Attracting the College-Age to Organized Jewish Life: A Case Study

The AMIT Future Leaders Initiative is one of the only branches of a Jewish nonprofit organization that is reaching out to college students.

by Debbie Isaac and Barbara Goldberg

Will they care? Will they commit? Will they give? These are questions every Jewish organization is asking about today’s Generation Y (See “NextGen Donors: The Future of Jewish Giving,” a major study issued in early August that has generated much attention in the press and elsewhere).

AMIT, an organization founded almost 90 years ago, has successfully grappled with this issue, approaching it from a somewhat unique angle. The organization’s base in the United States was until recently composed primarily of women in their 50s to 70s who passionately support the AMIT Network of schools and programs in Israel. The network, known for its educational excellence and innovation, serves thousands of Israeli children, including more than 100 foster children who reside in its flagship AMIT Frisch Beit Hayeled in Jerusalem.

In September 2007, AMIT welcomed its first class to Midreshet AMIT, a program for post high school young women who wish to spend a year studying in Israel before college. Midreshet AMIT is located on the grounds of Frisch Beit Hayeled, and in addition to engaging in their own Jewish studies, the students regularly interact with the Beit Hayeled children, tutoring them, playing with them, taking them on trips and generally acting as “big sisters” for the year.

While the program’s primary purpose is to provide the Midreshet AMIT students with a unique year combining intensive Judaic studies with a true experience of chesed – together with enriching the lives of the foster children, many of whom come from extremely troubled backgrounds – AMIT derives an additional benefit which the leadership has nurtured and cultivated to great success.

The first class of Midreshet AMIT students returned home ready to begin their college careers, fully committed to AMIT. The young women were inspired by their year in Jerusalem working with the Beit Hayeled children, experiencing on a daily basis the impact of AMIT in Israel. They bonded strongly and emotionally with the little boys and girls with whom they had lived for a year and would not abandon them nor let them down.

The leadership of AMIT recognized that these young women were a different breed of volunteer. They had been living on their own in Israel, would need to “do their own thing,” and would want to feel a sense of ownership over their efforts.

In 2009, with the full support of the AMIT Board of Directors, the AMIT Future Leaders Initiative (AFLI) was born.

“The AMIT Future Leaders Initiative,” explained Elana Loeffler Grauer, AFLI co-founder and currently mentor to the group, “is one of the only branches of a Jewish nonprofit organization that is reaching out to college students. Becoming a part of this new effort gave me the ability to do something for the children of AMIT who need our help.”

The Board of AFLI is composed largely of graduates of Midreshet AMIT (Ms. Grauer was a member of the inaugural class), plus other young people – including men – who have become active in the organization. The Board independently decides on its projects and activities, both in terms of programs and fundraising, instilling in its members a true sense of empowerment in terms of their role within AMIT.

Every aspect of what has become AFLI’s signature fundraiser, its Annual Yom Ha’Atzmaut Social, as well as its other events, is planned by its Board and members, with minimal input from the AMIT professional staff. The Board votes upon which AMIT project to designate as the recipient of the funds raised each year (AFLI has raised approximately $145,000 since its inception) and there are now plaques at AMIT schools in Israel heralding AFLI’s efforts. In choosing the specific project they wish to fund, AFLI members can see exactly where their money is going and its impact on the students of AMIT.

When each Midreshet AMIT class returns from Israel in August, it is immediately invited to a meeting at the organization’s National Office with the Board of AFLI. Added to the mix are the high school graduates who are about to leave for Midreshet AMIT that same month. The enthusiasm of the returning class, the excitement of the incoming class and the commitment of the AFLI Board combine into a potent brew that ensures the group’s future. AFLI members currently attend New York University, Columbia College, Queens College, Hunter, FIT, Barnard, Stern College for Women, Yeshiva College, the University of Maryland, Touro College and others.

The challenge now is for AMIT to spread AFLI beyond the New York metropolitan area. Because graduates of Midreshet AMIT largely fuel AFLI and also tend to congregate in colleges and universities in the New York area, it has proven difficult to duplicate AFLI in other parts of the country. But doing so is on the AMIT agenda.

Debbie Isaac is the president of AMIT; Barbara Goldberg is the director of communications. To learn more about AMIT, visit amitchildren.org.