Esther Kustanowitz recently spoke at the General Assembly and the following article was taken from her comments there. Esther has been a regular part of Jewlicious Festival since its origins as a small student conference.
Young adults live generously, give differently
by Esther Kustanowitz
When I moved to New York in 1994, my community centered around my friends from Camp Ramah and people I met in synagogue. We used e-mail, but mostly we relied on an ancient device known as “the telephone.” A few of us were experimenting with some new-fangled thing called Instant Messaging.
Today, you can forward an e-mail, a Web site or a YouTube video to hundreds of people, creating a network based on a shared experience or affiliation. The Jewish world has always operated that way ‹ the community mobilizes to address an issue or to fill a need.
Today’s Jewish 20- and 30-somethings, perceiving gaping holes in the Jewish community’s agenda, are seeking each other out using the full power of technology. Web sites, blogs and social networking sites are thriving.
There is a lot of concern over the development of this kind of vast online community network, largely because of the generational technology divide. What’s clear is that federation professionals, volunteers, donors and publications that want to stay relevant to “Generation Tech” need to significantly increase their techno-literacy.
People perceive the emergence of online life as a threat to in-person relationships and connections. But our online world does not replace our offline life. By expanding our personal and professional connections and cross-pollinating our projects with others, our initiatives emerge strengthened and energized, and new ideas keep us active and inspired, on- and offline.
Jews, living in dispersed locations for thousands of years, have learned how to harness the power of the network as a survival instinct. You need a place for Shabbat? Or an “in” with David’s cousin, Murray, the hotshot lawyer? Or maybe, you’ve got a nephew who’s just perfect for me or some other Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel or Leah? Jewish geography. The friend (or relative) of my friend (or relative) is my friend. Or a relative.
This is the power of the network. This enigmatic “new generation” is not any less committed than the previous one; we’re just communicating that commitment differently. And to be relevant to the new media generation, old-school organizations have to embrace new modes of communication and new models of commitment.
My generation is not emotionally tied to the traditional structures that served as their parents’ main connection to Jewish community, because we don’t have to be. We are creating our own online and offline publications, initiatives and minyanim, in reaction to having examined what does exist and finding that it doesn’t fill our needs.
Online, I’ve become involved in opportunities I never would have known about otherwise. I am a team member for the Jewlicious Festivals, a celebration of all things Jewish attended by hundreds of college students each year. I’m involved in the Global Summit for Jewish Innovators, an annual Jerusalem gathering of 120 Jewish leaders in my age cohort from around the world. And through my involvement in PresenTense, a content-laden magazine for Jewish 20- and 30-somethings, I’ve also been able to experience a broad swath of Jewish life in the here and now.
Our generation lives generously, but gives differently: in measure, in method and in means. We need to feel the return on our investments ‹ of both time and money ‹ in our hearts and souls. And for those of us who are single or not parents, the community needs to expand the definition of commitment beyond Hebrew school tuition: Just because some of us aren’t engaged to be married doesn’t mean we’re not engaged in pursuing a Jewish life.
Because our ideas, our commitment and our initiatives begin online and bleed into real life, Jewish organizations that seek new, younger members must commit to it not only in mission, but in action, supporting and forming partnerships with younger, innovative initiatives, not hoping to subsume them, but to work together with them.
By managing these kinds of creative partnerships effectively, and mobilizing our global Jewish social network, we will forge a future that is strong, vital and a source of creative inspiration.
Esther Kustanowitz is a freelancer who writes several blogs. This article is excerpted from a speech she gave at last week’s United Jewish Communities General Assembly in Nashville.