The Secret of Programming for the Big Mission … with No Budget: How YJLC connects young professionals
By Lou Balcher
To get synagogue rabbis, lay leader’s, and organization director’s attention, my lead question is … “What is the Greatest Challenge to the American Jewish Community?”
By the way, I have been presenting this same question for the past forty years.
Knowing that I have at most twenty seconds before the “brush off” I give the answer, and most everyone nods in agreement.
“How do you connect post-college age young adults with each other, and with the Jewish community?”
I quickly mention that I met Stephen M. Cohen when he came to Philadelphia’s Gratz College nearly two years ago to explain the Pew study and the 72% intermarriage rate for non-Orthodox. Prof. Cohen invited me to NYC to discuss it further. We chatted over coffee in Manhattan, and he said that more startling than the 72% statistic, is that the Jewish identification rate of the grandchildren of intermarrieds is only 8%. The bigger headlines that we did not see from that Pew ‘snapshot’ … is that 92% of young adults are potentially lost to the Jewish community!
My bride of 29 years, Jocelyne, who I call my Jewish Egyptian Princess, was born in Cairo, Egypt. Together in 1986 we created a project called Young Jewish Leadership Concepts (YJLC) a nonprofit young professional’s network. Our central program was Israel Encounter – National Young Professionals Tour, building up to four departures a year. To promote Israel we organized dance-parties in Philadelphia and routinely 400-600 young adults came out every month. More than 1300 partied with us during one of those end-of-December holidays.
Through YJLC we also organized community service events and informal educational programs. This was using the community engagement model of Hillel and B’nai B’rith that gave me my training in Jewish communal work. Unfortunately, the combination punches of the second intifada, 9/11, and most critically, Taglit Birthright Israel, knocked us out of the ballpark. In organizing our Israel trip, we could not find the answer of how does one compete with FREE?
Since the hiatus of Israel Encounter, YJLC’s focus has been on one of our most successful programs, our twice a year leadership weekend, skiing in the winter, and rafting in the summer, along with other regular informal education programs, usually dealing with Israel.
Last summer, as the missiles started falling on Israel from Gaza, we decided to refocus our rafting leadership retreat as an “Israel Solidarity” event. The problem was how could we arrange in a short time a keynote speaker or speakers with no budget for the customary honorarium? Our solution was to invite Israeli experts to donate their time, some 30 minutes. They would speak from the comfort of their home or office, or family vacation trip, as was the case was with one, to give a “Live from Israel” skype-style briefing.
We were honored to have four amazing Israel experts give their unique insights during the 2014 Gaza War. The Jerusalem Post’s Gil Hoffman, media expert Aryeh Green, international law and counter-terrorism expert Amos Guiora, and Israel’s Goodwill Ambassador Tal Brody gave their time and expert analysis on the War … while it was in progress. The seminar with our four Israeli experts went like clockwork, and the young professionals stayed an extra ninety minutes past the skype briefings in order to discuss the issues, and make their personal connections with each other.
OK – Full disclosure – as the Philadelphia Israeli Consulate’s Director of Academic Affairs and Speakers’ Bureau for nine years, I set up the gigs for these experts, made friends, and shared my mission of outreach to young adults. I also revealed that I was working without a budget on this project.
Even so, expert speakers can be asked to help with an important purpose, and enhance the impact of your mission. And with a skype-interview, or even a conference call, you do not have to worry about travel expenses. It can be at the convenience of the speaker, and it may help them in promoting their message at minimal effort. If you have a nominal budget, it is always advisable to show your appreciation, as they usually have to eat and support a family, as well.
With the success of acquiring experts on short notice, YJLC took the next step. The afternoon of the horrendous January 9 attack in the Paris kosher supermarket, I was concerned about the local effect on French Jews. Realizing that this was of concern to others, I reached out to two friends who could provide answers. On Thursday night, January 15, we organized the first “YJLC Critical Issues” Conference Call with young adult leaders participating in NY, the DC area, Philadelphia and even LA. Noted suburban Parisian deputy mayor and Israel advocate Philippe Karsenty gave us a startling analysis, with columnist and StandWithUs Mid-Atlantic Director Yossi Puder fielding the interview questions.
This was followed by a February Conference Call to understand the Greek elections and fears of continuing anti-Semitism in Greece and Europe. Again young professionals participated from both coasts and in-between. Guest experts on the Conference Call were LaSalle University professor and head of their Diplomats in Residence program, Cornelia Tsakiridou, and Philadelphia Rabbi Albert Gabbai, who’s family was from Solonika. Moderating expertly this call was YJLC Core Team leader Megan Helzner, who’s day job is as an administrator with National Museum of American Jewish History.
YJLC’s latest incarnation of engaging fascinating experts from Israel, and overseas, is the keynote guest speaker for its July 31, 28th Annual Pocono Rafting Leadership Weekend. We are honored this year to produce “Sunday with Sally!” On August 2, we will have a “Live from Israel” skype-interview with Sally Oren, wife of Ambassador Oren, to share with us her “flower child” San Francisco upbringing, as well as her insights from a front row seat to the American-Israel relationship. As Ynet states, Sally “hung out with the likes of Jerry Garcia, Jim Morrison and Janice Joplin during the 60s’ in San Francisco and even had two songs written about her by Jefferson Airplane.”
So let your creative juices start flowing on who you can invite as a keynote speaker, offering them convenience of a limited time and travel commitment, a minimal budget, and enhancing your critical mission. And if you know of young professionals who want to go rafting, and ‘meet’ Sally by skype, please send them my way.
Lou Balcher, is Co-Founder of Young Jewish Leadership Concepts, and serves as National Director of the American Friends of the Kaplan Medical Center. He recently served nine years as Academic Affairs Director in the Philadelphia Israeli Consulate.