by Abigail Pickus
These days, Ezra Shanken looks out his office window and sees snowcapped mountains.
It’s a long way from Manhattan, where Shanken recently served as Director of Emerging Leaders & Philanthropists (ELP) at UJA-Federation of New York.
But as the newest Chief Executive Officer of Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver – and arguably, at 33, one of the youngest to ever assume such an executive role in the Jewish communal world – Shanken seems up to the challenge.
“This has been a dream that I’ve had from the beginning,” said Shanken. “I’ve come up within the Federation world. I believe in it. I have had a lot of great mentors. And each step has led me towards this opportunity to lead a community.”
“It’s a lot of responsibility and such an incredible privilege to do this,” he continued.
Shanken took the helm of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver earlier this summer, just as tensions in Israel were beginning to flare. In other words, Shanken was thrown directly into the fire – which only seemed to fuel his commitment to serving the Jewish world.
“I keep a picture on the wall of my office of my grandfather and his bomber crew in North Africa during WWII to remind me of his beginnings,” said Shanken.
His grandfather flew no less than 55 missions over Europe, before returning to America and becoming a Conservative rabbi. Shanken grew up inspired by his heroism, as well as his work for the Jewish community. His father, too, was a Jewish communal professional for the JCC On The Palisades in Tenafly, New Jersey.
“My father used to tell me the story of how when I was 3 and 4 in the JCC nursery, I used to run up to his office and hide under his desk when I didn’t want to do things,” he said.
Shanken grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey, in the Conservative movement. His parents were a big believer in public school education, so he is also a product of secondary Jewish education – “some of it incredibly positive and some not so positive, but all of it contributing way I look at world today, he said.”
But it was following in his father and grandfather’s footsteps that ultimately led him to be part of the Jewish professional world.
Not that he was aware of this when he found himself moving to Colorado after college to join a group of friends.
“The idea was to go for year to escape from NYC, but that one year turned into 8 years and into the building block to who I’ve become as a Jewish communal professional,” recalled Shanken.
In fact, he didn’t intend to work for the Jewish Federation but he needed a job. So when something opened up, he interviewed with Susan Kramer (now the CDO of JEWISHcolorado) who took one look at him and said, “You belong here.”
“She saw something in me,” said Shanken. “I went from somebody seeing something in me to me seeing something in myself to having an opportunity to see something in other people and help them along.”
At the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado, Shanken took over an ailing young adult department.
What emerged was an innovative approach to finding out what young people wanted from their community. Shanken said during his time there he had 200 coffees with young professionals from across the community. “We sat down with them and we didn’t ask for money. Instead, what they wanted to know was: under what circumstances do you see yourself being part of our greater community? How can we benefit you?”
At the same time, The Rose Community Foundation was also having these “Starbucks conversations.” All of those coffees yielded a host of incredible leadership for the Colorado Jewish community, including young people who today sit on the Young Leadership Cabinet and who commit to $5,000 a year or more in philanthropy for the community, according to Shanken.
But the essence of what he distilled from these conversations is that it is these personal connections – sitting across from someone, making meaningful conversation – that can change their trajectory. “This can happen whether a person is 16 or 60,” said Shanken.
Soon Shanken was promoted to Director of Young Leadership in Denver. He was also a co-founder of the successful E3 series of events, which drew hundreds of young Jews to parties at places like warehouses and art galleries.
Interestingly, when Shanken was asking the “NextGen” what works best for them, he was nearly always younger than the young people he was hoping to attract.
“I hadn’t turned 30 yet,” he said. “Being the youngest among people has been very normal for me. I was always the youngest of whatever it was I was doing,” he said.
As a young person himself, Shanken never “bought into the idea based on all these studies that came out saying that this generation didn’t have the capacity to make change at any less of a pace than the generation before – all they needed was to be nudged in the right direction,” he said.
“I used to say to our staff in New York, ‘When you’re talking to a young professional about tzedakah, you aren’t selling them on anything because they already own it. We’re not selling vacuum cleaners. [Or teaching people how to use a new product.] We are introducing people in many ways to themselves – to the things they had, but never wanted to notice,” he said.
It comes back to that “trajectory change”- it’s about “getting them in line with seeing all they have as an opportunity to create change in the world.”
Soon after Colorado, Shanken was asked to direct the Emerging Leaders & Philanthropists (ELP) at UJA-Federation of New York – by all accounts the largest NextGen program in the Jewish world.
“Whereas in Colorado we had to go wide because we were small, in New York we could go narrow: ‘You’re a Russian speaking person who works [in investment banking] and loves Israel? We can put that together!” he said.
Throughout it all, Shanken says he has been motivated by affecting change in three major categories of Jewish life: helping those in need, Jewish identity and education, and Klal Yisrael, sustaining a greater sense of community among Jews around the world.
“I have been incredibly blessed,” he said. “This incredible community has picked me as their CEO, which speaks volumes about the way that they see the world. What they’re saying is, we believe so much in the next generation that we want our chief professional leader be of that generation.”
“I hope I am not the last,” he continued. “Please don’t let Ezra Shanken be a blip on the radar. I hope other people follow me and also become leaders and CEO’s. Because the ‘next generation’ is the ‘now generation.’ It isn’t enough to be next. We have a chance to do something great and we can start right this very moment.”