From the GA: Are We Too Narcissistic?

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For years, the UJC has been promising to give “the younger generation” a more prominent public role at the GA. This year, they took some giant steps.

The biggest was a plenary session called “The Next Generation: Social Action, Social Networking, and Social Entrepreneurship,” which featured Ari Sandel, the director of West Bank Story; Sarah Chasin a student at George Washington University, who spent time working in Mississippi after Katrina; the directors of an Israeli program called Ayalim; Idit Klein, director of Keshet; Esther Kustanowitz a blogger and editor at PresentTense Magazine; and our good friend Dan Sieradski, formerly of Jewschool (and currently Director of Digital Media at JTA).

The previous day I had attended another session of “young folk” moderated by JDub President Aaron Bisman, focusing on the relationship between upstart organizations and the Federation world.

Several of these presenters are friends of mine and many of them gave wonderful presentations, but something about the combined efforts irked me. During one of the sessions, I leaned over to a friend and said: “We sound so spoiled.”

Here’s what I mean: There was a lot of talk about the “younger generation” wanting a “seat at the table.” There was talk of telling the UJC “you need to tell us what you do for us.” There was talk of identity and meaning.

But virtually no talk of responsibility and charity.

The starkest example of this came from Sarah Chasin, the GW student. For a college student, Sarah was remarkably poised speaking to 3,500 people, and I’m sure she’s a wonderful person, but in her speech, she mentioned being challenged by a Mississippian who told her that she wasn’t really helping out Katrina victims for the victims themselves; they’d be fine without her. She was doing it for herself.

Sarah realized that he was right. She was doing it for herself.

Amazingly, after telling this story, revealing this honest bit of personal reflection, she never returned to emend it. And so we were left with the impression that not only are the “young” cultural initiatives about us; so are the service programs.

Now, I don’t want to read too much into Sarah’s remark or the gestalt of the others. And there were many exceptions in every speech to the narcissitic ethos I’m painting. A lot of important things were discussed, and the UJC crowd seemed to respond well to all of it. But there’s something to be said for generational self-reflection, and the GA highlighted some things that we — members of the 21-40 crowd — need to think about.

Much of the work the UJC does is in the area of social services: emergency support, feeding the hungry, etc. I mentioned to a Federation representative from Atlanta: You should be asking us what we’re doing to support these causes. What are we — “the younger generation” — doing to make sure that nursing homes (and the like) are sufficiently well-funded?

Unfortunately, I think most of us would say: nothing. We’re too busy worrying about our identities.

So the GA’s inclusion of younger voices this year was important for two reasons: it was a response to years of justifiable grumbling and it forced us to confront the limits of our own (youthful) ideas and passion.

(For similar musings, see Jacob Berkman’s post at the JTA blog.)

Posted on November 13, 2007

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7 thoughts on “From the GA: Are We Too Narcissistic?

  1. rejewvenator

    Philanthropy is for the old, identity is for the young. People in their 20s don’t fund nursing homes and the like, that’s for people with money (read: older people).

    Sarah may have realized that she wasn’t acting so much to help Katrina victims, though surely her efforts were at least somewhat beneficial, as much as she was doing it for herself. But that’s the point! The experience becomes part of her identity and shapes her consciousness. She is attuned to the suffering of others and has first-hand knowledge of how bad things can be, and how difficult it is to provide effective relief. Maybe Sarah will ponder this experience and emerge with a powerful new idea for providing disaster relief. Maybe she’ll write a book that inspires others to help out. Maybe she’ll lead a canned-food drive or blood drive in her community. Maybe she’ll just remember what she saw and ten or fifteen or twenty years from now, when she has the means, she will find this cause meaningful and will give generously.

    Both you and the UJC seem to fall into the same trap, which is that commitment is measured by donation, and that the UJC is not a cultural institution as much as a service provider.

  2. scottb

    I am a YL professional in Palm Beach – The below is a post I wrote on the UJC -Listserve for Young Adult Professionals – Thought I would share .
    —–Original Message—–
    From: Scott W. Brockman
    Sent: Mon 11/12/2007 9:59 AM
    To: YL – PROS
    Subject: [yl-pros] Not at the GA? Here’s a Virtual discussion. Lets ENGAGE!

    Dear YL Colleagues-

    This week while most of us hold down the fort at work our peers and
    superiors will be at the General Assembly being inspired and
    reenergized. They will come back telling us about the cutting edge
    programming they saw related to Young Adults. They will tell us about
    innovative programs created outside the Federation system and how we
    need to recreate or co-opt some of these successes into our own
    communities. I am lucky in my community because my leadership already
    sees the challenge of engagement and is starting to talk in serious
    ways how we move forward in capturing this and the next generation.

    We are the “community building business” but at the core of our business
    is the practice of philanthropy. So how do we engage, attract and
    educate while not forgetting our core business? Will this issue be
    discussed this week at the GA ? I hope so.

    We can’t continue to just do engagement for engagement sake and hope for
    the best. Its our responsibility to go one step further as a Federation
    professionals. Our outreach efforts needs to be towards a purpose. We
    need plans and a strong strategic vision in each of our communities to
    not just cast the wide net but to build personal relationship and
    strengthen ties to our system. I strongly believe the central purpose of
    any young adult division is to engage and track individuals to be part
    of a “peoplehood” but then to get these individuals to act. Its after
    all antithetical to Judaism to learn or to practice ritual, obey (or not
    to obey) laws and not to act. We can’t have a healthy system built upon
    just the ritual of showing up and attending events. Any visioning done
    for our future needs to include a plan for our constituency to be
    educated towards acting ethically, compassionately and generously. This
    education can be done actively or informally but its best done when the
    professional builds real solid relationships. What do I mean by building
    relationships? Don’t we already do this?
    We here alot of buzz within our system about the collaborative
    fundraising model and Federations becoming a “Central Address for Jewish
    Philanthropy”. My community of Palm Beach is a pioneer with this new
    model and has had much early success. Our entire professional staff
    have been asked to choose a few key individuals of high net worth and
    engage them and track our relationships. We have all become “Donor
    Relation Managers”. Its my responsibility to get to know my prospective
    donors in this model and connect them with other staff and programs to
    build the donors ties to our Federation. This process can and does
    involve everyone in our community from the donors own peers, to our CEO,
    to local Rabbis etc. This process does not demand immediate success but
    in fact could take years until the donor is ready for a MEGA ASK . In
    the interim the annual camping gift can be increased, the donor may
    endow a gift or subsidize a program. The “mega ask ” is the ultimate
    goal and borrows its idea from the University model of fundraising.
    With the Collaborative fundraising model we have a clear vision of
    involvement of an entire community towards a simple goal. So lets get
    back to my question. What do I mean about building solid relationships
    with young adults? If our goals include engagement with the Jewish
    people and a call to action for young adults what is our “Mega Gift”
    and how do we get there? Is it our responsibility alone as a Young
    Adult professional to get there or also the community’s ?

    Lets have our own session virtually and literally outside the GA today
    on this list serve.

    What are your models for success in bridging outreach to engagement?

    Do you have a written down plan or do you shoot from the hip?

    Is your engagement personality driven or system driven?

    What are you local pitfalls? How can we help each other?

    How can the system help us?

  3. Daniel Septimus Post author

    Rejewvenator: I respectfully disagree. Certainly, our Jewish tradition does not limit charity to people over the age of 45.

    We should all give according to our own capacities.

    AND we should be appreciative of those people who provide what we cannot.

    I am certainly not saying that UJC has no problems, and certainly not saying that identity-building projects like those me and my peers work on are, fundamentally, narcissistic.

    But we need to be able to critique ourselves, too. And this is an area in which we need to do some introspection. That’s the only point I was trying to make.

  4. rejewvenator

    Daniel,

    C’mon! Yes, everybody has to give charity, but if my capacity is twenty-five dollars and yours is 25 million dollars, why should we expect the UJC’s relationships to us be identical?

    If the UJC wants to place philanthropy at the center of its business it may do so, but it will find itself hard-pressed to explain to the next generation of Jews why donating to the UJC, rather than the panoply of charitable organizations that provide direct service rather than donation-brokering. Many would claim that this battle has already been lost.

    I think that what young Jews are saying is that identity as a Jew does not automatically mean a few dozen things – it can mean passion for only one or two. The UJC is the diametric opposite of that new vision for Jewish identity – it stands for the idea that by paying one organization, you identify with the broader Jewish community and all of its causes.

    Practically, what it means is that for the younger generation, the space between advocacy and charity has shrunk, and people have a deeper connection to their favorite causes, a connection which shapes their own identity. The UJC needs to adapt to the ways in which the younger generation wants to fulfill its Jewish obligations, and it can only do so by engaging in identity work.

  5. Daniel Septimus Post author

    A few things:
    1) I’m not convinced that those in their 20s are giving the money they’re NOT giving to UJC to other causes.

    2) You write: “UJC…will find itself hard-pressed to explain to the next generation of Jews why donating to the UJC, rather than the panoply of charitable organizations that provide direct service rather than donation-brokering”

    I don’t think this holds at all. The two hottest causes among young progressive Jews — AJWS and New Israel Fund — are also “brokers,” not “organizations that provide direct service.”

    3) There’s a reason why Federations became federated and its the same reason businesses merge: sometimes its more efficient when you’re doing more things under one roof.

    So sometimes when you give money to Federation MORE of it is going to the cause.

    Of course, consolidation could also lead to inappropriate bureaucracy.

    I’m not trying to defend the Federations for everything. But they serve a purpose and if we’re going to abandon them, we need to figure out in what ways we’re filling the gaps.

  6. Pingback: jspot » Blog Archive » Playing Fire with Narcissism

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