News analysis: UJA gives young Jews message: Leadership is linked to donations

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The biennial United Jewish Appeals Young Leadership conference in Washington, D.C., is always an inviting target for cynical journalists.

This year's gathering had all the usual features: an atmosphere that was part college fraternity mixer and part sober public policy forum; glad-handing politicians who heaped mountains of syrupy praise on the machers-to-be; the steep admission ticket price; and participants who looked as if they'd never seen the inside of a WalMart.

But after a few hours of attending workshops and working the crowd, that cynicism became frayed around the edges.

In a society that increasingly shuns voluntary community activity, here were 3,000 successful young people who were willing to give something back to a community that desperately needs their involvement.

And here was an organization willing to pull out all the stops in making community involvement — Jewish involvement — more attractive in this self-centered age.

This week's UJA gathering pointed to an undeniable problem in the Jewish organizational world: the blurring line between philanthropy and activ-ism. Indeed, there's a growing emphasis on money as the pre-eminent filter in recruiting the next generation of leaders.

But it also reflected a hardheaded organization that understands that a solid economic infrastructure is necessary for the Jewish community to affect the course of national policy, as well as its ability to serve the needs of Jews around the world.

As usual, the UJA conference featured workshops on issues like the war against terrorism, the Mideast peace process and affirmative action, as well as sessions on Jewish spirituality and personal relationships such as: "I am Perfect, Why Aren't You: Finding the Perfect Jewish Mate."

And there was the usual parade of politicians and celebrities, this year headlined by President Bill Clinton, who obligingly joined in the chorus of praise for the young activists.

Cynics point out the obvious — that UJA, while talking about leadership, is really seeking to cement its own economic future by getting potential big givers when they're still young.

The Young Leadership Cabinet, the group that puts together the event, requires an annual donation of $5,000 for men, $3,600 for women; the promotional brochure for the Cabinet makes it clear that "participating in the YLC includes costs in addition to one's tzedakah standard. Such costs, for example retreats and missions, are not insignificant."

The message is a blunt one: Jewish "leadership" is inextricably linked to money.

That being said, one also has to ask this question: how else could it be done?

Jewish organizations are expensive to run, and they offer an array of costly services here and abroad.

UJA officials talk about leadership in broad terms, but what they really mean is something very specific: developing a new core of philanthropic leaders who can spread among their peers the twin ethic of giving and commitment, despite growing economic strains affecting all Americans, and despite the continuing decline of volunteerism.

Every two years, I attend this conference prepared to offer the journalistic equivalent of a smirk. Every time, however, I come back dazzled by the high-energy mood that goes beyond the hallway antics and the everpresent element of romance.

Many participants take their charge to future leadership seriously; they speak articulately about preparing themselves to play prominent roles in their local Jewish organizations, and about acquiring the skills to maximize the impact of their activism.

Pro-Israel activism, in particular, is not a game for the untutored; passion is not an adequate substitute for knowledge and experience. The UJA young leadership weekend provides both, with some of the best teachers in the country.

But there is an issue here.

Groups like UJA have developed sophisticated, effective programs for training the leaders of tomorrow, and they have become adept at making community service more attractive to new generations of activists.

But the relentless emphasis on high-level giving as a filter for leadership perpetuates the narrowness of the community's leadership base; it unquestionably excludes many Jews with talent and vision, but not much money.

At the UJA gathering, there were swarms of lawyers, doctors and business executives; there were few scientists, professors, writers, high school teachers or — heaven forbid — blue-collar workers.

UJA, at least, is first and foremost a philanthropy.

But other Jewish and pro-Israel organizations have emulated the UJA model for leadership development. It's not exactly a secret that leadership is essentially for sale to the highest bidder in many groups that desperately need new money as well as new ideas.

For a community that faces growing fiscal strains as government programs dry up and competition for charitable dollars increases, the kind of young leadership program that has become the norm makes sense; for a community that badly needs new visions for Jewish life in a changing society, the exclusion of so many Jews from the leadership development process may extract a heavy communal price.

Finding the proper balance between dollars and vision, between the impulse for economic survival and the need for inclusiveness, is one of the biggest challenges facing Jewish leaders today.