By Wayne L. Firestone, president of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life
As I write from the United Jewish Communities General Assembly in Jerusalem, three words from Hillel International Board of Governors Chairman Edgar M. Bronfman describe the scene: “hope not fear.”
These are the three words that Edgar used to encourage Richard M. Joel as they launched Hillel’s renaissance in 1994. They are the title of Edgar’s new book which advocates an optimistic and celebratory approach to Jewish life. And they describe the atmosphere here in Jerusalem where hundreds of young people to bring a spirit of energy and excitement to this annual gathering of Jewish leaders. And this is by design. The conference organizer, UJC Senior Vice President Nachman Shai, saw the enthusiasm of Hillel activists at last year’s UJC GA in Nashville and wanted to bring it to Jerusalem.
The Bronfman family cares so deeply about our young people that the Samuel Bronfman Foundation sponsored the Next Gen conference on the opening day of the GA, providing an opportunity for young people from Israel and North America to explore issues of the Jewish identity together. On Sunday, Hillel paid tribute to Edgar’s commitment to Israel and Jewish students by naming our Israel headquarters in his honor.
I am encouraged that the voices of young people are no longer excluded from the conversation but are welcomed and encouraged to contribute. In his remarks to the UJC GA plenary, Prime Minister Olmert listed Jewish identity along with Israel’s security as a fundamental issue for the Jewish state. Mr. Olmert spoke directly to the young people in the audience and told them that they are the future of the Jewish people. He reiterated the country’s support for breakthrough educational programs such as Taglit-Birthright Israel and MASA.
It was frankly thrilling for me to see hundreds of Israeli and American students interacting with one another at UJC Next Gen programs and at the GA. Many had been involved in other Israel-Diaspora programs such as Otzma, Taglit and MASA, in which Israeli and American young people can engage in meaningful conversations about their Jewish identities, reinforcing one another in their appreciation for Jewish peoplehood. I did not encounter any of the cynicism that one might expect from this age cohort but rather a spirit of optimism and entrpreneurship that is very encouraging for our future.
With the ongoing UJC support for these programs, and for youth-oriented agencies like Hillel, we can strengthen our future and advance the GA’s theme: “One People, One Destiny.”