A New Generation of Leaders: Federations Find Providing Meaning is the Key to Involving Young People
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A New Generation of Leaders: Federations Find Providing Meaning is the Key to Involving Young People

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Jewish communal leaders are often judged according to "the three W’s": wealth, wisdom and work.

"Every leader has to bring at least one of these to the table," explained Jonathan Woocher, the executive vice president of the Jewish Education Service of North America.

Jewish organizations and community federations today are coming to the realization that they too must bring something to the table, especially if they want to draw in a generation of younger Jews and retain them as leaders.

"Fewer people are willing to accept positions simply as honors," Woocher said. "They want their service to be meaningful."

Packaging that "meaning" is a challenge for the federations and their partner organization, the United Jewish Appeal, as they vie for the attention and loyalty of Jews in their 20s, 30s and 40s.

This is a group that has turned away in large part from the established Jewish community and simultaneously turned on to secular causes, ranging from Habitat for Humanity to Planned Parenthood.

The conceptual change has brought about an attitude adjustment for the federations, which raise funds for domestic and overseas needs and administer services in some 200 Jewish communities.

Instead of "telling you what you can do for the community," said Stephen Hoffman, the executive vice president of Cleveland’s Jewish Community Federation, "now the attitude is, `What would you like to do, and how can we help you do that in our community?’"

His federation, he said, has moved to:

expand its singles programing to include a greater variety of community resources, including shuls and Jewish community centers;

create hands-on volunteer opportunities at shelters and hospices that allow people to perform charitable work in a Jewish context; and

strengthen year-round programming for its Young Leadership Division, so that it is "not focused solely on the annual campaign," but includes more social activities and Jewish content.

This last strategy is a wise one, considering the perception that many younger Jews have of Jewish organizations and communal institutions.

A recent study of "moderately affiliated Jews" — those aged 30 to 50 who are involved with Jewish institutions and tradition "for at least a significant portion of their lives" — found that few have "anything good to say" about the United Jewish Appeal, local federations or "Jewish organizations generally."

"Many, particularly younger respondents, were repelled by the emphasis on money, status and fund raising (in synagogues as well as federations)," Steven Cohen and Arnold Eisen, two prominent demographers of contemporary Jewry, wrote in "The Jew Within: Self, Community and Commitment Among the Variety of Moderately Affiliated."

Jewish organizations felt the resulting sting not only in terms of image, but in terms of donations.

"Now we are looking at a generation where 50 percent of the adult Jewish population is in the baby-boom age range, and only 17 percent give to our system — and they give at significantly lower levels than previous generations," lamented Victoria Agron, the senior vice president for campaign and financial resource development at UJA Federations of North America, the new national partnership of federations and central institutions raising money for domestic and overseas Jewish needs.

Observing that many of those Jews are making contributions to secular charities, Agron said the established Jewish community is beginning to ask, "How do we appeal to this generation?"

What they’re doing in communities such as Cleveland, Boston and Baltimore is working through local and individual channels, enlisting the resources of synagogues, JCCs and grassroots organizations, and enabling people to connect with the Jewish community through study and volunteerism.

"The idea is to take a yearning that is personal and provide a community context for it," explained Barry Shrage, the president of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies.

The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, for example, recently inaugurated Connections, a program that brings "high-profile" lay leaders together with Jews on the federation’s mailing list, but not yet through the door, to discuss the benefits of volunteering time and money to the federated system.

The thrust of the program, which Executive Vice President Mark Terrill said is modeled after a similar initiative in Boston, will be engaging participants in hands-on volunteer opportunities tailored to the abilities and proclivities of its participants.

"If people can get a glimpse of the value and utility, the `whys’ of having a Jewish community" through volunteer work — be it helping out at soup kitchens, mentoring as a big brother or sister, tutoring a Russian emigre or making phone calls for the annual UJA campaign — then, the hope is, they will be enticed into "not only giving their time but financial resources," Terrill said.

Programs such as Connections are not necessarily aimed at cultivating young leaders, but federation professionals are discovering that individualized attention breeds enthusiasm, and that enthusiasm fosters a willingness to take responsibility.

"If we’re picking up young leaders," said Shrage, "it’s because they are being challenged. This is something they want to be a part of."

He points to six successful examples of previously uninvolved Jews from the Boston area who accepted his personal invitation to participate in Jewish communal life.

They now lead Jewish study groups, volunteer as physicians in the former Soviet Union, act as business consultants to the federation, and devote substantial amounts of time to various boards and committees.

Terry Rosenberg, a freelance management consultant, began her serious Jewish involvement by organizing a Torah study group at her synagogue.

She said she was inspired to begin when she heard Shrage speak on Jewish illiteracy. She later contacted him for assistance with her project.

In turn, he connected her with Boston’s Me’ah program, a 4-year-old initiative of the federation and Hebrew College, located in a Boston suburb. Modeled on a similar course run by the Wexner Heritage Foundation, the two-year curriculum requires participants to devote 100 hours to Jewish study.

The Me’ah program was also the only specific example cited by the Cohen-Eisen study as a model for engaging younger Jews, and Rosenberg’s experience bears out that endorsement.

After two years, Rosenberg’s project has spawned two classes and, she says, created a community of committed, knowledgeable Jews.

She herself sits on her synagogue’s education committee and serves as the congregation’s vice president.

"It all came out of the passion I developed for Judaism as a result of the learning I did in these programs," she said, adding: "You have to come at it through people’s hearts."

Another point of entry, it seems, is people’s souls, judging from the shift in attendance at the biennial conferences of the UJA’s Young Leadership Cabinet.

"At the first ones," recalls Agron, who was a founding member of the women’s Young Leadership Cabinet in 1976, "the sessions with standing room only were political sessions: how to get involved in political America."

In the most recent of the popular Washington conferences last March, crowds overflowed from "sessions on spirituality; how to find a Jewish mate, a Jewish date; how to have a personal relationship with God."

"The interesting thing for us," Agron remarked, "is that so many [cabinet members] came to us of late through this new door of spirituality that seems to resonate and bring them into our milieu."

The 35-year-old cabinet has been the training ground for a host of national Jewish leaders. It may have originated as a way to maintain the interest of the children of major donors, but has evolved to include some 400 members, ranging in age from 25 to 45, who have demonstrated a commitment to the partnership’s work, as well as the ability to contribute several thousand dollars to the annual campaign.

"The prime mover for me, for most of us," said Joel Alperson of Omaha, the immediate past men’s chair of the cabinet, "is we leave school, move into careers, take a look around and think, `I wanted a career, I wanted money. Now it’s generating momentum, but something feels like it’s missing.’"

His successor, Mark Wilf of Livingston, N.J., concurred. "People are looking for fulfillment, and they’re looking a lot to spirituality."

Thus, whereas once the cabinet focused on getting "more bang for the buck," as one UJA leader and cabinet alumnus put it, the current generation is cultivating itself as a group of kindred spirits through religious services and study sessions that ground their charity in Jewish sources and values.

"Even in contrast to 10 years ago," said Arno Poupko, the Judaic consultant for the Montreal federation, who lectures at federations across the continent, "if a conference or program lacks some kind of Jewish content, a young Jewish leader will rightfully feel ripped off."

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