Once upon a time, "engaging the next generation" used to signify the transference of leadership, like passing a baton from one generation to the next.
Today, with the average life span increasing from 47 years old in 1900 to 78 years old in 2000, there are now four generations above the age of 21 in American society, and four generations of adults who want to be engaged in Jewish life. Therefore, "engaging the next generation" actually means engaging multiple generations all at once.
In the Jewish community, our institutions are, more often than not, led by traditionalists — those born between 1925 and 1945 — whose worldviews were imprinted with World War II, the Depression and the Holocaust. In giving back, they have built many of the institutions that are pillars of our communities.
Baby-boomers, born between 1945 and 1964, outnumber traditionalists and now represent the majority of our communal leadership. Their generational personalities were formed by the founding of the State of Israel; television brought the secular world into their Jewish homes.
With these distinct experiences come divergent lenses into Jewish life. Add to that picture the different life experiences and styles of philanthropy of Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980, and Generation Y, born between 1981 and 1999. No wonder we are struggling to understand and accommodate additional generations, making our communications and planning even more complex.
So the question isn't whether the next generation is prepared for its communal responsibilities. The question is whether the community is prepared for the next generation.
Some communities are just now realizing that it's time to add more seats to their boards and allocation tables for members of Generation X. Those more forward-thinking communities that already have begun to engage the next generation are realizing the very act of engagement actually changes the shape of those tables.
The post-baby-boomer generations in America have grown up with access to opportunities across race, religion, class, sexual orientation and even global boundaries that previous generations did not have. Technology has become more than TV in the living room, but a way in which community is formed, connections made and communications conveyed.
The experiences these 20- and 30-somethings bring, the vocabulary and skills they draw on, the diverse social circles they move in and the questions they pose all require a shift in the way our federations operate. Are we willing to adapt how we operate for the sake of who we want to engage?
If we endeavor to meet them on their terms and not just change the window dressing on what already exists, then we will be planting the seeds of long-term relationships and our own Jewish future.
This year I worked with a community that has made the engagement of 20- and 30-somethings a priority. However, when I asked what the word "engagement" meant to members of the community, four different answers were presented.
To a traditionalist, it correlated into creating an agency for young adults. To a baby-boomer, engagement was defined as creating outreach activities for 20-somethings.
When I asked Gen-Xers, they envisioned seats at an allocations table. For a Gen-Yer, it signified a meaningful experience of Jewish life having nothing to do with dollars or social events.
Continuity is not merely repeating what we've been doing before. If we can reflect on our centuries of Jewish life, and from there hold the paradox between tradition and next-generation innovation, then we'll be focusing on the right goal.
Adding young members to allocation tables is an important first step, but if we can also acknowledge that the "kids" are now "adults" who can bring expertise, resources and leadership to the community, then we can be less centered on engagement and more assured of our future.
Sharna Goldseker is the vice president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies.