Volunteering Connected Me To My Jewish Identity


Today’s federation is not your grandfather’s federation.

It seems that every Jewish periodical I read expresses concern about the next generation’s commitment to Israel and our Jewish heritage. This was the focus of a Jewish Week op-ed (“Mentoring the Next Generation While We Still Have Them,” April 29). In this article, Rabbi Lawrence Zierler discusses what many perceive to be a struggle for the federation to “articulate a message to its future generations of potential leaders.”

Before responding, let me tell you who I am. I am 25 and was raised in a Conservative, kosher household in Chicago and went to a Jewish day school until I was 13. I spent my high school and college years questioning my Jewish identity. Typically, I lost my way and had a loose connection to the Jewish community. At most, I made an occasional appearance at the University of Michigan campus Hillel and attended High Holy Day services with my family.

After graduating college four years ago, I moved to New York and learned what it felt like to be a stranger in a strange land. Having classmates from college also living in New York did not dispel the loneliness I felt. I still had not re-connected to my Jewish roots. To this end, I must agree with Rabbi Zierler and many others who have valid concerns about the decline in Jewish youth engagement.

Soon after joining BlackRock Financial Management, I came across the UJA-Federation of New York through volunteer events with co-workers. I was amazed by the success of the programs. My new colleagues at UJA-Federation encouraged me to explore my interests further. First, as a college mentor at the Educational Alliance, I helped a teenager become the first person in his family to attend college. Then as a volunteer at the 14th Street Y, I connected with homeless Jewish adults over a kosher Chinese dinner. During Passover, I delivered kosher food packages to homebound senior citizens through Dorot. With each volunteer event I attended, I felt more connected to my own Jewish identity and realized I could effect change in a meaningful way.

While I believe a deep-seated Jewish upbringing is an important foundation, we can no longer count on this to guarantee future engagement. Rabbi Zierler could not be more accurate when he stresses that we must find ways to “assist young people who face daunting challenges in college and professional training.”

However, unlike Rabbi Zierler, I believe that existing organizations, including federations and Birthright Israel, have been successful in providing personal and professional satisfaction for “the next generation.” While there is certainly more work to be done, and we must remain vigilant in evaluating and improving outcomes, I can honestly say that had their programs not existed, I would not have fallen back in love with my Jewishness.

Five years ago, the UJA-Federation of New York unified two loosely affiliated young leadership groups under the “Emerging Leaders & Philanthropists” brand. The success and growth in participation since then has been remarkable. Earlier this year, almost 700 young professionals attended a fundraiser in Manhattan organized by the Generosity Committee of leaders from the “next generation.” There are 300 young professionals like myself serving on UJA-Federation leadership committees; we represent Wall Street, real estate, law and entertainment. Of these, 80 are non-voting members (“observers”) on UJA-Federation’s internal task forces or beneficiary agency boards that are responsible for allocating funds.

While UJA-Federation first engaged me through its volunteer programs, it also offered other unique opportunities that give me personal and professional satisfaction. As the chair of a UJA-Federation Birthright trip last summer, I helped 35 peers build a connection to Israel and develop their Jewish identities. (Since 2008, more than 650 of my peers living in New York have gone on UJA-Federation-led Birthright trips.)

Last fall, I became a non-voting member of a task force that funds a variety of programs devoted to connecting more post-bar and bat mitzvah teens. I recently joined UJA-Federation’s Young Wall Street Executive Committee, which includes some of the most dedicated, post-college young leaders who inspire me to become an even stronger Jewish leader in my professional field.

We need organizations like UJA-Federation to help the next generation reconnect. I found my way precisely because it connected me on many different levels and gave me the opportunity to craft my own place within our community. For my generation, the path must be paved by a message of life-changing individual experiences and not by the criticism or marginalization of UJA-Federation. We need our parents, rabbis, and teachers to stay committed to transforming federations (like the New York one), and make the programming more relevant to an eager but largely uninspired young generation.

I believe every federation funding Birthright should require some level of post-trip community service through its beneficiary agencies. Many young professionals would discover their own life-changing experience through this Jewish lens. Second, federations should develop a pre-trip seminar that focuses on what Israel means to our people today, which would magnify each Birthright experience. Further, a post-trip seminar led by young rabbis and professional leaders would show how philanthropy is a cornerstone of a fulfilling life as well as a young professional’s personal “portfolio.”

I am proud to be affiliated with the UJA-Federation of New York and young federation leadership nationally. I am confident we will reconnect with many more young individuals. On behalf of those who have yet to find their way, I implore you to become an integral part of this movement.

Jesse Silver is a member of the Young Wall Street Executive Committee of UJA-Federation of New York and its Emerging Leaders and Philanthropy Generosity Committee, and an observer with UJA-Federation’s Teen Engagement Task Force. He is an associate with portfolio management at BlackRock Financial Management.