NASHVILLE (JTA) – A self-described professional Jewish lesbian. A Web guru who calls himself the Orthodox Anarchist. A young, Oscar-winning producer.
The United Jewish Communities looked to this group and their disenfranchised peers for help at its annual General Assembly in the Tennessee capital this week, giving them an entire plenary to talk about themselves, what they need from the North American federation system and why they have a hard time becoming a part of it.
It was a recognition by the UJC that it must embrace new, innovative thoughts and programming that can attract a younger population that does not see itself bound by traditional Jewish lines.
Jewish federations are fretting over how to bring young Jews into their fold because the failure to do so could cause a crisis down the road for a system that takes in more than $3 billion annually in charitable dollars.
“What you saw is a beginning,” the UJC’s chair, Joseph Kanfer, told JTA. “It strikes us that the federation system needs to become a capacity builder and an engine to bring people together.”
Kanfer envisions a future federation system in which “we will have not created the new ideas but we have support for the new ideas.”
In this future, he said, “many great things would have died out if not for the support of the federations. The federations will have not always had the early passion surrounding great ideas, but they have the capacity to allow ideas to flourish.”
The plenary session featuring young Jewish innovators signaled a change in thinking for a system that critics perceive as one that collects money primarily from major, older donors and allocates those funds to the same local, national and international projects and service agencies year after year.
Looking at the federation system as an enabler of new projects rather than the organization that has to own all the Jewish projects is central to a new operational strategy adopted by the UJC in June. The plan is designed to help sagging campaigns and maintain the federation system as North America’s Jewish backbone.
Kanfer described for JTA a bleak alternative future for the federation system if it does not embrace new ideas.
“If we are simply a system that hangs onto the old ideas and wants to do that, then we will have done a magnificent job in promoting those old ideas and our day will sunset.”
The chair of the UJC’s executive committee, Kathy Manning of Greensboro, N.C., opened the G.A.’s first plenary on Sunday with a joke, imploring its largely middle-aged cohort to pay attention to the 275 college students that attended the event through Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.
“Please take a moment to get to know them,” she said. “Don’t forget they will be building our nursing homes.”
The presence of the Hillel students contrasted with last year’s G.A., when the UJC invited 700 Hillel students to Los Angeles to perform a community service project but failed to invite them into the G.A. itself, according to Hillel’s president, Wayne Firestone.
But the UJC became more daring with the younger set on Monday, opening its only plenary of the day to seven young Jewish innovators and activists – leaders that stray from the typical mold of the federation “leader.”
They included an up-and-coming film producer, Ari Sandel, who won an Academy Award for his short film “West Bank Story,” a farcical musical about a love that springs between the scions of two warring fast food joints in Israel – one kosher and one hallal.
He was followed by Sarah Chasin, a senior at George Washington University, who after seeing the devastation of post-Katrina Mississippi while on a Hillel Alternative Spring Break took a year off from college to volunteer in Mississippi with AmeriCorps.
Chasin was followed by two Israeli young men who were trying to settle the Negev and the Galil by building youth villages there. They were followed by Idit Klein, the director of Keshet, a Boston-based gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.
Next up was Esther Kustanowitz, a noted blogger and senior editor of the startup magazine PresenTense, which is focused on the next generation.
Closing the plenary was JTA’s director of digital media, Dan Sieradski, a Jewish Web maven. Known outside JTA as Mobius, the Orthodox Anarchist, Sieradski started the influential and iconoclastic blog Jewschool, and is prone to post-Zionist outbursts.
The speakers offered some critical advice. Sieradski scolded the established Jewish community as too parochial in its funding, and he called grant makers “disconnected” and “soul crushing.”
The next big Jewish idea, in fact, “has probably already come and gone, and been shot down by no less than a dozen Jewish grant-making organizations,” he said. “And because the innovator will have no resources at his or her disposal with which to continue his project, he will probably walk away from it crushed and discouraged. And a revolutionary idea that could have transformed American Jewry forever will never come to be.”
Still, Sieradski envisioned a future federation system much like the one described by Kanfer, in which the federation is not the seed bearer for new Jewish initiatives but the system that nurtures those ideas by accepting and funding them.
Following the plenary, UJC CEO and President Howard Rieger was beaming, laughing off Sandel’s line to the crowd that they “had to kick their children and grandchildren in the ass” to get them Jewishly involved.
Involving these new voices is central to the plan Rieger and Kanfer have implemented to move the UJC foward. Part of the strategy includes beefing up the organization’s presence overseas and establishing a more active office in Israel to oversee foreign operations. Another feature is establishing a system for federations and the UJC to promote and share the best practices.
“What we will see in 25 years is an organization that will go the way its constituency wants it to go,” Rieger said. “It will evolve. It will be different. It won’t be tied to past models because past models can’t prevail over 25 years.”
In an effort to understand its constituents and who it is missing, the UJC is planning to spend some $800,000 on a market research study in the beginning of next year.
At the G.A., where some 3,000 Jews from across the country had gathered, the hallways buzzed with praise for the young speakers. Many in attendance called it the best G.A. plenary they had ever attended.
“We have to make room for them at the table,” Ron Rosensweig, a lay leader from the UJA-Federation of Northern New Jersey, told JTA , referring to the next generation. “Though we may not like their music or like what they say.”
Others were more tepid in their praise, but still thought the UJC had inched forward with the plenary and a couple of breakout sessions that focused on young initiatives.
Ruth Messinger, the head of the American Jewish World Service and a fifth-generation donor to the UJA-Federation of New York – her grandfather was its first president – has been thwarted repeatedly in her attempts to tap the system for her social service and advocacy group.
She said only a handful of federations make small donations, $5,000 to 10,000, to AJWS, which dispatches Jews around the world to help non-Jews in developing countries and is among the most successful at engaging younger Jews.
Though Messinger in a sit-down before the plenary was highly critical of the UJC, afterward she said it had taken a “half step” or even an “80 percent step forward.”
Others said the UJC needs to ensure that its outreach extends beyond the G.A. and must take the time to figure out where it is going.
“The Jewish world needs to press pause and go back to articulating values,” said Aaron Bisman, executive director of JDub, a non-profit record label that seeks to promote Jewish experience through music created by Jews.
Bisman ran a breakout session Sunday called “Emerging Organizations of the Next Generation” that exhibited several innovative projects.
“There is no conversation about what values are,” he said.
Bisman went on to say, “The age of peoplehood is over. If peoplehood means that we feel a connection to all Jews, we are all stuck” because young people “feel responsibility to all people, and some might feel that that idea of peoplehood might be racist. We understand the idea of community. But community can include non-Jews. Pushing peoplehood is the wrong value because it is not going to draw us in.”
The head of the Boston federation, Barry Schrage, agreed that UJC has to articulate its mission.
“Any operational strategy without a core vision can’t succeed,” said Schrage, a maverick federation executive who at times has been critical of the UJC. He pointed specifically to Messinger’s American Jewish World Service as an organization whose strength is its mission.
“It is values that make Ruth so attractive to young people because she is interested in making a better world,” Schrage said.
In his closing address, Rieger said the marketing research will help UJC define its mission.
Some of the harshest criticism was directed at the young innovators themselves, who some said sounded self-absorbed and selfish.
“A lot of it sounded like, ‘We want a seat at the table; tell us why it is good for us,'” said Daniel Septimus, the editor of myjewishlearning.com.
He said the UJC made a positive step, but it also needs to be more critical of the youth they are trying to attract because that would be real dialogue.
“I think it is a gut check for us,” said Septimus, 29. “Was the word responsibility mentioned by any of the speakers? Was there anything about us giving? There are many ways in which this conversation highlighted our vulnerabilities.
“Maybe the best thing they did by putting these people on stage was to help articulate the disconnect. And maybe the question they should be asking us is, ‘Who is going to build our nursing homes?’ “