Young Leaders Pushing For Seat At Table


Twenty- and 30-something Jews have launched websites and magazines that have challenged the Jewish establishment, harnessed the power of social networking in their social justice work and raised the community’s eco-consciousness. But when it comes to getting a seat at the table — the boardroom table, that is — the gulf between generations has never been more gaping.

At a time when studies have suggested that one of the Jewish community’s most pressing problems is a lack of young leaders, Jews in their 20s and 30s are woefully under-represented on nonprofit boards. Now, though, however late in the game, a movement to increase their presence on boards of directors is taking shape.

A flagship program of Pursue (formerly known as the AJWS-AVODAH partnership), the two-day Organizational Leadership for Social Change: A Board Service Training is premised on the belief that the key to engaging young Jews in organized Jewish communal life is to equip them with the skills and confidence needed for them to join the boards of established Jewish organizations.

For the nominal cost of $36 (and the better part of two Sundays), the board service training “combines tachlis, the hard skills of what it means to be part of a board of directors, with that other piece: figuring out what type of board you are interested in serving on,” says Merrill Zack, associate director of education and community engagement at the American Jewish World Service.

The program — the first of its kind within the Jewish nonprofit world — is a response to what Zack calls the “fraud complex,” which many young Jews experience. “They tell me, ‘I can’t get on a board because I don’t have money or a really long resumé yet,” she says.

While sizable donations may be a prerequisite for serving on the board of a hospital or large university, for a lot of grass-roots organizations, that’s simply not the case, says Marie Zieger, a consultant affiliated with the Support Center for Nonprofit Management who has facilitated Pursue’s board service training since its inception in 2008.

“The level of accomplishment among young people should be tapped into, not ignored,” says Bram Weber, chair of the Council of Young Jewish Presidents, an umbrella group of young Jewish leaders.


On a recent Sunday morning, 16 young Jewish professionals are gathered around a conference room table in Midtown Manhattan. They are an eclectic group of 20- and 30-somethings, from community organizers to corporate lawyers, who are here to learn the nuts and bolts of joining and serving on Jewish nonprofit boards.

“How would you describe the relationship of a board to a nonprofit?” the facilitator asks.

“It’s like a safety net to a trapeze artist,” says one of the participants.

“It’s like a Jewish mom to a child,” another replies.

“It’s coffee to my morning,” a third proposes.

At a time when established nonprofits bemoan the lack of engagement of young people with their causes, the under-30 set represents only 2 percent of those who serve on boards, according to the Nonprofit Governance Index 2007 conducted by BoardSource, a nonprofit that provides resources related to building effective nonprofit boards. While no comparative data exists regarding the demographic makeup of Jewish nonprofit boards, those in the field say that the number of millennials and Gen-Xers serving on boards is minimal, at best.

This is particularly troubling in light of the findings of a 2010 study conducted by the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute. “The Jewish People is facing a serious problem of high-quality leadership — spiritual, political and organizational — with no clear trend of improvement,” its “2030: Alternative Futures for the Jewish People” report concluded. “Efforts to attract and prepare the best and brightest for leadership roles are inadequate and … the entry of younger persons into leadership positions is very slow.”

In addition, the JPPPI report noted that “as the Jewish community ages and the older generation enjoys better health and longevity, older leaders crowd out leadership opportunities for younger people.”

In fact, this crowding out of leadership opportunities prompted the formation in May 2005 of the Council of Young Jewish Presidents, an umbrella group of young Jewish leaders who didn’t want to wait 20 or 30 years before being granted a seat on the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“Just because I’m 35 doesn’t mean I can’t sit at the table with people 25 years older than me,” says Weber, chair of the CYJP.

During the past year or so, the Council has been beefing up leadership development and training opportunities for its members, particularly in the area of board service.

“We recognize that leaders in the Jewish community who are our age shouldn’t just be chairs of young leadership organizations, but also encouraged to sit on senior leadership boards,” says Weber, who for the past year has served on the board of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

For Cara Herbitter, being turned down several months ago for a board position prompted her to attend the workshop.

“I wanted to better understand what board service entailed, as well as how to be a more attractive applicant in the future,” she told The Jewish Week.

She says she learned the importance of building a relationship with an organization before applying to be on its board, adding that she hadn’t previously volunteered with the organization.

Adina Mermelstein Konikoff, who participated in the board leadership program in spring 2008, says that the training prompted her to consider why she was not yet financially supporting a certain nonprofit, despite the fact that she hoped one day to join its board. She and her husband have since begun donating to that organization.

Serving on a nonprofit board can be a win-win, for both the young person and the board.

“It’s a way for young people to engage in social justice work and take on leadership roles as older and more established leaders begin to retire,” says Herbitter. At the same time, “young people can offer fresh perspectives to nonprofit boards and help build bridges between nonprofits and younger people in the communities they seek to engage.”

Many (though not all) young Jews interested in board service approach the task from the viewpoint of someone working as a Jewish communal professional.

“I now have a clear understanding of the division of responsibility between an organization’s professional and volunteer leadership, which is a difficult balance that I believe is often misunderstood,” says Jonathan Horowitz, a professional in the Jewish nonprofit sector and Brandeis alumnus who joined the board of directors of the Hillel at Brandeis after attending a board service training.

“I am astonished how many Jewish leaders, rabbis, and innovators trace the origins of their Jewish community-building work to Hillel at Brandeis,” he says. “I want to support an organization that is cultivating the leaders who are reshaping and revitalizing the Jewish community.”

For Sissy Block, the recent board service training came at an opportune time: she had just joined the board of Limmud NY. “I was hoping to clarify for myself how to make the transition from being a very active Limmud NY volunteer to participating in and supporting the organization as a board member,” she says. Learning the best practices of board leadership, including the legal and fiduciary responsibilities of the board, she says, “will make me more confident about my board service.”

It’s unclear how many of the 120 or so participants who have been trained over the course of the last three years have gone on to join boards. Pursue is in the process of surveying alumni of the board service training to get a sense of how the workshop has influenced their decisions whether or not to join a board.

“One thing we’re looking at for the future is to figure out how we can support that by facilitating introductions and matching up young people with boards,” says Zack. The organization hosts three to four follow-up events a year meant to reinforce the importance of board service, including a panel discussion featuring the board chair of an organization along with executive directors from small, medium and large organizations.

While demand is strong among young Jews for board service training, the question that has yet to be answered is whether the Jewish establishment will embrace the 20- and 30-something crowd in more than a token fashion.

“Bringing a young person onto a board because he or she represents a certain age group can be detrimental,” cautions John Brothers, a senior fellow with the Support Center, which conducts board leadership trainings. “Youth, in of itself, is not an asset.”

Boards that bring on younger members must be open to “changing the culture of the organization to be more representative of the community and the people that they serve” — a task that is easy to talk about but more difficult to put into practice.

Handing over the leadership reins may be even more difficult in the Jewish community, which “holds boards in high regard,” says Zack.

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