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Birthday Thoughts: On Being a Young Leader in the Jewish World

Today is my 34th birthday. My birthday coincides with a change in the Jewish prayer cycle related to rain, and so I’ve often organized “dew and rain” parties to remind people of the connection between Judaism and the natural environment. In past years I’ve also used the opportunity of “Causes” to raise money for important causes on my birthday. Last year I raised hundred of dollars on my birthday for my Jewish environmental organization, Canfei Nesharim. (To support my cause this year, visit http://wishes.causes.com/wishes/118292?bws=fb_stream_wish)

This year, turning 34, I must admit to a certain trepidation. Today in the Jewish community, a number of foundations and organizations focus their specific efforts on “young Jews.” Personally, I’ve been trading on my “Jewish youth” card for quite some time now. At 29, I attended the General Assembly at the much-reduced youth rate (available only to those under 30). At 32, I was selected as one of the New York Jewish Week’s “36 under 36.” At 33, I received a significant grant from the ROI Innovation Fund – as part of an ROI community for “young Jewish innovators.” Many of these opportunities cap out at 35, which means I’m approaching the end of a period of protection.

Young Jews can be distinguished in the Jewish community from the Jewish leadership, which mostly is over 50. At the same time, it’s a little strange to be labeled a “youth” when you live in a house in the suburbs, with a husband and a kindergartener. Recognizing my reality, earlier this year a colleague referred to me as a “middle-aged woman.” (Shudder!)

The same “young Jews” dynamic is a play in the Jewish-environmental world, which is largely funded by these same Jewish foundations. As a result, the Jewish environmental movement is filled with young Jews.

I understand the thinking that leads to this target audience, yet I worry that these efforts are not sufficient to actively engage the Jewish community in protecting the environment. These young people often have little capacity to affect the organized Jewish community. We may be able to teach these young environmental Jews about being Jewish, but how can we make sure that environmental lessons penetrate the organized community? And where is the role for older Jewish environmentalists – those over 35 and even over 50, who want to devote their experience and resources to the Jewish-environmental cause? They do exist. But frankly, it’s hard to even include them in projects, when so many foundations only accept projects specifically targeted toward the young.

I’ve appreciated and benefited from the unique protectionism for young Jewish leaders. Certainly my leadership efforts in the Jewish community would have been much more difficult without it. Yet I think that at least the Jewish-environmental community needs to take advantage of a multi-generational audience. By segmenting off the young from the rest of the Jewish community, we’re missing an opportunity for community-wide engagement on the environment – an issue of importance to young and old alike.

Evonne Marzouk is executive director of Canfei Nesharim: Sustainable Living Inspired by Torah.

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4 Comments
4 Replies
  • Deborah Klee Wenger
    December 6, 2010 (7:06 am)

    Speaking as a Baby Boomer, I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s with ecology awareness. During the oil crisis during President Carter’s administration I remember the long lines to get gas for the car. It was so strange to see this frugal attitude burst at the seams with the frantic consumerism of the ’80s and ’90s.

  • Isaac Hametz
    December 6, 2010 (12:41 pm)

    Happy Birthday!
    I think this is a really interesting point. Many programs aim to attract a specific audience, which by definition mean that a certain population is being overlooked or ignored. The silver lining, however, is that the fundamental environmental question is a question of relationships – human & natural (a dichotomy I’m not totally comfortable with, but will use for the moment nonetheless), natural & natural, etc. The Jewish environmental community can utilize this same mode of thinking to create programs that build and strengthen relationships instead of isolating and fragmenting them.

  • Noam Dolgin
    December 6, 2010 (1:01 pm)

    Yom Huledit Sameach!!!!

  • Baruch Rock
    December 8, 2010 (4:29 pm)

    Very, very important points. I too have benefited from being a “youth” both in the Jewish world and in the non-Jewish world (e.g., Youth Encounter on Sustainability – Eth, Switzerland). My sense is that “elders” such as ourselves (I am 33) will prove to be the leadership necessary to engage the multi-generational audience. Its precisely because of our experiences that we can serve to be that bridge…any ideas anyone?


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