Values at the Core of JFNA’S Next-Gen Engagement

First Cohort NextGen Fellows; courtesy JFNA.

By Rabbi David M. Kessel

Parker Palmer – an educator who writes about social activism, values, and community engagement – has spent his life trying to convince teachers, civic leaders, and influencers that finding one’s inner truth is the first step in helping people achieve greater personal and professional fulfillment. The idea resonates well with Generations X and Y (millennials) and often informs the Jewish community’s next-gen engagement work. Hard-pressed to make decisions about what they want to do and who they want to be, today’s young adults struggle to understand what it means to be human in a world that constantly challenges their humanity. The result, according to Palmer, is a crisis of identity, which must be addressed.

The lesson for next-gen Jewish professionals is to address the complex issue of identity before presenting a pathway to communal engagement. Palmer’s ideas are prominently featured in an 18-month fellowship program developed by The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) in partnership with M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education and the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL). He encourages an exploration of identity through truth – starting with one’s own truth – as a path to understanding where the most fruitful intersections with the world lie. It’s a version of the idea of “meeting people where they are,” but through Palmer’s lens, the success of “the meeting” can only be achieved through deep personal understanding. “Who is the self that teaches?” is the core question Palmer asks in his celebrated book The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life, which has become a mainstay for Jewish educators since its release in 1997. His ideas, which are derived from his Quaker roots, impart important lessons.

The JFNA fellows, 20 of whom will graduate from the program’s inaugural cohort in November, are young adults hired by local Jewish federations to lead next-gen engagement work. As representatives of the market, they were directed to follow Palmer’s recommendation to explore their own identities as a first step. Their self-exploration was complemented by a rigorous set of leadership questionnaires administered by the research-based CCL in Greensboro. CCL provides fellows with analyses of their leadership competencies, communication preferences, and tolerance for change through a battery of assessment tools typically used for top corporate CEOs. The goal is to allow the fellows an opportunity to understand the values at the core of their identities and how these values affect their performances and success at work. At the end of the 18-month program, these young professionals will be more intentional about how they engage their peers and also better positioned to guide their local communities.

From the start, the initiative was experimental. Next-gen federation professionals tend to have small budgets and operate several concentric circles away from their most senior federation colleagues and local board leaders. This significant investment in their professional growth and development is supported by a grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation. Also, each federation is giving their fellows time for training and learning as well as supervision and funding for an applied learning demonstration project. Taken together, this effort is unprecedented in the Jewish community and reflects the federation’s commitment to cultivating talent and finding new ways to address one of the community’s most pressing concerns: next-gen engagement with and commitment to Jewish communal life.

Commitment, including its connection to values and identity, was also discussed. What does it mean to be committed to the Jewish people? How much of myself and my individualism am I willing to give up in order to be part of a community? These questions are central to the identity of next-gen Jewish professionals and their peers.

Presented with an endless number of ways in which to express themselves, every decision they make is riddled with complexities of who they truly are. That amorphous reality often provokes indecision and inaction. The fellows are learning to interpret and address these questions head-on in their next-gen work. They are learning to think like educators and leaders by practicing various methods that will enable them to elevate conversations about Judaism, Jewish identity, and Jewish commitment through an exploration of values.

The fellows are learning that people only make lasting commitments after they have wrestled with difficult ideas or experienced conflict. They must fall and then rise, get pushed and push back. Yet, conflict often involves risk and possible dissention – ideas not always embraced by federations that pride themselves on representing a community that speaks in one harmonious voice. To be successful, the fellows will have to counter these entrenched behaviors and solicit buy-in for new engagement tools from federation leaders.

Palmer also wrestled with similar issues related to cultural reform. He recognized that, on their own, his wisdom and passion were insufficient to ignite change. Part of the challenge he accepted was to communicate his ideas in a way that others can understand, spread, and scale. For example, he often used the word spirituality, which is loaded with various meanings and assumptions. However, Palmer reasoned, “When I actually did get around to talking about spirituality, I would say to people, before you stop listening, let me explain what that word means to me: spirituality is any way you have of responding to the eternal human yearning to be connected with something larger than yourself.” Once he provided this definition, people seemed more at ease.

The JFNA next-gen fellows aim to address an audacious and timeless question: How do we make Judaism matter for the new generation? The answer, they are being taught, can be found only by looking inside and discovering what they truly believe, for once they truly believe, they can convince others to believe as well. It’s a journey few in the Jewish communal space have had the luxury of experiencing with such intensity and commitment, and JFNA has high expectations for this group. As one fellow explained, “Ever since I came to understand the value proposition, I have not been able to stop talking about it. I have trained my colleagues, members of our federation board, and, of course, the young professionals with whom I work. Perhaps finding ways to engage the next generation in Jewish life may be just the beginning.”

Rabbi David M. Kessel is the Associate Vice President of Young Leadership and Next Gen Engagement for The Jewish Federations of North America. The second cohort of JFNA’s NextGen Fellows began in May, 2019.

Learn more about the Next Gen Jewish Federation Fellowship program here.