By Abigail Pickus
Sometimes life’s biggest opportunities happen in the most unlikely of places.
For Sarah Schonberg, it was at Reagan Washington National Airport.
There she was, on her way to spend Rosh Hashannah with her family in Michigan, when she happened to meet a woman who changed the course of her life.
“I was standing in line talking to this woman who told me they were hiring at BBYO for this new position,” recalled Schonberg.
At the time, Schonberg was looking for a change from the arts organization in D.C. where she worked – but she wasn’t exactly looking to work for the Jewish community.
Having grown up in the suburbs of Detroit, Schonberg attended Michigan State University and then headed off to Guatemala as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
While Jewishly connected, in her 20s Schonberg was more drawn to immersing herself in cultures from around the world.
Her year studying in Nepal when she was a sophomore in college, for example, was “by far the most powerful and transformative experience of my life,” she said.
“I was very interested in trying to work towards changing the inequality in the world. I was interested in how much we have on our side of things and how little so much of the world has and I wanted to learn more about that.”
What she later came to realize, however, was that this idea of service, of “doing good” is none other than tikkun olam.
“In retrospect I understand so much of that work comes from my Jewish values,” she said.
Back in the States, Schonberg was working for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts when she happened upon the BBYO opportunity.
“The more they told me about the position, which would involve trying to re-engage over 250,000 alumni with an organization that has a lot of history, but was now in startup mode, the more I was intrigued. They needed someone to come in and figure out a way to move them forward,” said Schonberg.
BBYO describes itself as the world’s largest pluralistic Jewish youth movement. In 2002, it broke away from the B’nai Brith Youth Organization and became an independent movement for Jewish teens.
In 2007, Schonberg accepted the position and soon became the Creator and Director of BBYO’s Friends and Alumni Network (FAN), the organization’s regional fundraising and community engagement program. It proved to be as perfect match. Under Schonberg’s leadership, FAN has raised nearly $10,000,000 from over 12,000 unique donors while empowering hundreds of local lay leaders in the process.
And it is also thanks to Schonberg’s vision that a once nascent development operations has become one of the fastest growing fundraising operations in the Jewish community.
“I was brought on board as the alumni network director to figure out a way to engage these hundreds of thousands of people during this exciting time,” said Schonberg.
Seven years and two major promotions later, the 33-year-old Schonberg is BBYO’s Director of Development.
Looking back, she says she approached getting FAN off the ground with the same set of tools she used when she was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala. There she worked in rural elementary schools, organizing its local communities around a health curriculum and infrastructure projects and running a scholarship program for girls. But what came before the work itself were the questions she asked, the information she gathered in order to understand the needs of the people she was tasked to help.
With BBYO it was no different.
“I quickly learned that BBYO’s alumni are very connected to their home community, they are very locally based,” said Schonberg. So when it came time to create a fundraising model, it became clear to her that “people would want to give locally to support their own communities, while keeping them connected to this vibrant, international organization.”
As such, the model she helped construct was very dependent on local leadership.
What began in 2008 in 12 communities across the country has grown to 40 communities, which feature locally-led events and programs for teens, parents, donors and alumni.
BBYO now reaches more than 40,000 teens annually. Its donor reach is also impressive – boasting over 9,000 supporters annually, and the number is growing.
“What I have built with my colleagues is a holistic approach,” said Schonberg.
“We’re not only just engaging the next generation, we are engaging a variety of ages that are involved in FAN in different ways, from a 50-year-old mom to a 19-year-old campus leader to a 15-year-old teen.”
Professionally, Schonberg feels she has grown during her tenure at BBYO.
“They have been very invested in my growth,” she said, citing as examples her MBA from Indiana University, as well as a certificate in informal Jewish education from Hebrew College – both supported by BBYO. (Her marketing final project for her MBA was building the FAN brand.)
She also is proud of the organization’s growth, specifically the development department increasing from 3 to 20 people into a “thriving and sophisticated development machine,” said Schonberg.
Personally, she also feels she’s grown.
“It was a real coming home for me,” she said. “I have always felt connected to the Jewish community, but there was always a piece missing for me. Here I’ve been able to explore Judaism through BBYO’s approach of really letting people figure out where Judaism resonates for them. I’ve learned a ton and have grown personally and spiritually by being connected to the Jewish community in this way.”
And now Schonberg has happened upon a new set of opportunities.
On August 15, she will leave BBYO and will begin work with ChangeCraft, a consulting firm for clients navigating change and growth. Among her projects will include Schusterman’s Connection Points, peer-led gatherings for young Jews around the world supported by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. Soon to be a certified executive coach, Schonberg will also be launching her own consulting and coaching practice, which will focus on the links between leadership development, philanthropy and organizational change.
“Through my work at BBYO, I’ve learned that sustainable organizational growth happens through a combination of leadership development, community building and culture change. I’m energized to begin working with individuals and organizations across the Jewish community and beyond to help them realize their goals.”