Shaping the Jewish Future of Tomorrow

by Linda Kislowicz, President & CEO of Jewish Federations of Canada - UIA

Special to the Canadian Jewish News

Our current millenials will more than likely be grandparents by 2066.   Will they be connected to our communities and occupying positions of leadership? Or will they be disillusioned, disengaged and unaffiliated?

It is interesting to speculate about whether their current millennial values, attitudes and behaviors will remain part of their long term adult identity or whether they will evolve as they grow and develop their careers, families and community. As history often repeast itself, there are some insights to be gained in looking back to some previous generations.   

Consider the beatniks and hippies of the 50s & 60s. Most of them grew up to join the traditional organizations of which they were highly critical in their youth. Many did so, however, as energetic change agents. Others remained on the fringe, contributing through creative avenues such as art and music. We continue to listen to The Beatles, Bob Dylan and, of course, Canadian icon Leonard Cohen and each has had tremendous influence on the psychological and sociological environment all around us.

As a university activist of the 60’s and 70’s, I know how much I, and others of my generation, have changed from the days of marches in the streets and vigils for Soviet Jewry. While our values have stayed true, our tactics, dress, behaviors and attitudes have adapted over time.

Given this rate of adaptability and the pace of social change, what will the Jewish world look like in 2066? Will it continue on the current path of increased political and religious polarization? Will the Israeli rabbinate maintain its current hold on life cycle events and related decisions, rendering it frustrating if not impossible for there to be a truly pluralistic and inclusive Jewish people? Will women be counted or continue to be marginalized? Or will we be open, and respectful of different approaches, new customs that on the one hand are steeped in tradition, and on the other evolve and respond to suit the times? Will we be able to build inclusive community that is proud of all of its members?

Will poverty in our communities be eradicated? Or at the very least reduced?  Will all those who want, have access to the Jewish education experience of their choice?

These are big questions.

These questions resonate close to home in considering what our local Jewish communal structures and organizations will like in 50 years.  Will Jewish Federations still act as central fund raising bodies for community agencies and causes? How will priorities be determined – which causes will be supported, who shall receive funding and who shall not, who shall be encouraged to grow and develop and who shall not?

One scenario directly challenges  the collective, central model that we have built and nurtured for the last 150 years. It is very possible that it will be replaced by a designated model, where donors, not organizations, decide which specific non profits and community organizations peak their interest and allow for a more direct engaged relationship.  

Perhaps a totally different model will emerge – one that offers creative ways of supporting innovation and social entrepreneurship aligned with a  different definition of community affiliation, one that is  more consistent with today’s millennial mindset.

Irrespective of the model or structure, there must be clear agreement and commitment across the board as to the fundamental responsibilities, those that are sacred and non negotiable, those that must be at the foundation  of any healthy Jewish community.  

That question brings us back to basic Jewish values – to the core, to the essence of why Jewish organizations exist in the first place.

As a Jewish people, we are committed to caring for the vulnerable, the poor, the elderly, the marginalized and the disenfranchised; to educating our children and helping them develop strong, positive Jewish identities;  And to connecting and supporting the people and the land of Israel.

We are committed to the safety and security of our Jewish people and to living in a democratic society that is tolerant and open, where racism and bigotry are not acceptable.

We are committed to repairing the world, doing our part to ensure that the rights of all human beings and are protected and that we live in a socially just world.

Given that these core tenets of the Jewish people have stood the test of time, the concern then becomes whether the federation structure of today will continue to be the best way to provide the financial and human resources for strategies and plans aligned with these values.  Will it be technologically sophisticated, innovative and entrepreneurial enough to continue to be relevant and effective? Will it have the courage to take risks and to change?

We have seen the pendulum swing from centralized to decentralized models over the years, not just within our Jewish community sector but also within institutional and government sectors. We are all guilty of building institutions that fulfill a set of responsibilities and challenges and then falling prey to our natural tendency to be protective and loyal.  That sense of ownership sometimes makes it difficult for us to see the need for change.   

We must have the wisdom to know that what we invented for the last few decades may not be what we need going forward. That said, we must undertake change in a thoughtful way knowing when to be incremental and when to be transformative.

This brings me back to our millennials.

If we want to be here in 50 years, irrespective of the community model of choice,  it is crucial that we inspire and engage our millenials, the donors of the future, in ways that are meaningful to them - today. To do that, they need to be on the inside now, to feel empowered and excited about their Jewish futures, if they are to help shape the Jewish institutions of tomorrow.

And if our institutions are not places where they want to be today, we need to go where they are, listen to them and make the necessary changes.

Let’s not wait for 50 years. We need to start now.


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