Over 400 “young leaders” from Jewish communities around the globe attended Masa’s Building Future Leadership (BFL) conference. Masa did a brilliant job in their first attempt at a week-long leadership conference, and my hat goes off to them. One thing that struck me during the conference: I really wasn’t the target demographic. So for the heck of it, I’ve decided to dream up what BFL could have been, if it had been designed with me in mind.

My Ideal Future Jewish Leaders Conference wouldn’t be great for all Masa participants, and it would likely be smaller than BFL given that the target audience is a lot smaller. Here are a few of the guiding principles of my conference:

  • Post-College age only. It may be only a few years, but the pre-college and during college “gap-year” kids are really at a different stage in life. Their current life goals are (and should be) vastly different; we need jobs, they need to be involved in Jewish life on campus. Masa’s BFL really did a pretty good job of separating gap-year kids from the older group, but I still felt that what we needed were two separate conferences. Our current paths are so separate that I see very little reason to combine the two.
  • Much larger focus on “what’s next” after our Masa programs are over.
    • Career counseling. I believe that Masa is uniquely positioned to help participants find jobs and choose masters programs, more-so than even their well-curated job board or my alma-matter’s career services office could provide. Masa’s staff understands firsthand the nonprofit world that many Masa participants want to enter. I think that there was a general assumption at BFL that Jewish leadership means that I should want to develop my own nonprofit or company – taking an idea and running with it. While this is an excellent example of leadership, and one I support wholeheartedly through the fantastic work of PresenTense, not everyone wants to have their own organization. I suspect that many young Jews are actually quite happy to work for an existing well-run organization.
    • Networking. If there is one asset to being a young Jewish person looking for a job, its that the Jewish community is tight-knit enough that everyone knows everyone. I think that there should be a session on how we can connect more effectively to each other, to future employers and to those we may want to work with should we some day want to start that social venture.
  • Skip Yad Vashem and discuss the origins of modern Judaism instead. The Holocaust was indeed a disastrous time for the Jewish community, and while our tour-guide and speaker were both wonderful and informative, I don’t think it was necessary. Discussions of the Holocaust really upset me, as they do to many people. The Shoah was a terrible time in our history that must not be forgotten, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be a part of all Jewish programming. Given that I was hoping for an up-beat networking style event, I really didn’t feel that a trip to Yad Vashem was productive. Instead, I would have liked discussions about Jewry from post-biblical to pre-Zionism. There are roughly 1,800 years of Jewish history that I don’t think I have ever learned about. During that time, Rabbinical Judaism became mainstream. Rabbis are undisputedly leaders in current Jewish communities, it would be fascinating to have a discussion of how that came to be, and what makes a good Jewish leader from that perspective.

Here’s what I loved about Masa’s conference:

On Tuesday, those of us who were part of the Tikkun Olam/Social Justice track were entertained and educated by a wheelchair basketball team. They showed us how they play the game, then a few members of the audience were given the opportunity to try it out. Needless to say, Roy, one of the professionals had fun doing circles around the volunteers he played against. Roy then told us his story, how he became disabled and why he plays wheelchair basketball today. It turns out that he was shot by friendly fire during his time with the IDF, paralyzing him from the waist down. Six months into his recovery, in an effort to regain some of his past confidence and strength, he started playing wheelchair basketball.

He told us that he had a dream: that a wheelchair basketball would not only play in the championship, but win. The Prime Minister would see the game and they’d have thousands of fans in the crowd. Despite everyone telling him that he had no chance, he was defiant. Roy formed his team and they did make it to the playoffs. While they didn’t win the game, he thinks they won anyway. As they fulfilled his dream, and the dreams of many of his friends. Even if it didn’t happen exactly as planned, it was still a success. They had thousands of fans in the stands and even the Prime Minister tried to get to the game. (Unfortunately he had to be out of the country, and promised to make it to another game).

It was stories like Roy’s that kept me excited throughout the conference. I wish we had heard more of them.

The BFL conference was also a great opportunity to meet with Jews from around the world who have dedicated 5-10 months of their lives to being in Israel. We were all on different programs, but we have a love of Israel in common. And that was enough to make some connections that I think will last a long time. Masa deserves praise for putting together such a massive undertaking and getting their participants from all across the spectrum to attend. I think next year’s will be an even bigger success.