The teen-agers speak to the camera with the earnestness of true poster children making an appeal in a slick fund-raising video.
But these poster children don’t hail from Moscow, Marrakech or Kiryat Malachi, a development town in Israel.
They are all Floridians, and they are promoting a special fund-raising campaign at the Jewish Federation of Greater Fort Lauderdale for “Jewish continuity” programs such as youth trips to Israel and Poland.
Appearing in the video, one of the girls says that after her recent trip to Israel, “It’s all of a sudden more important to me to marry a Jewish man.” With these words, she clearly is touching the hot button for would-be donors.
Nationwide, local federations and national Jewish organizations are launching programs and raising money to dramatically raise the number of Jewish youths traveling to Israel.
Trips to Israel are being widely touted as an important vehicle for enhancing Jewish identity among the youth at a time when intermarriage and assimilation have become top communal concerns.
But fort Lauderdale has dramatically raised the stakes by launching what is believed to be the first “second-line” campaign for Jewish continuity.
The campaign asks donors to make a special gift to its Community Funds for Youth.
According to Kenneth Bierman, executive director of the Fort Lauderdale federation, the new campaign reflects the changing priorities of his and other Jewish federations.
“The focus on everyone’s mind today is Jewish continuity and what we need to do to get our kids to stay Jewish,” Bierman said.
Until now, special campaigns in the Jewish community have primarily been launched to help Jews abroad.
The United Jewish Appeal launched its Operation Exodus campaign in 1990 to finance the resettlement of hundreds of thousands of Jews pouring into Israel from the former Soviet Union. Before that, its Project Renewal campaign provided funds to refurbish poor Israeli neighborhoods.
With its new continuity campaign, the Fort Lauderdale federation will test two questions heatedly debated within the philanthropic system: Can federations raise money by appealing to concerns for local needs rather than for Jews overseas? And are American Jewish philanthropists willing and able to pay for enriching American Jewish life?
In the ongoing debates over how to divide the federation pie between local and overseas needs, these questions have loomed large. But an increased emphasis on continuity may be changing the picture. Several recent million-dollar gifts targeted at Israel experience programs around the country provide evidence that continuity sells.
The Fort Lauderdale campaign could provide the widest test of this thesis.
At the UJA- Federation of New York, the women’s division has launched its own special campaign to finance Israel youth programs. That campaign, which is seeking to raise $1 million, is more modest than the one in Fort Lauderdale, when compared to its total campaign.
The New York women’s division last year raised $20 million for the regular campaign. In contrast, Fort Lauderdale’s $3 million, three-year goal is a sizable share of its annual campaign, which last year raised $5.7 million.
The Fort Lauderdale campaign is directly comparable to its multi-year Operation Exodus campaign to resettle Jews from the former Soviet Union in Israel, which raised more than $4 million in Fort Lauderdale. Noting that his own son Lee is part of the fund-raising video, promoting his March of the Living trip to Poland and Israel, Bierman, the Fort Lauderdale federation’s executive director, said, “I’m very proud of the fact that my son was able to get so much out of [his trip] and feels so strongly about being Jewish.”
The federation director said that the idea for the special campaign reflected the coincidence of two trends.
Reflecting a general shift in American Jewish life, his federation had already targeted Jewish continuity in general, and youth trips to Israel in particular, as a top priority.
At the same time, Bierman said, the Operation Exodus campaign, which raised around a billion dollars nationally since its 1990 launch, was drawing to a close last year.
“When the priorities changed, and we began focusing on sending kids to Israel, we decided we would roll over Exodus dollars into this fund,” said Bierman.
“There are a lot of people who have reached a plateau in their regular campaign, and if this strikes a chord with them, they might increase” their giving, he said.
So far, said Bierman, the new campaign does seem to have struck a chord, with individuals responding positively.
Launched in November with the community’s major gifts dinner, the campaign will initially target “major gifts, country club communities and specific one-on-one solicitations,” Bierman said.
In the spring, the campaign will solicit the general community.
At national UJA headquarters in New York, word of Fort Lauderdale’s initiative was greeted cautiously.
UJA has made Israel trips for Jewish youth a them in its fund-raising campaign this year, and “there is no question that it is a stimulus to the general campaign,” said UJA Executive Vice President Rabbi Brian Lurie.
At the same time, however, UJA serves as a conduit for federation money headed overseas. While it gets roughly 45 percent of every dollar raised by Fort Lauderdale’s general campaign, it won’t get anything from the special continuity campaign.
“UJA nationally is committed to seeing that the ’95 campaign goes up,” Lurie said. “There is always a concern that running a second line will diminish the efforts of bringing the first line up.”
Bierman, for his part, rejects the dichotomy between raising money for Israel and raising money for American Jewish continuity.
“We’ve come to the point where Israel and local meshes,” he said. “The idea that we send our teen-angers [to Israel] to imbue them with Jewish spirit is a statement that we need Israel more than ever.”