year I was privileged to undertake the PresenTense Fellowship in Israel to further develop my community initiative, the Capital Jewish Forum (CJF), a non-partisan Jewish professionals’ group, which offers an alternative communal model based on inclusivity and personal empowerment, aiming to enrich the existing communal structures through direct engagement and interaction with intellectuals, dignitaries and leaders on topics of importance to the Jewish community. (For more information please see www.capitaljewishforum.org). PresenTense is a US/Israel-based organisation, which is incubated within an atmosphere that lauds and encourages youthful, dynamic initiatives.

Dr Misha Galperin, President and CEO of the Jewish Agency International Development, observed in a recent article, “We may not look at the decline in Jewish identity and collective responsibility as a crisis. It doesn’t have the same urgency as a war or as a rescue effort of a persecuted minority in another country. Rather, our failure to strengthen Jewish identity is more like a slow and steady leak that turns into a flood only over time.”

Dr Galperin concluded his article, somewhat ominously, stating, “The declining of Jewish peoplehood is a crisis. It’s a crisis of disengagement. It’s also an opportunity. Our schedules cannot be too busy to overlook this opportunity.” Professor Steven Cohen, a leading sociologist specialising in trends among Jewish young people, agrees that there is a need “to help people create an intensive Jewish community rather than make them fit” into existing models.

Recently the Jewish Agency for Israel took a bold step in essentially re-defining their mission—that of Aliyah and being the Jewish world’s first responder to crises both in Israel and around the world. Rather, it is now “redirecting its primary focus toward the greatest challenge we currently face as a people—strengthening the Jewish identity of young Jews in both the Diaspora and Israel,” as stated on its website.

It is long overdue that courageous individuals within the community and philanthropic leadership in Australia empower the younger demographic, thereby ensuring the sustainability and viability of our community. As Mr Einstein notes, “No amount of Jewish-themed bar nights, holiday-related parties, or outreach classes will successfully recruit the next generation of leaders and followers in a community that doesn’t serve their needs. Jewish young adults want Jewish community on their terms.”

Many in the younger demographic do indeed have a commitment to Judaism—they only need opportunities to engage and be nurtured in an environment that is relevant to their contemporary world.

We must take urgent action or all too soon we may find ourselves with a handful of leaders with no one to lead.

Manny Waks is President of the ACT Jewish Community, Vice President of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry and Executive Director of the Capital Jewish Forum.

An edited version of this opinion piece was published in the Australian Jewish News.

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  • Malkmus says:

    Well said Manny.
    Couldn’t agree more.

  • Sam says:

    At the Holocaust commemoration held in Perth last night the keynote speaker, Michael Gawenda a prominent journalist and second generation survivor had the theme of how remembrance might be handled by a new generation of community leaders in the future, as the number of survivors gradually became fewer and eventually will be with us no longer.
    He stressed that change was inevitable as such events changed from one where survivors participated and gave an oral testimony directly to an audience of part of their personal experiences during WW2, to a situation where the Holocaust became a part of written and recorded history.
    Also he stressed that there was now a growing element of society including some jews who now no longer are interested in this catastrophic event of the 20th century, claiming that jews are using it as an excuse to claim perpetual victimhood, and also the reason that we were allowed to have a jewish state. He made the point that such attitudes were taboo 40 years ago, and did not surface.
    In concluding he described that when he was growing up Holocaust events were organized and run entirely by survivors, and that this is no longer the case, and that in the near future the third and fourth generations will need to become highly involved also, for this event to endure in a meaningful way that it has up until now.

  • letters to the age says:

    You did not mention the tokensim of using the jewish news as propaganda and a nice pr picture for a careerist.

    A some-one said to me years ago, A.U.J.S is a great meat market(nudge nudge, wink, wink)

    Manny, great to see that your involved in the community and you are becoming a minority.

    The diaspora that does not attend the Jewish day school system is so out of the loop and harder to attract.

    Try to engage with more mainstream media and make Judaism not even a factor in discussing any matters pertaining to being Jewish at all.

    I find it’s too ethnocentric at times and not creative and progressive enough.

    What are you doing for gen z and alpha?

    I will stay tuned and watch as an observer more than a participant.

  • Shira Wenig says:

    Manny, I completely agree with what you say.

    However, I don’t think we need to entirely reinvent the wheel. We could save a lot of effort if instead of creating all-new structures, we just replaced the “old guard” in the existing structures with young people.

    Imagine if the leadership of the SZC, ZFA, ECAJ, JCCV (and any other acronym you can think of) were replaced with people under 40 at their next AGMs. Overnight, their activities would become very different, more dynamic and far more in tune with young people in general, without the inevitable delay involved in getting new groups up and running. The problem is that young people are so turned off the existing organisations that it doesn’t even occur to us to run for their elections.

    (Of course there is also a need for non-elected involvement, but this would be a start.)

  • Manny Waks says:

    Shira, I am not suggesting we reinvent the wheel. I view the existing structure/framework as one that appeals to many – especially within the older age demographic. I agree that if there were younger and more diverse leaders this framework would arguably attract a wider and younger demographic.

    However, in my experience, many people I have encountered are simply disinterested in the existing framework. They don’t feel they want anyone representing them. They want greater independence and self-empowerment.

    Moreover, the issue of policy is another obstacle, especially in relation to Israel.

    For these reasons, irrespective of who will hold the leadership positions within the existing framework, there are many, many who are marginalised.

    Obviously we can’t please/attract everyone but we sure can do a lot more!

    We need a new model/framework to complement the existing one.

    Interestingly, see this pertinent announcement: http://ejewishphilanthropy.com/schusterman-foundation-raises-the-bar-with-new-initiative/

  • Shira Wenig says:

    Thanks Manny.

    I’d be interested to know exactly what Seth Cohen will be doing – is he essentially creating new roof bodies (ie. a modernised version of the existing structures we have) or are other forms of communal activity envisaged, and if so, what?
    (I’m not asking in order to be difficult, I’m asking because I’d be interested in being involved.)

    By the way, I think your comment on selective advocacy for Israel by the existing organisations is very appropriate.

  • Manny Waks says:

    Interesting question you raise re Seth’s role Shira – probably time will tell. I’ve gotten in touch with him & hopefully we’ll have the opportunity to discuss this and other matters – including Australian involvement – some time soon.

  • Ron says:

    The focus on Israel by the existing, run-by-old-people Jewish-Australian organisations, is pathetic. Israel that they have in mind is a country that does not exist any more; it is the country which they, the children of the Holocaust survivors, visited at the late 1960s – a home of a very Zionist and ideological society, proud of itself after the Six Days War.

    Israel of 2011 is totally different. It is not ideological any more and much less committed to to the Jewish people. Actually, Israeli elites nowadays aim at de-Zionisation of Israel, and even disengagement of the Jewish people and creating an “Israeli” identity, which will replace the Jewish one.

    Given that, it would be better that Australian Jewry concentrates on ensuring its own future and continuity, rather than on donations and support for a remote country which existence, as well as its commitment to the donators and supporters, are in doubt.

  • letter to the age says:

    Victims of sexism
    I AM infuriated by the Hasidic newspaper Di Tzeitung’s decision to digitally erase US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and counter-terrorism analyst Audrey Tomason from the photo of White House officials watching coverage of the assault on Osama bin Laden’s compound. The real issue is one of sexism and the denial of another human being.
    In Di Tzeitung’s apology, it said its readers believed that ”women should be appreciated for who they are and what they do, not for what they look like, and the Jewish laws of modesty are an expression of respect for women, not the opposite”. Appreciating anyone for ”who they are and what they do” has nothing to do with removing their image because they have breasts and a vagina (neither of which were on display). What about the men in the photo? Using the above reasoning, they are not being appreciated for who they are and what they do, but for their appearance. It does not make sense.
    The deletion is described as being in keeping with the belief that showing images of the female form is ”immodest”. Does that mean the varying forms of more than half the world’s population are immodest? A women’s form only becomes immodest when immodest ideas are projected on to her. This disturbing act is a symbol of a more insidious culture of systematic oppression and denial that haunts women in many societies.
    Amelia Webb, St Kilda West

    does this occur in the australian jewish news manny?

    Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/national/letters/a-moral-and-legal-obligation-to-help-20110510-1ehf4.html#ixzz1M1kBnhzv

  • frosh says:

    Letters to the Age/

    For all the AJN’s problems, they definitely do NOT do anything of the sort (remove photos of women). In fact, far from it! Just ask AJNwatch!

    This appalling act of censorship is far from mainstream.

    To get a more educated persepctive on this issue:

  • letters to the age says:

    ok thanks for that reply. shall do!!

    much appreciated;)

  • Janice says:

    Ron’s comments should be on the desks of every leader in your community that is over 5O yeras old.

    That includes the Israeli ambassador in Canberra.

    He has hit the nail right on the head!

  • Manny Waks says:

    Respectfully I disagree with you Janice (and Ron). Yes, times have indeed changed. In my view, Israel has strongly maintained its commitment to the Jewish people. For many of us, Israel is an intrinsic part of our Jewish identity. Many of us are proudly supportive of Israel – though this does not necessarily mean that we agree with all Israeli policies.

    On the other hand, as I have written in the article, I agree that the emphasis needs to be at the local level.

  • janice says:

    Manny, i respect your viewpoint but please keep it as a point to consider for the whole Diaspora and look forward to a vibrant community!!!

  • letters to the age says:

    Manny, it takes some generations harder to cut the umbilical cord to Israel thus becoming a tad ethnocentric.

    We should all embarce being global citizens and that is a much more uniting force!

    Cheers mate and chill out good man;)

  • letters to the age says:

    Furthermore Manny , please don’t take this in a manner that is disrespectful.

    Do you think that there is an inferiority complex with the diaspora and a chip on the shoulder mentality because of all that bloody holocaust baggage?

    I mean that without sounding facetious.;)


  • What does the photoshopping of Hilary Clinton have to do with this discussion?

  • Manny Waks says:

    letters to the age:

    I wouldn’t classify such a question as disrespectful if it was asked appropriately – but ‘bloody holocaust baggage’?

    Are Jews impacted by the Holocaust? Certainly – and this should be understandable to everyone. I wouldn’t classify it as a ‘chip on the shoulder mentality’ or an ‘inferiority complex’. From my perspective, it is mainly about (a) remembering what happened, and (b) ensuring it doesn’t happen again.

    For many Jews, Israel is central to both (especially the latter).

    Interestingly, many feel that the European/global guilt has elicited the outrageous (in my view antisemitic) comparisons between what Israel is doing vis-a-vis the Palestinians and what the Nazis did to the Jews……

  • Ron says:

    Manny, Israel is really an intrinsic part of our Jewish identity for many Australian Jews. The question is whether the Israelis feel the same about the relations with the Jewish diaspora, apart of enjoying the zillions of dollars of donation funds. Some do, but I am not sure that they are the majority among Israeli Jews, especially among the secular ones (80% of the Jews in Israel).

  • letters to the age says:

    Hi Manny,

    I should not use colloquialism as it does get misinterpreted.

    Sorry about that “bloody” reference but it got your attention.

    You are in your right to have that connection but from a sociological perspective many younger jews adopt the “jewed out” phase as a result of all that baggage and being obsessed with the holocaust and the past.

    Are you familiar with Barry Kosky and his viewpoints on that point of the holocaust?

  • letters to the age says:


    Ted Lapkins response Manny for your perusal.

    Great spin as per usual and some nice valid points.

  • Hello,

    Just a reminder to individuals to please not use multiple pseudonyms under the one thread. It can create a fasle impression of consensus.

    Also, we ask that commenters leave a legitimate email address so that the moderators can contact them about any such concerns, rather than risk offending people in a public forum.

  • letters to the age says:

    Boring Bourgeois.

    Message heard loud and clear.


  • A friend says:

    You would be a great shliach… You’re using those kochos here, and don’t even realize it.

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