JERUSALEM (JTA) — This might be your grandparents’ federation system, but now it should belong to you.
That was essentially the message organizers of this year’s United Jewish Communities General Assembly were hoping to hammer home by programming an entire day aimed at “Next Gen” participants. The effort drew about 800 participants overall.
The UJC, which is the umbrella organization for the North American network of local Jewish charitable federations, has made a concerted effort over the past several years to engage adults in their 20s and 30s — a necessity for a fund-raising operation that is absent from the philanthropic lexicon of many young Jews.
In 2007, the organization tried to introduce its older generation and current leadership to the “Next Generation,” dedicating a plenary session at its G.A. in Nashville; the idea was to give a half-dozen young Jewish innovators a chance to present their ideas on the Jewish community to several thousand delegates.
At the time, the UJC’s chairman, Joe Kanfer, said that it was just “a beginning.” This week, with its “Next Gen” day at the G.A.,the organization seemed to make good on Kanfer’s promise.
The federation system currently raises nearly $2 billion per year, but UJC officials and many local federation leaders realized that their philanthropic network is not fully in touch with the generation that must one day pick up its fund-raising mantle — and that if it doesn’t connect with young Jews, the system might die.
“We have some set of cohorts that respond to the programs that we run today, that trust the city elders to divide up their money in large amounts and make these divisions. But at the same time, we have much more work to do with next-generation donors who see the world differently,” Kanfer said Sunday. “We need to broaden our donor base. It’s a lot better if they participate and build this on their own than if we try to sit in our old rocking chairs and try to figure it out for them in traditional ways that may have worked perfectly for our parents’ generation, may have worked very well for us, but may not work as well for these next generations.”
The day dedicated to the younger participants started off at Yad Vashem: A living Memorial to the Holocaust, with a series of speeches from UJC officials and young federation leaders — most of whom are in their 40s — as well as an address by Edgar Bronfman, the beverage magnate with a long track record of funding programs aimed at younger Jews through his Samuel Bronfman Foundation. The UJC then loaded up 19 busses and headed out to various sites that the organization felt would resonate with the participants — most of whom were Americans already in Israel on programs affiliated with the Jewish Agency’s MASA initiative, Hillel and groups such as Kol Dor.
Participants paid nothing for participating. The Bronfman foundation, which kicked in $100,000, and other partner funders footed the bill at $75-per-person for those who took part only in the “Next Gen" day, and $300 for those who attended the rest of the four-day-long G.A.
“Today’s world is opened up to Jews both in terms of non-Jewish organizations vying for Jewish dollars, putting Jewish members on their boards and seeking to include Jews in the larger world,” the chair of the UJC’s executive committee, Kathy Manning, said Monday. “Today’s Jewish philanthropists have many, many more choices and they have many non-Jewish organizations who are doing everything they can to get Jewish dollars. So we have to work a little bit harder to get the next generation of Jews to be interested in being part of our Jewish philanthropic world.”
It’s clear that in some cases federation leaders have an uphill climb in familiarizing young Jews with their organizations.
On a site visit to the headquarters of the Israeli pharmaceutical giant Teva, many of those interviewed by JTA were unfamiliar with the UJC or its overseas arms, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Israel. Several admitted that they did not know what a G.A. was, and were in attendance only because their programs recruited them.The UJC acknowledges the problem, but officials say that they are working on new ways to teach younger generations about the work the federation system does – because old tactics simply are not working.
“You didn’t see that the day started with, ‘Let’s take you through the alphabet soup of what you are going to do for the next four days,” Danyelle Neuman, the UJC’s director of “Next Gen” initiatives. UJC decided that the day "would be about capitalizing on the opportunity of the G.A., using the G.A. to bring people together. Not necessarily inundating them with the federation system, but to say that we were the convener of the day.”
The day was not without its glitches.
Some participants openly questioned why the programming started off with an event at the memorial for the Holocaust — an approach that some observers say is becoming a turnoff to younger generations of Jews.
“Some people I spoke with thought it was weird for them or maybe it’s a little bit tasteless,” said Noa Frielich, a 24-year-old student at Ben-Gurion University who attended the program through the Hillel chapter there. “But I think it is a good bonding experience, remembering the past and doing something for the future. For me it is very symbolic.”
The UJC acknowledges that it has a long way to go, according to Neuman, who started at the organization eight months ago.
“I’m not sure the UJC ever sat down and said, ‘We need to sit down and have a strategy for next gen,’” she said. “They had young leadership and young leadership cabinet, so they certainly were involved in reaching out to the next generation, but not as a strategy. We didn’t say both, ‘How do we structure ourselves and encourage the federations to look at themselves’ and ‘What is missing in the field; what are we doing; how do we capitalize on that?’”
Several participants said that overall this year’s G.A. seemed like a solid second step in reaching out to younger generations, following up on last year’s efforts. And, according to some participants, these efforts are well-timed, coming at a time when young Jews are starting to think about assuming leadership roles in various worlds that they operate in.
“I think we don’t appreciate ourselves as much as we should be,” said Frielich, one of several Israeli participants. “We are not the Next Gen, we are the current leaders. Maybe some of the people who are current leaders, to them it doesn’t make sense, or they can’t believe it that we are the current leaders and we have the power to do things. But I see it now in the States with the elections. I see it now in Israel. A lot of young people just won their municipality elections. And there is a lot of movement of young people. I feel it. I feel the spirit of change. It’s a lot because of the people that came here today.”