In June 2014 I traveled to Israel from my home in Toronto to attend a leadership initiative in Israel hosted by Keren Hayesod. Keren Hayesod is the fundraising arm of the State of Israel. As it was explained to me then, Keren Hayesod raises money, and the Jewish Agency spends it on a variety of amazing projects, ranging from projects for Holocaust survivors in Israel, to youth villages for at-risk youth.
It was an immense privilege to be invited to take part in this unique leadership seminar and opportunity. For ten days I spent time with some of the most inspirational young leaders from different parts of the Jewish world, including young professionals from Canada, Guatemala, Chile, Paris, Barcelona, Athens, Amsterdam, Geneva, Germany, Australia and South Africa.
Together, at the Interdisciplinary Centre (IDC) in Herzliyya, we learned about all aspects of Israel. The panels we heard from included some of the most ambitious and accomplished individuals in Israeli society, who spoke with us about religion, technology, the environment, start-ups, counter-terrorism, diplomacy and fundraising, to name just a few subjects. It was enlightening, it was encouraging, and our take-away was “Disregard the headlines, Israel is amazing.”
After one of the most unique and focused trips to Israel I have ever taken (we didn’t even have a chance to visit Jerusalem) I left feeling re-energized, both about the future of the Jewish State, but more importantly, about the spirit of the Diaspora.
The others on the program, with whom I participated, were leaders of their respective Jewish communities. They were young professionals and business leaders, with positions within their communities, Israel in their hearts, and the sense that the weight of the future of their communities was on their shoulders. And, given the condition of some of those communities, their feelings were accurate.
After spending some time with them, I was suddenly struck with how blatantly I take things for granted in my own community here in Toronto. Although I try to be an active member of my Jewish community, I do so with the reassurance in the back of my mind that there are plenty of others in the community, who have positions, play various roles, raise money, donate money, and lead the way for our substantial Toronto Jewish community. I am always honoured by any position that I am able to hold within our community, but I sometimes feel that if I’m not in it, then someone else is always available.
That is not necessarily the case with my friends from Europe, from South America, and from other Diasporic communities. For many of them, if they do not take steps to ask for money, to hold board positions, to form committees or organize specific events, these will simply not get done. Their communities won’t have operating budgets for that specific year, and important programming will be overlooked.
These young professionals with whom I spent time were true leaders. They cared about their respective communities, and about getting the job done. They are acutely aware that if they don’t do it, then no one else will, and they know that they are living in locations where the strength of the Jewish community is far from guaranteed.
One of the speakers we heard from while in Herzliyya was Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth, a modern Orthodox Rabbi from Ra’anana. He spoke with us about Jewish leadership, and explained that there are three essential traits of leaders: Leadership is not about authority, but rather about the ability to empower others; leaders should not be as rigid as a cedar tree, but rather as soft as a reed, since a reed grows high and then once grown, bends back down to the earth from which it grew; and leaders should exhibit warmth, which comes with a sense of vision, and a dream for the future.
This is the type of leader that we should all aspire to become: a down to earth leader who empowers others with a vision for the future.
Indeed, this is the sort of leader that we read about every year in our Passover Haggadah, which we all read just a few weeks ago. We read about the ultimate Jewish leader, Moses, who empowered the people of Israel and asked his Nation to take a leap of faith, and join him on a journey of salvation. He bore more power than any other man, with the ability to speak directly with G-d, yet remained firmly grounded in his community, and had a strong vision for the future, the future of the Jewish Nation. He led for many years, and has left a legacy as the greatest Jew in history.
Most importantly, however, I believe that Moses decided to lead, and embraced his position as leader, once he saw that his community was in danger.
It is a variety of these traits, these leadership traits embodied by none other than Moses, that I found in my esteemed colleagues in Israel. They were strong, passionate, capable, willing, creative, humble, and doing what needed to be done.
It was in meeting these people, however, that led me to think about how I take things for granted, and how we here in North America, may not appreciate things for the way they are.
The youths of the Jewish community in Toronto need to be pushed to make a difference, get involved, and realize that the way things are cannot exist in perpetuity if we do not start to take charge, and to care. As a result of the comfortable lives we live in North America, our community may not overtly appear to be in danger, however our time to lead is quickly approaching, and I fear that we, the next generation, are poorly equipped to take over.
I believe that our generation, the next generation of Jewish leadership, is shirking our responsibility to be faithful to the two things that make our community unique, and those are our Judaism and our Zionism.
Secular youth are shying away from our religion, and though there are many aspects to our community that make us unique, what is the Jewish community without Judaism?
Many of my Jewish peers do not go to synagogue, do not know how to pray, or do not observe any form of kashrut. Simply put, if our generation does not know how to comfortably walk into a synagogue, put on a kippa and open a siddur, then we should be concerned for the future of our Jewish community.
Furthermore, and perhaps more urgent, our community’s Zionism is wavering. Yes, I said it. There is strong support for Israel throughout the community, but Zionism is more than just waving a flag, going on a Birthright trip, or posting messages of support on your Facebook wall during times of conflict. Young Jews in North America today do not know the history of Zionism, the Zionism of our parents, important historical dates, the intricacies of the conflict in the Middle East, and are unable to confront those anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish activists who wish to discredit and delegitimize the state that we have dreamed of for two millennia.
When confronted with a criticism of Israel, many Jews simply back off, accede defeat, and change their profile picture to that of an Israeli flag. This cannot continue in the face of a relentless delegitimization campaign waged against Israel, one in which our opponents are exceptionally well-versed in their own (however flawed) positions.
I do not wish to generalize, because I know that in our community there are those who are doing their part, who are putting their skills to work on the front lines of the fight for Israel and for Judaism on campus, and in the streets, and on the Internet. I also know that there are those who are devoutly Jewish, who observe Judaism not in strict compliance with halacha, but with how their own spirituality dictates their observance, and they are not to be forgotten.
However, there is always more that can be done, and I fear that we as a young Jewish community in Toronto, and perhaps in the wider North America, take for granted what we have, where it comes from, and who we lost in pursuit of that dream.
It is important that we empower ourselves, as the next generation, to lead. As time marches on, we will be charged with taking control of the Jewish community that we now call home in North America – a home that has always treated our community well. We will be tasked with running its institutions, funding its programs, sending our children to its schools, and populating its synagogues. It is no easy feat, since we have the enormous shoes of our the older generation to fill.
Nevertheless, we need to look at old pictures, into the eyes of those who fought and died for the liberation of the Western Wall, the freedom of the Warsaw Ghetto inhabitants, and those who toiled to develop the swamps of Palestine to build a great state. They took nothing for granted, did not have expectations from the generations that came before them, and longed to play a role in the continuity, both spiritual and political, of our people.
By writing this article in this forum, I do not intend to lecture, nor do I profess to embody those ideals that I have expressed a longing for above. This article, this plea for people to care, comes from my realization that we do, in fact, take things for granted, whereas other young Jews, in other parts of the world, maybe do not. I write this article as a result of being humbled by the work that is done elsewhere, which embodies the work of our forefathers, and which strengthens those Jews in places where their numbers are small, but their voices remain large.
To those reading this article, my ask is that you speak to your children, young or old, and instill in them a sense of passion, your sense of passion, for the Jewish and Zionist communities. Take them to synagogue with you, tell them about their grandparents who fought against and were killed by the Nazis, buy them books about the Middle East conflict, and ensure that they care about the continuity and well-being of this community. We have the resources, we have the abilities, we have the numbers, now all we need is the will. And, in the words of the namesake of Herzliyya, where all these realizations first dawned on me, “If you will it, it is no dream.”