Designing Opportunities for Jewish Young Adult Leadership
Part 1: Young Adult Lay-Leadership Autonomy and Responsibility
By Kevin Lieberman
How might we identify and develop young adult Jewish lay-leaders?
My friends and I reminisce of the days when we were in our respective youth groups. I was in BBYO, which prominently advertises teen-led programming, from weekly chapter gatherings to international summer programs. If I wanted to plan a program, I told the Chapter’s VP I wanted a date on the calendar, grabbed a new member and an older mentor to plan the program, and did it. With hardly anyone to tell us no, we planned extraordinarily creative programming: Murder mysteries that turned into debates on Judaism’s stand on capital punishment; a Fear Factor spinoff competition with challenges related to Jewish holidays; Shabbat services that drew parallels between Mad Libs and liturgy to explore how personal meaning could be found in a pre-structured texts. We recruited our friends to join our chapter, took on leadership roles, and were accountable to each other for our success. There was a sense that we alone were responsible for our chapter’s success, and we jumped up and down, shouting our chapter name at conventions because we were proud that we made our community happen.
As a young adult in Washington, DC, I was interested in taking on a meaningful role in the young adult Jewish community. However, most of the available opportunities consisted of either inviting Facebook friends to attend an event, cleaning up after an event, or making financial contributions to a Jewish organization. Communal professionals were now the primary planners of programs meant to serve the young adult Jewish community, not the young adults themselves. Feedback from community members would occasionally be solicited, but follow through on this feedback was rare.
Jewish youth groups, and even college organizations, are developing young lay-leaders who have extensive experience leading their local communities. Yet as we mature and grow into young adults, the Jewish community offers less autonomy, less trust, and less responsibility to create our own Jewish experiences. Annual fundraising solicitations shift from featuring teen-led projects to staff-driven projects for supposedly passive and disengaged young adults. Ironically, the Jewish community provides fewer leadership opportunities for young adults than for teens.
The Jewish community’s young adult leadership problem is not a lack of competent young adult Jews for lay-leadership opportunities. There are Jewish young adults who work for companies in diverse industries, supervise teams, and manage large-scale projects. Yet, the most responsibility that they may be given by a Jewish organization is running the sign-in table at a Shabbat. The Jewish community knows from Jewish youth and college groups which young adults have the competency and experience to lead the community. However, there is a lack of mechanisms in place to guide these young adults to opportunities where they can build on their experience as innovators, decision-makers, and implementers. Additionally, young adults do not know how to sail the vast sea of Jewish nonprofits, and we are unaware of each organization’s priorities, reputation, politics, and expectations of lay-leaders. If the Jewish community works to connect emerging leaders with the right organizations and opportunities, there would be a reservoir of energetic young adults who would be prepared to lead and succeed.
Peer-led programming is high caliber because teens and young adults are accountable to their friends. Programming is self-motivated because teens and young adults are able to fuse their personal passions with community building. Lay-led programming is creative because constraints are not set by professionals, who may worry about failure, their jobs, and their board’s expectations. Lay-lead programming is accountable to program participants.
Millennials are looking for opportunities to collaboratively implement new ideas to enhance our young adult Jewish communities. However, one of the greatest problems facing young adults is that we don’t know where to find programmatic or financial support to implement ideas. Micro-grants should be widely advertised and also accessible to young adults who have not participated in selective programs. Expanding the opportunities like Moishe House and Moishe House Without Walls would create more experiences for personal community development. The four Moishe Houses in the Washington, DC area thrive, each with their own personalities, because residents integrate their personal passions and their community’s interests into how they build relationships among their communities. A new fellowship run by DC-based Gather the Jews is providing support for a team of young adult lay-leaders to each create Jewish initiatives around topics or issues that matters to them. The fact that these opportunities attract more applicants than can be accepted indicates that there are more young adults who are interested in meaningful leadership opportunities.
Young adults lay-leaders are creating a culture of accessibility to Judaism that’s innovative and personal. The question now is how do we bridge the gap between the young adult lay-leaders and the world of Jewish communal professionals? Creating community priorities together eliminates assumptions of young adult needs that may not be accurate. Lay-leaders could benefit from the formal education and knowledge base of communal professionals, and communal professionals could benefit from insights from the young adults they serve. Jewish professional conferences and media may consider inviting young adults to participate in conversations so that Jewish young adult lay-leaders and communal professionals may work together to frame the community agenda. Through collaboration, we can create an environment that encourages innovation, creativity, ownership, engagement, and accessibility.
To be continued – Part 2: The DC Design Workshop.
Kevin Lieberman, 25, is an engineer for an air traffic control engineering and research company where he designs new air traffic management concepts and decision support tools. He leads the DC Design Workshop is his free time. Kevin graduated from Duke University with a degree in mechanical engineering and was President of the Duke Jewish Student Union.