Hoenlein: We need to engage Jews like Zuckerberg

American Jewish leader says US Jews have failed to educate youth in a way that can ensure communal continuity.

Hoenlein 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Hoenlein 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
In cultivating the next generation of communal leaders, America’s Jewish community must “think out of the box and say that the traditional ways are no longer necessarily relevant for today,” an influential American Jewish leader told an audience at the Presidential Conference in Jerusalem on Thursday.
Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations Executive Vice Chairman Malcolm Hoenlein asserted during a panel on the future of Jewish leadership that US Jews have failed to educate their youth in a way that can ensure communal continuity and engagement, even causing “disaffection” among them.
Discussing prominent Jews who are not involved in communal life such as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Hoenlein said, “We have to bring the best minds. If Mark Zuckerberg is not involved, it’s our fault, not his.”
“We have to find ways that will make it attractive to Mark Zuckerberg and the Jewish community,” he added, citing the movement to free Soviet Jewry as having “saved” his generation.
“Soviet Jews saved a generation of American Jews,” he said, “because they gave us pride [and a] sense of self-identity.
“Unfortunately our successes” left no causes, he continued. “We saved Syrian Jews and Ethiopian Jews and Russian Jews. There is nobody left to save.”
Hoenlein said that he took exception with critics who have called the younger generation “hedonistic,” and that young people everywhere are “anxious” to be involved.
However, he said, “we are not giving them the means [or] the vehicles” nor are communal leaders presenting issues in a way with which the younger generation can relate.
Young Jews “are not alienated, they are being disaffected” by the community, he said. “Its what we fail to do.” Hoenlein also suggested that America’s Jewish population must increase.
“If I had one formula for people in the future, it’s less meetings- more babies,” he said. “We need to have a greater Jewish population and we have to educate them. We have to invest in young people.”
Calling young American Jews “ignorant” about Israel, Hoenlein said that the Jewish community has not “educated the generation.”
“We wait until they get to campus,” he lamented. “For the first 16 years or 18 years they ignore them and then they say go on Birthright make them Jews.”
Such views regarding a perceived failure of organized American Jewry to educate the younger generation also appeared to be shared by panelist Elie Kaunfer, a rabbi and educator from New York.
Kaunfer noted that Jewish leaders do not seem certain about what differentiates Jewish values and a Jewish outlook from that of other religions.
The fact that the Presidential Conference was being held in English spoke volumes about American Jewish life, he believes.
“It’s a striking message that the lingua franca of this conference is English and not Hebrew and its a commentary, frankly, on the American Jewish community’s failure to educate around Hebrew.”
“Its not the fault of the people who can’t speak Hebrew, it’s the educational systems we are putting them into,” he deplored.
According to Kaunfer, the Jewish community is also addressing the issue of finding the successors to today’s aging organizations chiefs in an unproductive way.
“The perspective of the crisis is always framed that ‘how are we going to find the next generation of leaders to lead these sort of legacy institutions?’” he said. “I think the real question would be: ‘Which legacy institutions are inspiring some of the mission- driven passion that you would want to find in the next generation of leaders?’”
A generational shift, Kaunfer, said, is “also an opportunity for organizations that are not being led in a mission-driven way to step aside and shut down.” He declined to name any specific institutions.