The Next Generation: What Jewish Organizations are Doing to Cultivate 20-and-30-Somethings

by Abigail Pickus
part 1 of 2

Back in 1950, with the ashes from the massacre of Eastern European Jewry still smoldering and a fledgling State of Israel taking its first tentative steps, an American Jewish rabbi wrote a very prescient article.

“What kind of American Jewish community do we desire, and how shall we plan to achieve it?” asked Robert Gordis in a Commentary Magazine essay titled, Creating an Organic Community: A Blueprint to Assure American Jewry’s Future.

Over 60 years have passed since Gordis wrote those words and though the core question remains the same, the landscape has markedly changed. If in the 50s the common enemy was assimilation, and in the 80s and 90s it was intermarriage and an American society that “welcomed us to death,” the 21st century’s main offenders are more about what is absent than what is present; namely, the way Israel, community and tradition no longer play central roles for the next generation of young Jews.

Yet, when it comes to the future, everything hinges upon engaging this NextGen, a notoriously fickle and capricious bunch. Bred on a diverse and multi-cultural society where Judaism is often only one of many concurrent identities and accustomed to an ala carte Judaism in which they can pick and choose from a buffet of Jewish options to best fit their own personal needs – if they seek out organized Jewish life at all – today’s 20-and 30-somethings are presenting quite a challenge to the organized Jewish world.

As a result, the old guard has been scrambling to figure out how to adapt to a changing reality. “Have you heard the expression child proofing your home? Well, what we’re doing is future proofing – preparing ourselves and our organization for the future,” said Sarah Eisenman, Director for Next Generation and Service Initiative for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).

When it comes to the future, JDC is one of a host of organizations across the country making significant changes to not only cultivate the next generation, but to empower them to eventually take their place at the communal Jewish table.

Just what that table will look like remains to be seen.

‘Why Aren’t Young People Walking in Our Doors?’

“The question that arises for a lot of traditional organizations is why aren’t young people walking in our doors?” said Ross Berkowitz, Founder and Executive Director of Tribe12, a Philadelphia-based organization that points NextGen Jews to select independent organizations. “That’s because they haven’t adapted. Some organizations have done a good job of adapting while others have not.”

In the case of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), turning 100 in 2005 served as an impetus for reflection and change.

“AJC has existed now for over 100 years, and if you look at its history, it has reinvented itself in every generation, asking itself, ‘What does this agency need to do right now to develop smart leaders who understand the Jewish community and the world as it is and who can figure out the best way to intersect these two worlds?’” said Rebecca Neuwirth, Director of Global ACCESS: AJC’s new generation program.

ACCESS was created to provide a “thoughtful way for younger Jews to become involved in the work that we do in global diplomacy and in building bridges with the international community, domestic opinion makers and leaders,” said Neuwirth.

While its focus is in line with the organization’s historic mission, what is different is the approach.

“With ACCESS, the vision model focuses on empowerment and about activating people. It’s not just about raising money from them, but rather trying to understand where they are and making sure that we are responsive to their needs that differ from those of our senior leadership,” said Neuwirth.

Rose Community Foundation in Denver has made it its mission to understand just what those NextGen needs are.

“We didn’t see anyone making big headway in the Jewish community in the fact that so many 20-and 30-year-olds were not at our communal table and their ideas were not being leveraged,” said Lisa Farber Miller, Senior Program Officer for Rose Community Foundation.

And so they did something at once remarkably radical and utterly rudimentary: They sent a 20-something named Shawna Friedman out into the community to actually to find out what young people wanted.

“Are people absent because they don’t care?” asked Miller. “What we found is fascinating. Young people do care – a lot. They have a strong and positive Jewish identity and they are seeking meaning in their life, but they just never had anyone [from the Jewish world] talk to them about it, especially after the age of 13. In many cases, they just didn’t see the Jewish community as a safe or welcoming place or one where they could talk about the contemporary issues that concerned them.”

Through these conversations with over 200 young people culled from a cross-section of the community (often over a cup of coffee at Starbucks) and a subsequent retreat, Rose Community Foundation issued a report with its findings and also launched what have become two very successful philanthropy programs, one focused on teens and the other on 20-and 30-somethings.

The findings from their research were released in 2008, but Miller’s amazement is still apparent when she talks about their first major – and significant – discovery: All NextGens want is someone to engage them in conversation.

“We found that just one conversation was an intervention. Here people think, ‘Wow. The Jewish community cares about me because they are asking me to be a part of something,’” she said.

That being ‘a part of’ something is key.

“What young people are looking for, whether they are teens or 20-and 30-somethings, is not particularly different from what most people are looking for, which is meaning and purpose and community. You can’t find those things by going to a happy hour,” said Sarah Indyk, Jewish Life Initiatives Manager at Rose Community Foundation.

Berkowitz of Tribe 12 reiterated that notion.

“It’s not really about the exact programming because that is always changing. What works is people want to meet other people with commonalities and shared values. Our goal is to really develop that around wanting to be a part of a Jewish community because those 20-and 30-somethings could choose to meet in other ways to be part of community, so what we aim to do is to add something Jewish to that equation.”

The Denver/Boulder community is an interesting microcosm from which to extrapolate larger truths about NextGen of Jews in America. To begin with, there is what Miller calls a “high rate of disengaged Jews” with over 60% having no relation with the Jewish community. The Denver/Boulder area, voted by Money Magazine as one of the ‘Best Places to Live,’ is also a rapidly growing population. Interestingly, the Jewish population is growing at a higher rate than the overall population – and it is overwhelmingly young, with a whopping 40% under the age of 40. There is also a extraordinarily high rate of interfaith marriages. (70% of those under 40 are in interfaith marriages.)

“When we look at those statistics for us it is a call to action to be the most welcoming, inclusive and joyous Jewish community we can be,” said Miller. This welcoming approach is not the automatic response of the organized Jewish community, even in this age of multiculturalism.

Yet, well before it became popular, the late Gary Tobin, founder and president of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish & Community Research (IJCR), was a big advocate for inclusiveness. “Do we want to enter the competition armed with our wonderful 3,000- year-old history, or kvetch about assimilation, intermarriage, and our dwindling numbers?” he wrote. “Those who choose to join the Jewish people will enrich us with their ideas, energy, and passion. And born Jews who choose to embrace their Judaism in an open marketplace also will enrich Jewish life. It is time to embrace the America in which we live. We must abandon the paradigm that our children and grandchildren are potential gentiles and promote the new belief that America is filled with potential Jews.”

Not surprisingly, this approach very much resonates with young Jews themselves, who (just as not surprisingly) do not respond well to being judged or castigated.

“ … It must be noted that approaching NextGen behaviors as a ‘problem’ is the ‘problem,’” according to Rose Community Foundation’s study, Legwork, Framework, Artwork: Engaging the Next Generation of Jews. “Intermarriage, disaffiliation and other trends are demographic realities. Calling these trends, or the people those statistics represent, ‘problems’ will not encourage them to participate in Jewish life.”

Beyond an open and welcoming approach, what Jewish leaders and activists have found is that NextGeners need both a personal invitation to join the mix, and someone to introduce them to their options.

“The idea is that not one project is going to work for everyone” said Berkowitz of Tribe12, which connects 20-and 30-somethings to a variety of existing programs and organizations, from LimmudPhilly and Birthright Israel NEXT to its own program called The Collaborative.

This “smorgasbord” approach, as Berkowitz calls it, is the polar opposite from the one- size-fits all model that worked for the Jewish community half a century ago.

“Fifty years ago the JCC was very much able to meet the needs of most members of the community. There are a lot reasons for this, but overall, young people then very quickly moved into being married and having families and the synagogue or the JCC could meet the needs of those families. Over the last number of years, there has been a much larger gap for many people between college and having kids and settling down and the JCC and other institutions did not keep up with that. What came out of this is a new set of needs,” he said.

Twenty-six-year old Joel Frankel was hired by the Jewish Federation of St. Louis to offer what he calls “concierge-like service” for young Jews returning home from Birthright Israel trips.

“My role is to find that first introductory piece to help them find their place in the Jewish community, whatever that may be, in a non-threatening manner and ‘nonthreatening’ is key,” said Frankel, Israel Engagement Fellow for the Jewish Federation of St. Louis.

What Frankel does is really a continuation of what Rose Community Foundation’s Shawna Friedman did over coffee at Starbucks: As a young emissary of the Jewish organized world, his sole purpose is to find out what young people want – and then lead them there. That these services are offered once young people return from Birthright Israel trips is intentional.

“Birthright opened up a lot of doors for a lot of the people because most had never been to Israel at all, but beyond that, many of them have no idea what types of opportunities are out there for them within their local Jewish community,” said Frankel.

This, too, was reinforced by Rose Community Foundation’s study, namely that young Jews do have strong and positive Jewish identities – they just have no knowledge about what exists out there in terms of Jewishly-connected options.

What Frankel and others engaged in similar outreach to young Jews across the country have found is that merely sending young Jews to Israel is not enough. Because with Birthright Israel poised to celebrate its 13th year, having sent hundreds of thousands of young Jews from around the world to Israel, the subsequent question becomes, what happens when they return home to America?

As Frankel himself warned in an essay in eJewish Philanthropy, “We are frighteningly close to becoming the generational version of the trust fund baby.” In other words, unless the organized Jewish community follows up Birthright trips with local engagement, the whole enterprise becomes nothing more than a free trip to Israel.

What is notable in the case of Frankel is how the Jewish Federation in St. Louis recognizes the value of hiring a young person from within to help guide young Jews – even if that means directing them outside the confines of the Federation to something like Moishe House, where 20-somethings lives in group homes and create Jewish community.

“I think it is imperative that you have both people from the outside who are trying to change things and people on the inside who are open to these changes,” said Frankel. “The perspective that I bring to my job is I recognize the value of the organized Jewish community, but there is no doubt that there are ideas and organizations out there that are better equipped to engage young adults by virtue of their being started by young adults who have a better sense of what exactly their young Jewish community wants. Organizations that have been around for five years versus 100 years have a different perspective.”

What Frankel’s role underscores is that more crucial even than the options themselves are publicizing them to the NextGen.

“You are never going to have 300 thousand people actively involved in every Jewish event in their community. That is not how any community works,” said Frankel. “The way it works is you will have people who are very involved, those who are tangentially involved and then you have the leaders who plan the programs. Beyond that, you still need people to simply show up. The goal is to get people to show up and once you break that threshold, you have the opportunity for people to feel a sense of community and roll with it as they see fit.”

‘Sitting at the Little Table’

One constant that resonates with the younger generation is social activism.

“Do young adults care about the global Jewish world?” asked Eisenman, JDC’s NextGen Director. “We did research along those lines and it’s pretty clear that they do care, but they didn’t know how they can take action.”

It turns out that while young Jews have a strong and equal interest in both the universal needs of the world and the Jewish needs, their knowledge about the Jewish needs is much lower. What this means is they might know about people starving in Africa, but not necessarily about Jews in poverty in Russia.

What JDC did in response to this was to create a wide-reaching continuum of educational programs called “global learning networks” in six cities across North America, as well as expand its global service programs. For 20 years, JDC has offered a one-year service program in Diaspora Jewish communities and Israel. Now a young person can also go on a short-term group trip or a 6 to 8 week service program to any of the over 70 countries or Israel in which they work.

Since piloting the first short-term program in 2004, they’ve quadrupled the size of young adult participants with close to 500 people doing short-term programs and another 35 people doing mid-to long-term programs per year, according to Eisenman.

“It’s been an interesting process,” said Eisenman. “How you take an organization that is nearly 100 years old and had never created an outreach plan for North American Jewish young adults and ask ourselves, ‘How do we create a plan and what is the rationale for an organization that reaches nearly 80 countries? And will they care?’”

Once it was established that young people do care, the focus has been to show them concrete ways they can impact change around the globe.

“Young adults aren’t involved because they don’t care about Judaism – it’s because they want to know how their Judaism has a purpose. It’s not enough just show up and be counted. We want to show young people that they have a role to play in remedying issues and that they can get out there in the world and contribute to [improving] real world challenges,” said Eisenman.

Kate Berson is a good example of a young person who would not necessarily have gravitated toward Jewish global work. Growing up Long Island, her family belonged to a Reform synagogue where she attended Sunday school and celebrated her Bat Mitzvah. But the way she sees it, after that major milestone she was more interested in the Latin American community than the Jewish community.

“Service, in general, was my direction for most of college,” said Berson.

It was during college at Tufts University that she first heard about JDC through a friend on campus who had gone on one of their short-term trips to Tbilisi. So even though Berson was mostly interested in immigration and refugee issues in the United States, she ended up applying for a year-long JDC service program, not knowing quite what to expect. In the end she got matched to work at The Center for International Migration and Integration (CIMI) in Jerusalem.

“It was a very thoughtful placement,” she said, of her post-university posting where a large part of her work was with non-Jewish migrant populations in Israel.

Now Berson is headed to Haiti for at least five months on a new JDC service project at an educational campus in Zoranje, outside Port au Prince. While Berson believes that what drew her to JDC are the “diverse options” that tap into her specific interests, she also appreciates the added Jewish value.

“My connection to JDC is very value based. It’s less about my previous involvement in the Jewish community and more about the values that I was brought up with that are ingrained in me from my parents and that are an almost indistinguishable part of my childhood,” she said. “In that sense, I could do this type of work in either the Jewish or secular world, but to have this community of people who come from a similar value system to mine – Jewish values – is definitely meaningful.”

Daniel Pincus, 33, is another example of a young Jew who would not have naturally gravitated toward a “Jewish” organization despite having attended Jewish day school in his hometown of New Jersey and having, what he calls, a “strong Jewish identity.”

“Going through life a lot of my friends are not Jewish and while I did feel Jewish I didn’t always feel the need to exclusively operate either professionally or socially in exclusively Jewish circles. I rather enjoyed the experience of being a Jew in non-Jewish circles. It challenged me to explain my Judaism to other people and also made me feel I was a person in the world as opposed to a person operating in my own community,” said Pincus, who lives in New York and works in the pharmaceutical and biotech industry.

But when a friend invited him to attend an AJC ACCESS event, he felt an instant connection.

“What appeals me about AJC’s approach is how it reaches out to the non-Jewish world as an organized entity,” he said. “I found in AJC a lot of people doing what I’m doing as an individual.”

Very quickly Pincus joined the New York board. He chose to be active in the area of Muslim outreach and in this capacity was invited – and attended – an all-Muslim conference in Qatar where he was the only Jew. (That this conference happened to take place during the Gaza war is a story onto itself.) After co-chairing ACCESS NY for two years, Pincus spearheaded the creation of the global ACCESS steering committee, which he now co-chairs. It is made up of representatives from all the local chapters. (There are chapters in 12 cities in the U.S. and two in Israel.) While it is hard to calculate exact numbers of members, there are 7,000 people on their email list, not including those reached through social media, according to Neuwirth.

“It’s now formalized,” said Pincus. “We had a meeting in Chicago in parallel with the national board of governors meeting so we’re truly creating a parallel to the AJC national leadership committee with ACCESS.”

This parallel work is crucial, according to Neuwirth.

“What is the unique value of a younger board working within the scope of our mission? We ask ourselves this all the time,” she said. “When you engage really smart, thoughtful people in any generation – but especially the younger generation – it is not a compelling sell to say, ‘You are really smart. You are terrific. Do you want to do exactly what our senior leadership is doing in the future, but for now you can sit at the little table?’ It is important to emphasize that ACCESS leaders are doing work right now that is meaningful.”

This is yet another key point when engaging the NextGen: they can sniff out when they are being patronized or when their involvement is nothing but lip service. For them to be part of something, they must feel their contribution is significant.

Another component that resonates with NextGen is the peer-led model. At AJC, for example, while full-time staff are always on hand for support, it is the lay people themselves who are in charge of running all local programming or outreach to policy makers or diplomats.

This was certainly a selling point for Pincus.

“It’s wonderful to have those people who are like me – non-professional Jewish activists, not people who have a career in the Jewish community – who are making relationships [with other leaders] and the staff is always there to serve and facilitate the lay people’s involvement.”

AJC is hardly alone. Across the board, organizations that are successfully working with a younger demographic see the power of the peer-led model.

As Eisenman of the JDC put it, “In all of our programs, be they service or educational, we want to build in leadership, which means that they can’t be solely staff driven.” What this means on the ground is that at an educational event, staff will never get up and speak. Everything – from the leading, planning, chairing to offering “expert” advice – comes from the young volunteers themselves.

“Our educational model is that if we have a young person serve in a community for a year then they are the expert and they can then educate their peers. Our educational model is not a model based on [outside] experts,” said Eisenman.

There is something else that seems to resonate with young Jews: Text study. That this is true only adds another dimension to the whole equation because it disproves the notion that NextGeners are scared off by anything smacking of dusty old manuscripts or rabbis with long beards. On the contrary, text study – usually done in translation and peer-led – is profound for young Jews from all Jewish backgrounds because it connects them to their heritage in a transformative way.

“A few years ago we started using text study in translation about Jewish values and the responsibility to our community and our world as a foundation for our grant making and one of the most spectacular things that happens is people start drawing connections between traditional Jewish values and the issues they see around them today,” said Indyk of Rose Community Foundation.

Here’s part 2 – Money Makes the World Go Round.