Adding New Links to the Chain

by Daniel E. Levenson, ALM

A significant challenge facing the senior leadership at major Jewish organizations is the question of how to connect with the next generation of up and coming Jewish leaders in a substantive way. I believe that there is an awareness of this lack of connection at organizations such as the Jewish Agency for Israel and within the American Federation system, and in some cases, a sense that it represents a long-term problem for the Jewish community. Yet despite this awareness, it often seems that the present cohort of senior leaders is either unable or unwilling to take the crucial steps necessary to ensure that there will be an unbroken chain of leadership from one generation to the next. The root cause of this problem, in my opinion, lies in the history of these organizations and of world Jewry in general, where until quite recently the focus was often on fundraising to help desperately poor and oppressed Jewish communities around the world. While there are still Jews who need help, there are other challenges which need to be addressed as well within our community, including persistent Anti-Semitism in Europe and North America, a growing divide within our own community between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, and issues of poverty and environmental degradation in Israel.

In part, this lack of effective connection between generations falls into the category of what Professor Ron Heifitz of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government might call “technical problems,” meaning that there are some concrete logistical actions that could be taken to help address certain aspects of the challenge. An examples of a possible technical fix in this case would be to invite young adults in their twenties and thirties to get involved with JAFI and the Federations by inviting them to have a seat at the table where important issues, including the overall direction of these organizations, are being discussed on a regular basis.

To effectively make this kind of change, though, also requires a willingness to embrace what Dr. Heifitz would call a process of “adaptive” change, which can be difficult and time intensive. It requires a willingness to address a challenge head on, trading the sense of security that comes with avoiding change for an ability to adapt to new challenges facing the organization. This is not an impossible task, but it is a difficult one, and I personally worry about how many senior professional and lay leaders in world Jewry are willing to make this kind of effort at present.

The senior leadership of these organizations also needs to realize that focusing only on getting buy-in from people who are likely to write large checks is not a productive long-term strategy any more. The days when Jews were willing to give blindly to Jewish organizations without asking substantive questions is over, and in order to keep the necessary funding coming in from the community, there needs to be an effort to engage Jewish young adults in the planning processes and leadership, especially those who are going to bring other valuable skills and perspectives to the discussion, and not merely a checkbook.

I am not suggesting that funding is not important, because I know that it is. Raising the necessary funds to run programs that increase Jewish literacy and help those in need is vital, but fundraising cannot, and should not, be the sole focus of these organizations. People who are engaged in the world of non-profit work more broadly often speak of the three “W’s” – Work, Wisdom and Wealth, when it comes to building a board. All too often in the Jewish world I think we neglect the first two “W’s,” and I believe in the long run that we are doing so at our own peril. In other words, it should not only be those with substantial financial resources who are influencing the direction of major Jewish organizations through their checkbook.

When I lived in Jerusalem for 8 months in 2009 I did a variety of different kinds of volunteer work for JAFI, including meeting with potential donors, helping out with the MASA newsletter, talking to visiting groups and giving a d’var Torah at the opening session of the education committee at the June 2009 General Assembly. Speaking from my own experience were some of the most interesting and fulfilling activities I engaged in while I was living in Israel. Talking with donors is important as well, but I often felt like myself and others were being asked not so much to have a real conversation with the potential donors, as to impress them.

I want to be clear here that I did genuinely enjoy doing work for the Jewish Agency – as a Zionist it felt great to be able to be involved, in some small way, with an organization that was crucial in the founding of the State of Israel. Nor am I suggesting that development is unimportant or that potential donors should not speak directly to the people who are the beneficiaries of their generosity. What I am saying is that it is crucial on a larger scale that organizations make a conscious effort to go beyond using up and coming Jewish leaders to impress donors. I have seen a few hopeful signs, including efforts by Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston to encourage Jewish social entrepreneurship and better communication between Jewish young adult groups in the area. This is a good start, but more can and should be done. The idea is not so much to empower the next generation of Jewish leaders, as it is to create a sense of connectivity between generations of leaders in order to learn from one another and do important work on behalf of the Jewish people more effectively. Doing so will not only build genuine buy-in for these groups from Jewish young adults that will help to sustain the work of these organizations well into the future, but allow them to adapt as new challenges arise, while maintaining their core mission of helping to sustain Jews and Jewish communities around the world.

Daniel E. Levenson is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of the New Vilna Review, an online publication dedicated to fostering dialogue within the Jewish community across denominational, political and geographic lines.