As a community, we are often very down on ourselves. There is nothing we like more than complaining over Friday-night dinner about how various parts of the UK Jewish communal structures are outdated, failing, awful or irrelevant. The United States, in contrast, is viewed as a Jewish communal mecca full of vibrancy, life and opportunity.
Having now moved to the US, I can confirm that there are parts of the communal scene where the grass is indeed greener. You really can find an organisation to fit your every whim and want. From pluralist mikvaot to four different groups dealing with the Jewish response to global warming, the millions of Jews across the Atlantic are well served.
Yet for all its size and wealth the US Jewish community – or any other Jewish community for that matter – cannot compete with British Jewry when it comes to youth movements. We have managed to create and sustain groups that continually produce the top leaders, thinkers and doers in the Jewish world. We have done so in a way that caters to every sector; for every Jew, there is a youth movement to suit him or her.
Youth movements are the jewels in the crown of the UK Jewish community. The vast majority of our Jewish leaders are graduates of one of these groups. Their educational legacies can be seen both in the informal educational departments of the various Jewish schools and in Limmud, the community’s global Jewish export.
Every Jew has a youth movement to suit him or her
So how does allowing your kids to sleep in a rainy field somewhere in the British countryside for a few weeks a year produce this result? The first thing to highlight is the peer leadership structure; these movements are run, by young people, for young people.
From the age of 17, with no pay, members volunteer to give up their holidays to run camps for children. Parents trust 20-year-olds to be in charge of their kids abroad and to provide them with a fun and safe time. This level of responsibility and practical experience brings about exceptional leadership skills.
Former youth leaders often wonder how to market the skills that they have learnt in youth movements when applying for jobs. My advice? Focus on how you have learnt to work in teams and manage your peers, how you have learnt budgeting and logistics, creative problem solving and communication skills.
You have learnt to create brand loyalty, demonstrated responsibility and become familiar with crisis management in tense situations. You have a clear understanding of who you are and what you believe and have helped others discover this in themselves. You have led, and have taught others to lead.
The self-knowledge and understanding, the ability to spot ones own strengths and weaknesses, put our youth movement graduates ahead of their university peers.
When British students arrive in Israel for gap-year programmes, they tend to have a far more mature sense of self than their American compatriots. The leadership exercises I performed when I was a 17-year-old in Bnei Akiva are the same ones I am learning from my professors today as a graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
Our youth movements rival any elite school in terms of preparation for real skills in the workplace.
Where we have fallen down as a community is in finding the next step for our youth leaders. The vital transition from loyalty to one’s youth group to loyalty to the wider community needs real leadership positions to be earmarked for young professionals. The Jewish Volunteering Network’s current drive for more young trustees is a great start to answer this challenge.
With the global economic situation still gloomy, the community needs to choose its priorities. There can be no better investment then our youth movements. That means graduates of these, and parents of graduates donating to these movements. It means giving again even if you have given before.
Sometimes, as well as complaining about how bad the community is, we need to recognise how fabulous it is, too.