NEW YORK (Dec. 16)
On a spring night in New York City, a thousand sexy young things crowded into a dark nightclub. The men were well-built, the women showed skin and the latest trends. All in all, it wasn’t an unusual snapshot of the Manhattan club scene.
But this wasn’t just a party, it was Israel advocacy in the style of Fuel For Truth, a pro-Israel group geared toward college students and recent graduates.
That Fuel For Truth’s organizers come largely from the night club business helps explain their success in reaching a demographic that most Jewish groups have difficulty attracting.
But it’s also because these young people are largely unaffiliated with mainstream Jewish organizations.
Fuel for Truth’s founder, Jonathan Loew, 33, grew up in a Long Island neighborhood that was more Italian than Jewish.
But ever since his parents sent him on an Orthodox teen tour to Israel, Loew, a secular Jew, felt pride in the Jewish state and a responsibility toward the Jewish people.
As Loew puts it, he returned to New York with “a gold rope chain like my Italian friends — but instead it had a golden mezuzah on it.”
Several years ago, when Loew ran Manhattan parties, he hired Joseph Richards, now 32, to work the doors for him. When they realized they were both Jewish, they made a pact.
“If anything like the Holocaust started to surface in any way, we would just do something,” says Richards, now Fuel For Truth’s executive director and its only paid staff member. They would fight back.
The time came some seven years later, just after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“At that moment, I knew that the propaganda push from the Arabs would be, ‘America, we did this to you because of your support for Israel,’ ” Loew told JTA.
Loew got a bunch of friends together to put their expertise to work: throwing parties in New York City and on college campuses that feature quick plugs for Israel and directing attendees to Fuel for Truth’s Web site, www.fuelfortruth.org, for more information on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Fuel For Truth’s work comes as dozens of Jewish organizations have sought to engage young Jews. In particular, they have focused on college campuses across the country, which have seen heated debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the intifada began more than four years ago.
It also comes as a recent report, “Israel in the Age of Eminem,” based on research by pollster Frank Luntz, showed that U.S. Jewish organizations have been using outdated approaches that fail to interest young American Jews in advocating for Israel.
In particular, Jewish groups have struggled to reach Jewish students on the margins — unaffiliated Jews who are unsure about their Jewish identity, let alone their connection to Israel.
Fuel For Truth largely has flown beneath the radar screen of many mainstream Jewish organizations as it draws in precisely those young Jews the other groups strive to reach.
“At a time when everybody else is struggling to reach out to Jewish young people, they’re actually getting the job done,” says Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founder and president of the Israel Project, a pro-Israel advocacy group. “They’re good-looking, smart go-getters who support Israel, and they get them by the thousands.”
Largely a word-of-mouth enterprise with a massive e-mail engine, Fuel For Truth uses a model employed in promoting clubs, Loew explains, applying “social pressure” to enlist friends to come to events.
The group currently works at Syracuse University and the State University of New York at Binghamton and Buffalo by sending a handful of volunteers to campus, half of them alumni.
They primarily target Jews in the fraternity system, the “average Jewish guy who is the most popular guy in his fraternity,” Richards says.
They meet with a few of the social heavyweights on campus and, with their support, throw a party to spread the pro-Israel message.
But some are skeptical of Fuel For Truth’s long-term impact.
“They’ve been somewhat successful in engaging numbers of students to come out, but I have yet to see any ongoing sustainability once they’ve engaged these students,” says Joel Miller, Hillel director at Syracuse University. “They’re just one of a number of advocacy groups that are on the horizon right now that we’ve used from time to time as a partner.”
Miriam Paskind, a senior at SUNY Binghamton, is a Grinspoon intern for Hillel who urges fellow students to travel to Israel or become involved with Israel activity on campus.
The only time she saw a Fuel for Truth program was when the group sponsored one of many parties thrown by the Jewish Heritage Program, a cultural group on campus.
“It was a bunch of kids that got drunk, and Fuel For Truth just sort of stood up on the stage and started spouting out facts about Israel,” she said.
Given the inebriated state of the crowd, she doubts whether anyone took in the remarks, Paskind says.
Richards, who addressed the group that night, disagrees.
“The entire team was approached by some of the students afterward,” he says.
Many young Jews are “looking for something, but they don’t feel like they have a home,” Richards adds.
He should know: After all, he was one of them.
At college, it “just wasn’t a cool thing to be involved in a Jewish organization,” he says. The Hillel chapter on his college campus “never had even the numbers of people I was looking for,” let alone the type.
At the same time, Fuel For Truth sees itself as something of an introductory clearinghouse for the unaffiliated.
The group directs people who want to pursue Jewish activity to groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee or Aish HaTorah. And they use baby steps to get their own members more involved.
Loew calls it his “pen” philosophy: A volunteer is given a simple task, such as buying 100 pens to distribute for a committee meeting. It may be the “first thing they ever voluntarily did to support Israel and the Jewish people, and then they get addicted to that feeling,” he says.
In its three-and-a-half years, Fuel for Truth has raised $105,000, half of it from the UJA-Federation of New York. It wants to use the funds to expand.
Loew says he hopes to build a “pro-Jewish, pro-Israel organization that has Muslims and Christians as part of it, too.”
“We hope to create a better understanding among Jews about who they are, and we hope to create a better understanding between Jews and non-Jews, because that’s what it’s really all about isn’t it?” he says. “Isn’t that what’s necessary for the Jews and the survival of Israel?”