The Next Generation: What Jewish Organizations are Doing to Cultivate 20-and-30-Somethings
part 2 of 2 (here’s part 1)
by Abigail Pickus
It’s all well and good to hear how the organizational world is working overtime to try to make young Jews feel at home, but beyond “raising leaders” and “empowering the next generation,” are NextGens actually putting anything back in the pot?
Because at the end of the day, someone has to write the check to “support” or “make possible,” well, everything. From the Starbucks that keep a disengaged Jew in Denver nice and caffeinated while they share just what they want in a Jewish community to the educational center in Haiti for the children whose lives have been devastated by the 2010 earthquake.
And the answer?
Young Jews are giving.
The Jewish Communal Fund of New York, in fact, has seen a significant increase in the number of Next Gen fund holders under the age of 40, according to Michelle Lebowits, Director of their NextGen Philanthropy.
But true to the individualized nature of these generations, young people are giving their way.
“I don’t necessarily agree with the premise that young people don’t want to give money. They just want to be connected to the organizations they want to support. What we might be seeing and misinterpreting is not that young people need to be connected to the end goal, they just want some sense of how organizations operate and how they continue to be relevant,” said Will Schneider, Executive Director Slingshot, a nonprofit dedicated to strengthening innovation in Jewish life by developing next-generation funders. Every year, Slingshot puts out a much sought after resource guide – “the Zagat’s of the Jewish organizational world” – ranking the top 50 innovative nonprofits in North American Jewish life, which they also support. (Last year, ACCESS made Number 1.)
While Schneider at Slingshot works with a particularly wealthy set of young Jews who are the next generation of well-known family foundations, the fact is their funding habits are in line with the rest of their generation, which can be summed up in a few words: “They are not going to give blindly just because their grandfather did,” said Schneider.
What young Jews are looking for when it comes to both involvement and philanthropy is relevance. They want to understand that they are supporting a cause that is contributing in a significant way to the greater good.
Daniel Pincus, for example, supports AJC’s ACCESS because “AJC raises money for its own operations. They are not a disbursement fund.” It goes without saying that the primary reason Pincus supports AJC is because he believes in their work; that they are not an umbrella organization also assures him that he knows exactly where his money is going.
This leads to the next generalization about the NextGen’s giving habits: They are considerably more hands-on than their parents’ generation.
“Often I hear that young people don’t want to give to establishment organizations or any kind of federated giving models – that these are not reaching the NextGen and what we interpret there is that young people don’t want to give to collected giving models. I don’t think that is true. Young people just don’t want to give into a black hole,” said Schneider.
In terms of training the next generation of philanthropists, Rose Community Foundation has certainly seized upon a winning formula.
Every year, a cohort of teens who make up Rose Youth Foundation are given $60,000 to distribute to nonprofits within Greater Denver and Boulder. It is up to the group to determine which organizations would benefit most from their funding (and as a result, which won’t receive funding) and since they must make grants that are primarily Jewish, they must decide what that means.
Roots & Branches Foundation for 20-and-30-somethings is similar to the teen program except that in addition to the $60,000 at their disposal, Rose Community Foundation created a $25 thousand matching pool. Members are not required to donate to the pool, but if they do, Rose will match them dollar for dollar.
“We know that 20-and 30-year-olds don’t have the same sense of obligatory giving to the Jewish world and we wanted to acknowledge that but not require it,” said Lisa Farber Miller, Senior Program Officer for Rose Community Foundation. “But we had confidence that if they have meaningful experiences, their actions will be followed by philanthropy.”
And that is what came to pass.
As Sarah Indyk, Jewish Life Initiatives Manager at Rose Community Foundation, said, “With Roots & Branches, even though giving is not required and it is anonymous, we wanted anyone interested in the experience to be able to participate regardless of their means.”
In the end, a whopping 90% of participants from Roots & Branches end up donating from their own pockets anywhere from $18 to $15,000, with the average being around $300. And it isn’t just the current cohort who donate, but also alumni.
“Here is where I think we as a Jewish community have a responsibility to demonstrate values first,” said Indyk. “I don’t think that everything always needs to be free. But I think those who can afford to pay their own way or make a charitable contribution are only going to do so if they understand the value first.”
Because what has become clear to those working in the field is that giving only happens after a long process that begins with the establishing relationships.
“Roots & Branches starts by building relationships between the staff and cohort of an 18-member, diverse team who decided they are going to work together to make a difference. Once the relationships are established they have the opportunity to make a decision if they want to put their money on the table. At every step along the way they are determining. They don’t have to give their money until they see what their grant making priorities are,” said Indyk.
And what of Rose Youth Foundation’ teens who aren’t contributing from their own pockets?
“I feel they are giving substantively because they are giving their time,” said Miller. “The teens, especially, are so over programmed. They are so worried about getting into college and having a job. The 20s and 30s are raising families. So this gift of time is something we greatly value as a Jewish community. We may sometimes overlook that they are making the choice to spend time in the Jewish community and this is something we should celebrate.”
As Sarah Eisenman of JDC said, “How do you put a dollar value on 50 thousand hours of service? This is huge. We can’t shrug off what those hours of volunteer service mean.”
Nothing shows the level of commitment more than when the Denver Broncos were in the playoffs, led by “God’s quarterback” Tim Tebow, and Rose Youth Foundation teens still showed up for their scheduled Sunday meeting.
All of them.
“Our teenagers take this incredible responsibility seriously. True, they haven’t had to put a penny in, but by being here what they are saying is we are here because we are going to make a difference because our voices count,” said Miller.
Looking Beyond the Jewish World
How’s this for a Catch-22?
When it comes to those hard to reach young Jews, anything that smacks of Jewishness is the kiss of death. Yet, what is the organized Jewish world supposed to do – erase its Jewishness?
If you ask the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, which, since 1987, has been in the business of supporting initiatives that “empower young Jews to embrace the joy of Judaism, build inclusive Jewish communities, support the State of Israel and repair the world,” part of the answer is to think outside the Jewish box.
For the past four years, Schusterman has partnered with Teach For America – one of the most prestigious educational organizations in the country that sends talented young people to teach in some of the most disadvantaged urban and rural school districts – on a very unusual project: summer trips to Israel.
On the surface it might not be obvious, but scratch a little and what emerges is that a disproportionate number of Teach For America corps members are Jewish. By partnering with Teach For America and sending young educators with an interest in or affiliation with Jewish life to Israel, what Schusterman is doing is not only reaching an otherwise unreachable demographic, but showing them that their commitment to eliminating educational equality (Teach For America’s motto) is inherently Jewish.
“What we have done with the REALITY trips to Israel is to create an opportunity for people to explore the connection between their commitment to Teach For America, the values that drive that commitment and our millennia-old Jewish values,” said Adam Simon, Associate National Director of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.
In other words, the fact that a young person chooses to spend two years teaching in a school system in which children might not even have food to eat for lunch or much of a chance of getting past the 8th grade, may very well be attributed not just to the way their parents raised them, but also to the influence of their Jewish heritage – even if they had never felt connected to that 3,000-year-old legacy.
So what these Israel trips do is enable very talented and bright young teachers to explore the Jewish State and Jewish values through the prism of something they already hold dear: Teach for America. In keeping with this philosophy, it is Teach For America staff who really take the lead in running the 10-day trips with itineraries that include everything from climbing Masada to meeting Israeli and Arab educators and students.
Schusterman might very well be onto something. Because partnering with non-Jewish organizations might become an important ticket to NextGen engagement in the 21st century.
“It’s really powerful because we have learned that we can engage incredible leaders who previously would never have applied their leadership skills to Jewish life,” said Simon. “We are able to enhance their connection to Jewish life and strengthen their Jewish identity while also deepening their ability to make an impact on the world at large.”
By this summer, the Schusterman-Teach For America partnership will have brought over 200 young educators to Israel with the goal of increasing the number of participants each year.
And the Israel trip is just the beginning of what Simon calls a “suite of experiences and opportunities for people to gain Jewish and leadership skills and to create both Jewish life and social change for themselves and their friends.”
This suite includes everything from intensive trainings, reunions and even small grants (under $500) to encourage them to create their own Jewish experiences, whether it is Shabbat dinners or Hebrew lessons or even, as was the case with one REALITY alumna who used the funds to join a trip to Poland and Budapest, where she was able to explore her family history and learn about relatives who had been killed in the Holocaust.
“Our goal is not to create people dependent on us. Our goal is for them to do this on their own, to find out what they want to do with the community that they build while in Israel and after they return home,” said Simon.
Simon has great faith in this approach, so much so that he feels that even if it happens gradually, these REALITY trips will help to raise the next lay and organizational leaders of the Jewish world. If this statement seems bold, there is already unequivocal evidence showing a greater commitment and connection to Jewish life after the Israel trips with formerly disengaged alumnae doing everything from acting as consultants to Jewish organizations to running their own Passover seders (with help from Repair the World). In one case, the trip prompted a couple to have a Jewish wedding. It may seem odd to an older generation, but even though they are both Jewish, before one of them went on the Israel trip, it was not important for them to have a rabbi officiate or to make their wedding overtly Jewish. The REALITY trip changed all of that.
Beyond this, Simon believes this approach will help the next leaders of major social change movements like Teach For America be more grounded in their identity, community and values, and, therefore, more effective.
“We are not saying, ‘You have to join a synagogue to be Jewish,’” said Simon. “We are giving them the connection, bit by bit, to building Jewish lives grounded in purpose, meaning and relevancy in their own image.”
With all the energy and resources devoted to courting NextGeners, how best to measure the long-term impact?
“There hasn’t been any study done yet that shows that I became member of a shul or started my own Jewish organization in a community because when I came back from Israel I saw that there were people who were specifically there to help me and cater to my interests in my Jewish community,” said Joel Frankel of the Jewish Federation of St Louis. “There is nothing to measure that because not enough time has passed and more importantly, I don’t know if there is really any good quantitative way to measure someone’s Jewish identity.”
In the meantime, the consensus seems to be that all the community can do today is empower NextGens to build their own future. As Miller of Rose Community Foundation put it, “We have indoctrinated hundreds of people who now have the tools to be the problem solvers and change makers in their communities.”
But there is anecdotal evidence from across the country showing how young Jews are contributing to the organized Jewish world today in unprecedented ways.
When Hurricane Katrina stuck in 2005, AJC raised over $1 million, primarily from the older generation, in a special campaign to help rebuild New Orleans. But it was the younger generation via ACCESS, who made repeated trips to New Orleans to do much of the work on the ground.
“ACCESS played a really important role in New Orleans,” said Rebecca Neuwirth, Director of Global ACCESS: AJC’s new generation program. “That combination of bringing in money and bringing in a long-term, sustained, hands-on engagement was really magical.”
ACCESS members are also forging relationships with younger political players on the world scene.
“These younger people are playing a real role in forming policy and an increasing role in global policy. And here we have younger generation playing an important role in building relationships with them. It’s very important for the future and for the present,” said Neuwirth.
What is notable is the way the younger generation goes about forging those relationships in ways that are more casual and often more personal than the previous generation. They might go out for coffee with a political leader, for example, which just wouldn’t happen with those a few decades older.
Beyond that, Neuwirth feels there is value to showcasing younger Jews to the world.
“When we do meet as a younger group with senior leaders there is a lot of value added there because it is important for foreign leaders to see that the Jewish community has a future and to show them that there are very young, articulate people committed to these issues.”
Sometimes these young, articulate people even end up working for the Jewish community, which is an interesting twist to a story that often begins with alienation and disengagement.
Take 32-year-old Melissa Hoch. As a transplant to Denver from San Francisco, she was invited to join the first cohort of Roots & Branches of Rose Community Foundation.
At the time she was doing public relations for a hospital and as a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, while she always felt connected to Judaism, she had no real connection to the organized Jewish world.
But Roots & Branches changed all of that.
“It was wonderful to meet people from a whole spectrum of Judaism and have rich discussions around grant making and funding for our demographic,” she said, “and it was a way for me as a new person to Denver to learn the Jewish landscape of the Denver community.”
Its impact was so strong that during a site visits to an organization the cohort was considering funding, Hoch became so intrigued that she ended up joining their board for 20-and 30-somethings. She also later joined AJC’s ACCESS Colorado board and Rose Women’s Organization, a donor-advised fund of Rose Community Foundation.
If that wasn’t enough, eventually she decided she wanted to work in the Jewish world and today is on staff at the JCC in Denver. Hers is definitely a story that would make the hearts of the older generation swell with pride, but what is significant about these turn of events is that it was never Rose Community Foundation’s intention to churn out Jewish communal professionals.
That it may happen as a by-product is no doubt an added plus.
“Roots & Branches was certainly a catalyst for me,” said Hoch. “Because of this experience my perspective on grant making and Jewish organizations is forever changed. I will always make it a commitment and part of my life to be part of the Jewish community.”