Jewish federation leaders from across North America were politely accused of being “somewhat out of touch” with the thinking of young Jewish adults at the closing plenary of last week’s General Assembly of United Jewish Communities (UJC), held at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

“I would argue that the organized Jewish community is at a critical juncture when it comes to reaching out to young Jews,” said Anna Greenberg, vice-president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. The author of a study on young people’s religious identities, Greenberg serves on the faculty of Reboot, a New York-based non-profit organization for young Jewish adults.

UJC president Howard Rieger, who also spoke at the closing – as did Alan Baker, Israeli ambassador to Canada – referred to the current challenge of opening to doors to welcome young leaders. “At the top donor level, we are aging,” he said frankly, in his “call to action.”

Younger Jews are looking for a way to express their Jewishness, but Jewish identity competes with other co-existing identities, said Greenberg.

Also, she said, the years from age 18 to 25 – and perhaps into the 30s, with delayed marriage being increasingly common – tend to be a low point for religious or civic participation.

For young Jews in non-Jewish areas, being Jewish may mean explaining what it means to be Jewish. “That’s actually quite important,” she said. “There’s no reason traditional institutions can’t offer alternative ways to be Jewish.”

Aaron Bisman, manager of chassidic reggae singer Matisyahu and co-founder of J Dub Records, said young adults “need to feel heard, listened to and valued.”

Bisman, who was on a four-person panel as part of the same plenary, said federation involvement is sometimes interpreted as “‘How can you get me to give my money?’

“It can be about money,” he said, “but it has to be about more, and you have to make space for us.” People under age 40 who work with independent Jewish organizations “are the people you need,” he said.

David Engel, chair of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, told The CJN that “making room at the table is something we are working on. We have a growing young leadership program.

“One of our goals is that young people who come into the system – for that matter any person who comes into the system – can not only have an entry point, but once into the system can be recognized and move through the organization.

“At this GA,” he said, “there was a real movement to get younger people involved.”

Bisman’s co-panellist Rochelle Shoretz, founder of Sharsheret, an organization for Jewish women with breast cancer, said she did not work with the federation system initially because she “didn’t have the luxury of time… Go back to your community and take this important lesson,” she urged. “How many meetings does it take to get something going? Evaluate that, not because it’s inefficient, but because you might be losing great opportunities.”

Shoretz, who has started to collaborate with the federation, also called on delegates to open up dialogue “that doesn’t start and end with funds.

“Often I’m not calling for a grant. I’m calling for advice, a cup of coffee, or help with networking with someone in another city.”

“Invite [young people] in for coffee. Mentor them. Show them there are positive ways to work within the federation system.”

GA co-chair Debbie Kimel told The CJN the panel was “honest and forthright.

“Certainly the youth is our future,” she said. Buoyed by the energy of the annual conference, with an attendance of almost 4,000, and by Prime Minister Paul Martin’s opening-night words of support for Israel and Canada’s shared values, Kimel said the GA was “definitely an over-the-top experience.”

On a local level, she said, it brought together more than 400 Toronto delegates and over 600 volunteers representing the spectrum of the Jewish community from seniors to youth, and haredi to Reform. As well, she added more than 3,500 people attended the pre-GA “Global Marketplace” event that was open to the public.

Engel says that feedback from American organizers and delegates show him “what a vibrant community we are.”

Individual GA sessions addressed issues including Israel’s and the Jewish community’s self-definition after disengagement, the rising cost of Jewish life, and fostering a sense of community for a diverse Jewish population, including Jews of colour and interfaith couples.

At a panel on “Jewish community advocacy in Canada,” the chairs of Canadian Jewish advocacy groups said their work is making a difference, but that there is more to be done.

Efforts made by National Jewish Campus Life (NJCL) since its formation in 2002 include national leadership conferences and the hiring of 10 full-time advocacy specialists and a group of Israeli shlichim at campuses across the country, said Barbara Bank, chair of NJCL, which is a division of UIA Federations Canada.

Bank took part in the panel – which was chaired by Brent Belzberg, co-chair of the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy – together with Marc Gold, chair of the Canada-Israel Committee and Ed Morgan, chair of Canadian Jewish Congress.