UJA confab: Jews are not vanishing

WASHINGTON — Amid the endless talk of the disappearing American Jew and the decline in support for both Israel and the Jewish establishment, those still committed to the Jewish cause offer another voice.

"I come for the betterment of the state of Israel and to network and learn about how to help more Jewish causes," Ernest Kresch, a 38-year-old doctor from Chattanooga, Tenn., said as he surveyed the sea of activity around him.

Kresch was one of 3,000 Jews between the ages of 25 and 45 who flew in from as far away as California, Texas and Georgia to attend the recent Young Leadership Conference of the United Jewish Appeal here, making it the largest turnout since its first one 22 years ago.

For three days in late March, doctors, lawyers, publishers, writers, bankers and psychologists gathered to talk spirituality (and mate-finding), politics (and mate-finding) and Jewish philanthropy (and mate-finding).

During the last two decades, the focus of the convention has changed in an attempt to reflect the trends and issues of the day. This year's attendees seemed to be looking for one or both of the following: connection to the Jewish community through a Jewish spouse and/or spiritual development, and a connection to global and local Jewish causes through philanthropy.

"We believe that by building Jewish identity and community ties here, people are more likely to support Jewish causes," said Joel Alperson of Nebraska, who co-chairs the UJA Young Leadership Cabinet.

In a session called "This Is Not Your Parents' Philanthropy: Reimagining the Federation," Robert Aronson, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, said, "We no longer want to separate religion from the federation system."

The focus of American Jews is now less on emergency rescue and anti-Semitism and more on Jewish identity, continuity and education for children, he said.

One of the most popular sessions — attended by over 500 individuals — was a lecture by charismatic speaker and matchmaker Esther Jungreis on "Jewish and Single: Looking for Same to Share Meaningful Life."

"People spend their whole lives planning their careers, but they think that relationship is just going to come to them," said Marvin Epstein of California.