Menu JTA Search

Newsmaker Profile: New UJA Chairman May Hold Key to Attracting Fellow Baby Boomers

SIGN UP FOR THE JTA DAILY BRIEFING

If he were not part of the solution, Richard Pearlstone could personify the challenges faced by American Jewish philanthropy as it recruits the next generation of donors and leaders.

It is a generation with no firsthand memories of the events of the 1940s, when the Holocaust and the founding of the Jewish state seared a generation’s Jewish consciousness; a generation accepted by American society, and eagerly sought by secular charities; and a generation moving out of the old centers of Jewish life, to Western and rural areas far from “Jewish neighborhoods.”

It is a generation which Pearlstone — born just weeks before the State of Israel, a longtime member of the boards of Baltimore’s arts organizations, and a recent migrant to Aspen, Coloably represents.

Luckily for the United Jewish Appeal, Pearlstone is on its side. Since May, he has been national chairman of the fund-raising organization, which, in conjunction with local Jewish federations, raised nearly $700 million for Jews in Israel and elsewhere around the world last year.

His goal: “to position this organization to be relevant for the next two decades.

‘TIME FOR A NEW GENERATION’

“It’s time for a new generation to assume leadership,” he said in a recent interview. “Obviously, what makes us tick is different than what makes my parents or grandparents tick.”

Highlighting the generational shift is the fact that Pearlstone’s grandfather, Joseph Meyerhoff, served as UJA national chairman 30 years ago. Both of his parents held top leadership positions in the Baltimore Jewish federation, known as the Associated.

“What you have is a member of the baby boom generation, a generation that is a serious problem to UJA and federation, carrying on a family tradition and taking it to new heights,” said one federation official who worked closely with Pearlstone in Baltimore.

“There is a message that the UJA is sending in electing a person of his age group at this moment,” said Marvin Lender, a former UJA national chairman who first brought Pearlstone on to the UJA executive committee. “We recognize there is a transformation going on in the Jewish community.”

While neither Lender, 53, nor his successor and Pearlstone’s predecessor, Joel Tauber, 59, were much older than Pearlstone when they held his post, Pearlstone is the first to be born after World War II and be part of the vast baby boom generation.

Pearlstone recalls as a child looking through his grandfather’s scrapbook, “which was basically a history of the State of Israel and his involvement for 45 years.”

When he started working, making an annual contribution to federation was just “a part of life.”

But the initial thrust of his philanthropic activities was directed at Baltimore’s artistic institutions. He was chairman of the local ballet and involved with the symphony orchestra.

“One day I got the call from my own community to help them. I ended up liking it. Eventually this became where I felt I could really make a difference at the end of the day,” he said.

“There is way more personal satisfaction in doing stuff in the Jewish community than in the secular world. I’m helping my own people,” he said.

One of the perhaps more surprising changes in the Jewish community that Pearlstone said his generation will be bringing is “a resurgence of Jewish education,” as parents try to give their kids “Jewish roots.”

‘WE MUST BE CONCERNED ABOUT SPIRITUALITY’

“I was raised like Ozzie and Harriet and ‘Leave It To Beaver,’ ” said Pearlstone, referring to the television programs of his youth. “Our parents wanted us to be good Americans. Now some of us want our kids — they’re unquestionably Americans — to be good Jews.”

Addressing the UJA National Campaign Conference earlier this year, Pearlstone promised that these concerns would change UJA.

“We are still about raising money, but we must be concerned about the spirituality of the Jewish community,” he said then. In the interview, Pearlstone explained that “the more I got into this work, the more I got into the spiritual side, the Jewish side.”

In Baltimore, he was tutored a few days a week by a rabbi, studying Hebrew, Talmud and Jewish mysticism. He is continuing these studies in New York with CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, which is located in the UJA’s Manhattan offices.

Pearlstone has brought this personal commitment to the regular UJA officers meetings, making a 20-minute study session the first agenda item at every meeting.

Pearlstone’s commitment to Jewish education is evident in his own giving. After his father died, a portion of the family fund was taken to form the Jack Pearlstone Institute for Jewish Living.

The institute has sponsored educational programs for federation leadership and scholarsin-residence for the community. Its major focus in recent years has been promoting family education.

And since moving from Baltimore, with its rich Jewish life, to Aspen (“to spend more time with my family — I don’t want to lose them in this process of helping the Jewish world”), he has helped upgrade the Jewish education in his new home.

Pearlstone is confident that UJA can retool itself to attract his fellow baby boomers.

“We have a great product, a great fundraising organization,” he said. “We have to understand how our market changed, and change our pitch.”

That requires walking “a fine line, since the oldest contributors are obviously the richest. But the next generation is the future.”

And the new generation of donors wants “a different relationship with Israel. It may be more personal; it may be more follow-the-dollars, or designated giving.”

Such a shift is not just Pearlstone’s revolution. UJA has increasingly been moving in this direction. This is evident in the themes being emphasized in its 1995 campaign, now under way.

Supplementing the traditional call to help bring Jews from the former Soviet Union to Israel, the campaign is highlighting the new Partnership 2000 program, which encourages a closer individual American-Israeli relationship. The campaign is also focusing on the way UJA and federation-funded programs promote Jewish identity and continuity in America.

And the result? “We’ve been off to a great start,” said Pearlstone.

Initial returns from campaign events and missions with major donors are showing that individual donors are boosting their pledges from last year by around 10 percent.

It is unclear so far whether this reflects the success of UJA’s new pitch, an improved economic climate, or the fact that this is the first year for some time that the annual UJA campaign was not supplemented by a special campaign, such as the recently concluded Operation Exodus.

Pearlstone heads Cross Keys Asset Management and Delta Properties, firms involved in real estate development, securities, money management — “a variety of things.”

But as head of UJA, Pearlstone has put most of his business dealings on hold. “This is what I’m really doing right now. I’m running a billiondollar business, and I’m the chief salesman.”

It is a job that is, by his estimate, one part organization meetings, one part solicitations and two parts travel to Israel, for both meetings and missions.

Lender, whose term as national chairman ended in 1992, said that when he has taken his children, who are in their 20s, along on recent missions, he always knew where to find them: with Pearlstone.

“My kids adore him and spend a lot of time with him on the mission,” said Lender. “When I’m looking for my kids on a mission, I know they’re following him wherever the hell he might be going, and I’m very pleased about that. He’s kind of a Pied Piper.”

NEXT STORY