I recently found myself listening in on a conversation amongst a group of very bright young people engaged in animated dialogue. The topics flowed freely from technology and digital/social media, to video games, movies, TV and more. I quickly realized that they were speaking a language I simply didn’t comprehend. I once again was confronted with the hard truth that our world is changing so fast that, though I try to stay current, the ways in which young adults interface with technology and popular culture creates a wholly different frame of reference.
On the other hand, it happens that this group of young people is very engaged in Jewish life. With the perspective of my 20-year tenure at the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona in Tucson, we are witnessing a high-point in the engagement of 20/30-somethings. More than ever, we have a growing group of dynamic, articulate and passionate young people involved in our work; and I am thrilled to say that four of the 26 members on our federation board are in that 28-32 age cohort.
Part of the reason for the change is simple demographics: The children of our Jewish community’s most active leaders have grown up in Tucson and they are now young adults. So this is the dichotomy – many of our young people are drawn to what we do and who we are, but they speak their own language. They want to connect, but on their own terms.
Our engagement success with this age group lies in the recognition of the need for fresh approaches. When we show a willingness to embrace a paradigm shift, then we open the door to their connecting to us on their terms.
A great example of how our Jewish community is adapting is the new Moishe House Without Walls program, launched last year in Tucson, where young adults are empowered and supported in programming for themselves. Yes, they are given guidance and support, but they are the leaders.
Another way of connecting to Jewish Life is PJ Library, coordinated by our federation’s Coalition for Jewish Education, through which 725 Jewish children in Tucson, age 6 months to 8 years, receive age-appropriate Jewish books and CDs monthly. This is by far the largest Jewish engagement tool for our children. Recently, our federation was selected as a pilot for “PJ Our Way,” which expands the program to ages 9-11 and has enrolled almost 100 participants and families.
Our CJE also launched a “Tracing Roots” project that brought 12 Hebrew High students together with 12 elders at Handmaker, our senior residential agency. Through this creative approach, teens learned about these intriguing elders’ life stories, while helping them navigate the internet to pursue genealogical research.
Perhaps our federation’s most note-worthy accomplishment over this past year was the expansion of a remarkable Holocaust History Center at our Jewish History Museum. Through our relationship with local school districts, we project that 5,000 school children will visit the HHC during the coming year. Our vision is to transform the values of a generation by teaching tolerance and the dangers of demonizing those different from us.
This year we are continuing our efforts to be an even more inclusive community. The Tucson Jewish Community Center is overseeing a community-wide project that includes hiring a special abilities case manager funded by our federation and the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona. We are also expanding our program that provides transportation for seniors and disabled to synagogues. In another form of promoting inclusiveness, JFSA Pride sponsored an event to celebrate the first anniversary of the Supreme Court decision on marriage equality.
As we celebrate our federation’s 70th anniversary, our focus is on highlighting the accomplishments of these past seven decades, while underscoring the values that continue to drive our work. A centerpiece of our celebration is a grand mitzvah project that aims to eradicate homelessness in our community: truly illustrative that tikkun olam, repairing our world, remains central to who we are. We have found that for many young people, and others, an entry-point into Jewish life is to be part of our efforts to aid the most vulnerable members of our Tucson community-at-large.
Finally, after making certain that all of our beneficiary agencies are housed in outstanding facilities – having completed renovations of Handmaker, the University of Arizona Hillel Foundation, the Tucson J and Jewish History Museum in recent years – JFSA and the Jewish Community Foundation will finally be creating their new home. Our capital campaign will provide funding to construct a visible, secure and professional facility on the Tucson Jewish community campus.
As I think back on my interactions with young adults in our community, I realize that we actually do speak the common language of family, community and Jewish values. At the same time, I see that we can celebrate the generational change that surrounds us, recognizing our differing frames of reference and being open to new approaches, which enhances our embrace of core values, enabling us all to thrive.
Stuart Mellan is president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona.