Connect bnai mitzvah generation with gift of e-mail

There was a time when the fountain pen was the standard gift for a whole generation of bar mitzvah boys. What is today's equivalent for bar and bat mitzvah kids?

Inherent in the question is an assumption that this generation of young people is difficult to categorize and understand. I suspect that even when fountain pens were the most popular gift for 13-year-olds, they were valued more by the parents than by the teenager. Indeed, they often found their way into cluttered desk drawers and did nothing to bring the recipient closer to the Jewish people.

But that wasn't an issue in the 1950s and '60s, when intermarriage and assimilation rates were still in the single-digits.

The Jewish community of the 1990s faces serious challenges to its long-term survival. Even as Jewish organizations and philanthropic foundations wage a half-hearted crusade for the hearts and souls of our young, they are failing to understand how to reach significant numbers of Jewish teenagers. The answer they propose is an easy one: sending as many teens to Israel as possible.

This makes sense. Study after study demonstrates that a quality Israel experience can transform the way a young Jew thinks and feels. I have long advocated this as a necessary first step. Unfortunately, however, these trips are still conducted in a vacuum. Few are thinking about post-Israel trip experiences. And the costly price tag makes the experience prohibitive for many families.

So how do we reach the masses of young people? The problem is that most of the decision-makers in the Jewish community are the fountain-pen generation and, therefore, propose outdated solutions to reaching these kids. Yes, youth workers are important. Yes, retreats are key. Yes, Israel programs can help. But these are still reaching a fraction of our youth.

In order to transform American Jewish life in 10 years, there must be a cultural shift for today's Jewish youth. We must learn to speak their language. An e-mail address on the Jewish information superhighway should replace the fountain pen. Aunt Libby and Uncle Bernie can buy the computer, Cousin Bert can buy the modem, Grandma Leah can get the software and the proud parents can install the second phone line.

The kids today are computer literate and very attuned to pop culture. Why not run hip ads on MTV and VH1 promoting Israel tours or the March of the Living? It is time for interactive CD-ROMs on Jewish and Israeli topics to be available at local computer stores across the country. It is time for a quality 24-hour Jewish cable network. It is time to run ads in mainstream teen magazines announcing Jewish holidays or promoting Jewish values and programs.

Jewish teenagers care about the world around them, but they usually express their concern in non-Jewish settings, such as their high school. They recycle cans, wear buttons and sign petitions for aid to Rwanda. Many will volunteer their time for good causes, but they won't do it through the Jewish community. The Jewish community is becoming increasingly irrelevant as a central address for the concerns of our young.

It is possible to exploit their social consciousness in the interest of Jewish continuity. One model program that does this effectively is the Washington, D.C.-based Panim-El Panim (face to face), which brings 500 Jewish kids to our nation's capital every year for a seminar on public policy and Jewish values. The teenagers learn not only about homelessness and civil liberties, but what our tradition has to say about these and other pressing issues. Jewish values come to life as they then lobby their members of Congress and get involved in their home communities as Jews.

If we are going to reverse the negative trends in Jewish life, we must address this generation on their own terms and speak their language. It will mean including mass marketing of what our community has to offer. It will mean riding the technological wave rather than being overtaken by it. It will mean junking our old symbols, like the fountain pen, and making way for a new world that our kids see but we may not totally understand.