JFNA’s Deep Dive into Next Gen Jewish Engagement

Photo credit: JFNA

By Richard V. Sandler

In Los Angeles, about a decade ago, we examined the work of our Federation and concluded that to fulfill our mission and ensure a strong Jewish community committed to Jewish values, we needed to invest more in creating meaningful Jewish experiences for young people. Years later, after the Pew study on Jewish Americans was released, we redoubled our efforts and expanded our programming throughout the city and to nearly every suburb. No part of our work is more important.

Throughout the continent, there are many Jewish organizations doing great work to connect and engage young people with Jewish life – but none have the reach into local communities like Jewish Federations. For that reason, I’m thrilled to announce the launch of a new effort aimed at boosting the skills of those Federation professionals working directly with people in their 20s and 30s.

With an investment from the Jim Joseph Foundation, The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) has created the Next Gen Jewish Federation Fellowship, an 18-month comprehensive program offering participants the tools and training they need to lead this critically important effort. Working together for the first time, the North Carolina-based Center for Creative Leadership and the Jerusalem-based M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education are helping us build a program to grow participants’ leadership skills and connect them more deeply to Judaism and Jewish identity.

We’ve hand-selected the first 22 fellows through a competitive process, and I’m incredibly proud that Los Angeles is in this impressive group. Alexi Biener will represent my hometown Federation. She plays a leading role in our Los Angeles-wide effort to identify and meaningfully connect promising young leaders to Federation’s local and global work, while also helping them develop their own leadership skills. We are thrilled that she will be a Next Gen Jewish Federation Fellow.

Speaking with JFNA’s Rabbi David Kessel, who founded the new fellowship, I learned that more than half of the recipients have Master’s degrees or advanced training certificates, and several joined Federation from outside the Jewish communal sector. From the many paths before them, they chose to help people along their Jewish journeys. They wanted to be a part of something meaningful and important.

Melanie Gerchberg from Philadelphia wrote on her fellowship application that “this is the first time in my life that my personal values are 100% in line with my professional values and the mission of the organization for which I work.” She left a more lucrative job in property development to ensure that young people see their contributions as “a way for them to effect change.”

We have all seen the statistics, but statistics don’t tell us the full story. We still have a lot to learn about generational trends, attitudes, behaviors, and preferences, but I can tell you that anyone who thinks that these young people don’t care is 100 percent wrong. We can motivate and capture their imaginations by talking with them and bringing authenticity and curiosity to the conversation. We need to meet them where they are and make Judaism matter.

A community does not just happen. Jews come from different backgrounds, belong to different synagogues – or no synagogue at all. But we have something much more important in common: We are all Jews, and we share a common tradition, a remarkable tradition. The experiences of each generation may be different, but the tradition and its values do not change. We all have a sacred obligation to make sure that our young people from each generation understand their tradition, who they are and where they come from as they choose how they are going to lead their lives.

Throughout the continent, a new generation is asking big questions about why Judaism matters and we must do the best we can to engage them. Those of us involved with JFNA and throughout the Federation Movement are passionate about building a vibrant Jewish future. Nearly 100 of our Federations have at least one professional committed to Next Gen engagement, and thanks to the new Fellowship we now have the opportunity to ensure that Next Gen engagement is high quality and meaningful across the board and for years to come.

Rabbi Kessel describes the incoming fellows as educators who see themselves as leaders and innovators. With the right set of tools, skills, and knowledge, he says, they will continue to deepen their reach into their local Jewish young adult communities and could even catalyze change within the entire Federation Movement.

We have the highest expectations for this group, and the confidence that they will lead us toward new solutions and strategies as we, together, work to fulfill that promise of a vibrant Jewish future.

Richard V. Sandler is Chair, Board of Trustees, of the Jewish Federations of North America.