WJC youth leadership program grooms next generation of leaders

Budget may soon grow significantly in bid to bring young Jewish professionals into the WJC fold.

Among the most pressing issues in Jewish organizational life is the failure of the multitude of Jewish groups to inspire and engage young professional Jews. A pilot program under the auspices of the World Jewish Congress, now completing its first year with 80 participants, aims to change that. The Young Professional Diplomatic Corps of the WJC "aims to throw the Jewish world's future leadership into the diplomatic waters," says Peleg Reshef, WJC's Director of Future Generations, who heads the program. The program is meant to give young professionals, aged 25 to 40, the kind of experience in Jewish diplomacy that will prepare them to replace the Jewish world's aging lay and professional leadership. Participants heard lectures on diplomacy from the likes of former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy. In June 2006, YPDC members attended both the opening of the new UN Human Rights Council and the International Red Cross meeting in which the group, after 58 years, voted to accept Israel's MDA into the organization. This isn't about "theoretical seminars on hasbara [advocacy]," Reshef insists, but rather "finding, training and integrating young people into the diplomatic activities of the Jewish communities and for Israel. They're at the Human Rights Council, the [UN] General Assembly, they get to know the field... and it becomes an important part of their life." At 80 members, and with a budget last year of just $150,000, the program is in its infancy. But meetings this week at the World Jewish Congress are likely to bring about an expansion of the financial backing for the program. Already, YPDC's lay leader Adam Koffler has decided to contribute $100,000, while a similar figure were promised from the WJC office in New York. Beyond participating in the WJC's classic focus on anti-Semitism, human rights, and defending Israel, the program is uncommonly focused on the participants. In discussions of the program's strategy, participants are a key element of the planning process, and their input guides the direction of the program. "Many Jewish organizations and leaders deal with archaic issues that the young people don't feel committed to or interested in," Reshef explains. "Here, they tell us what they want to do. Interfaith dialogue is important to you? Let's get into it. Chinese-Jewish relations are interesting to you? Let's work on that." For example, young rabbis interested in interfaith dialogue attended an interfaith conference in Japan this year in which they met religious leaders from around the world, including Iran. There has been growing concern for some time about the state of Latin American Jewry, and YPDC members were on hand at last week's Organization of American States conference in Panama, lobbying and learning. Some members expressed interest in the developing issue of Jewish-Chinese relations, which is expected to be an important pillar of Jewish diplomacy in the coming years. "China is a power that will be extremely relevant in the next 15 years," says Reshef. "We know the Chinese are sentimental about fellow ancient civilizations, and have a natural curiosity about Judaism. So we want to import Jewish culture to China, and to train young professionals and Jewish diplomats specifically to take part in this." In addition, YPDC plans a high-tech conference at the beginning of 2008 that will bring young Jewish technology innovators into the fold of Jewish organizational life. "You're successful in high-tech ventures in Silicon Valley? Come help use this knowledge for hasbara or Jewish culture," Reshef urges. Yet, for all the potential, participants are also busy career professionals with young families, and participate on a wholly volunteer basis. This has obvious implications for the extent of their activism. For this reason, according to Reshef, "we try to only take them for one or two weeks in six months." Not all the members will end up in Jewish leadership roles, Reshef knows, but those that do "will come to it out of interest, desire and experience." At the June 2006 Red Cross conference, "as an Israeli, I felt embarrassed lobbying there. If I go up to the South African diplomat there, he finds out I'm Israeli and he brushes me off. I become ineffective. "But there's nothing more authentic than a young South African woman [a YPDC member] lobbying the South African ambassador. They're authentic, and that makes them the most powerful lobbying tool we have."