Op-Ed: Let’s engage with young Jews at federation

NEW YORK (JTA) — In these most challenging of times, there is great cause for hope. Some of the best and the brightest young people in our community are issuing a serious challenge to the UJC/Jewish Federations of North America, and I applaud their courage for speaking out.

Their call emerges from the 2009 Kivun Institute, a professional development program of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the Center for Leadership Initiatives. These young people, among those who participated in this inspiring program, declare their desire to help the Jewish Federations of North America navigate a new Jewish landscape.

But rather than simply issuing rhetoric or occupying the barricades, these activists seek to engage our system in a meaningful way, through dialogue. Now is the time for us to harness this energy by fostering dialogue and taking action.

Fortunately we have made some, though not enough, progress in engaging younger Jews. UJC’s National Young Leadership Cabinet, for example, includes more than 375 men and women in their 30s and 40s, a number of whom are board members of federations.

First envisioned in 1958 by the late Herbert Friedman, a former UJA executive, as a way to develop younger communal and philanthropic leaders, the National Young Leadership Cabinet has produced leaders of our system, including chair-designate of the UJC/Jewish Federations of North America, Kathy Manning of Greensboro, N.C.

And UJC’s National Women’s Philanthropy is leading the first Heart to Heart Mission to Israel in January to provide women new to federation a soul-searing experience.

But we must do more to engage younger people, no matter their giving levels. This summer, our board heard about our new Jewish Service Initiative, which focuses on experiential, hands-on philanthropy and volunteerism. The effort comes at a time when volunteerism is striking the deepest chord in younger people since the days of John F. Kennedy — echoed this week by President Obama and his call to service.

In March, our young leaders brought more than 600 people to New Orleans to help renovate a community center. Even as participants dug trenches for foundations and painted murals, they discussed how to help their communities once they returned home. Next year we are envisioning a major volunteer event as well.

We are also working to support Jewish startups and leverage the spirit of young social entrepreneurs. UJC and the Kaminer family funds Bikkurim, which is housed at UJC and helps grow innovative Jewish startups. Since its founding, Bikkurim has provided more than $500,000 to at least 24 ventures, from JDub Records to Hazon, the Jewish environmental group.

In recent years, our annual General Assembly also has seen a change, with young people speaking at plenary events, holding forums and increasingly visible throughout.

However, UJC and the federation system need to further harness the creativity, commitment and care of our young people. Many are not involved in the organized Jewish community, yet are contributing invaluably with new ideas and hard work. As I’ve talked with many young people across North America, it has become abundantly clear that we as a system have an opportunity to further engage and empower them, and support their efforts to break paradigms and set the course for the future.

It is clear that younger Jews want to help shape our system and our communal future. They have many ideas but often feel our system doesn’t let them in, or their input is not taken seriously. Before all else, we need to reframe the terms so that young people never feel as though they are outsiders.

Let’s work together closely as we move forward. We need to welcome our young adult Jews, listen to what they have to say and invite them to be valued partners.
We need to encourage young people to become involved with their federations by volunteering, by contributing and by becoming lay leaders. Opportunity cannot be open only to those individuals who have means. Creativity, community service and insight are critical success factors for our future.

Effective communication also needs to be a cornerstone of our continued efforts. There is no one-size-fits-all platform for connecting with our entire community. Social networks such as Facebook and Twitter and new media such as blogs are critical for thoughtful interaction, and are places younger people gather. With the help of young leaders we recently revamped the National Young Leadership Web site, Nextgenjews.org, to more fully reflect their interests.

But we must go further. The first step is to convene a group of young people to begin a dialogue on how to create systemic readiness to embrace and engage and listen as we move forward. We must create an opportunity for both dialogue and action, locally and nationally.

We truly appreciate this challenge, which is a serious first step, and we thank Kivun and the Schusterman Family Foundation for helping to generate this energy. It is essential that young Jews take a seat at the federation table because ultimately, the UJC/Jewish Federations of North America belongs to them. Working together, as partners, we can forge a new Jewish landscape.

(Jerry Silverman is the president and CEO of United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization for the Jewish federations of North America.)

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