Attending the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly felt surreal to me. It’s an honor to feel so out of place and necessary at the same time. When I think of the JFNA, my first thoughts go to some of the incredible contributions they’ve made, and then to my vindictive disappointment with how quickly they dismissed or ignored my pleas for help and engagement in the past.
Most of the time, I don’t think the 20-something Jewish guy with an active interest in Jewish culture is someone this organization cares to fully engage with or commit to. I spent the majority of my youth in and out of the local synagogue. I went to Jewish pre-school, celebrated my Bar Mitzvah, was involved with a Jewish youth group, and attended or volunteered in Sunday school for about a decade. I also have a stereotypical Jewish mother that has held leadership roles in Hadassah and the Jewish Federation.
I couldn’t have been more available, impressionable or easy to reach.
Despite the Jewish history and culture I learned from these influences, exploring what being Jewish meant to me was purely a self-study reaction to teasing by peers, not something taught or nurtured by someone who cared. I couldn’t figure out why being a Jew was such a horrible transgression when I was 10 to 15 years old, but I damn well wanted to know more than the other kids about my own identity. I felt isolated for many years because of this problem, and I don’t believe I was unique. My earliest information on confronting the BDS movement came through similar means – being faced with it on first campus, not in a classroom or with a knowledgeable mentor.
Last year, I had my first memorable discussion about Jewish identity while on a Taglit trip and decided I should learn more, that maybe I could play a role in this Jewish thing.
I’m now eight months and a second credit card of debt deep in figuring out what part of my identity is Jewish, and what part is simply the awkward nerd that likes to kick a futbol and play video games while eating latkes and hummus. Part of the reason for that second credit card is because the federations from my hometown and college communities denied me even meager assistance. On the other hand, my מסע (journey) continued despite the financial obstacles because of a federation chapter in Kansas, a great philanthropist, and a wonderful aunt.
When one door closes another opens – but within the Jewish community, there should be only open doors.
This dichotomy reminds me of the importance of a strong community, which I see as an incredibly important aspect of being Jewish. Most of the people supporting me didn’t (and don’t) really know me, but had faith that giving me a platform from which to explore this culture would be a positive experience. They were correct.
The same parallel reminds me of the humongous generational gap that exists between the JFNA and their children’s generation – my generation. I didn’t think the federations were aware of it, but hearing from federation leaders during the past few days has shown me they’re aware of the issues I see. Unfortunately, I don’t think the majority of these leaders have quite figured out how to utilize someone that is actively seeking avenues in which to help.
Telling me to go fundraising is stupid. I won’t even ask my parents for $20 if I can avoid it, and I have plenty of debt. Keeping that in mind, am I really the best person to ask for money, or to recruit for cold-calling community members for donations?
There were many creative ideas and wonderful projects I learned about this weekend. But one of the most promising was a panel of five 20-somethings discussing concrete solutions to real problems. Conversely, a room full of federation members that averaged double my age were upset when a Taglit executive and the Detroit federation chair said more of us (Masa program participants) should have been included in the GA panel discussions. What kind of message does it send, when we’re being told that the future is ours, but not taken seriously? Am I once again the token Jew in the room? A strange feeling, surrounded by several thousand Jews.
Without the contributions of a few very well-spoken individuals, I would still be rather clueless about what a federation can do for me, ignorant of the role AIPAC plays, and pessimistic about finding a place to make a positive change in the world through Jewish organizations. The past few days were very productive for me, and I can’t wait to write more about the programs and successes I encountered at the GA as a Masa representative.