by Sarah Y. Eisenman

3988792602_7b0752d1c1In 1914, two very bright Americans devised innovations that would change the way we navigate the world’s physical and philanthropic spaces.

The first was Charles P. Rudebaker, the inventor of the traffic cone (at the time it would be more appropriate to call it a big concrete block).

The other was Henry Morgenthau, America’s ambassador to Turkey, who gathered a small collective of Jewish philanthropists to aid needy Jews outside of the U.S. – thereby creating what remains the largest Jewish humanitarian aid organization in the world.

It takes relevance to become a lasting feature on almost every road across the globe. Similarly, Morgenthau’s charity – later to become the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), for whom I work – took more than a little relevance to each successive generation of its supporters to continually be able to ensure the safety and wellbeing of Jews around the world since its founding.

Now fast-forward some 90 years, when concrete slabs have become orange plastic cones and Jewish organizations – many of them founded in the early part of the 20th century – began to seek ways to be equally relevant to a generation that recognizes a parking cone with more familiarity than they do major Jewish organizations.

These efforts are, at their root, seeking to tackle much larger issues. Namely, how do you take institutions established around the First World War, and make them “real” for the “next” generation?

Studies on this issue paint a complex picture. There are approximately 1.46 million Jews between the ages of 18 and 39 in the USA, around 30 percent of the total American Jewish population. Generations X and Y are almost equal in size to their parents’ generation – making them an impossible group to ignore.

They – that is, we – are also unlike any other Jewish generation before. Paradoxically, “choice” may be the defining word of this generation, and “Yes We Can” our anthem.

Studies also tell us that today’s young Jews, as adults, are largely unfamiliar with Jewish organizations, and institutional Jewish life is seemingly irrelevant to many. For those who have had experiences with institutional life, there is often a sense of disappointment with the emphasis on fundraising instead of meaning. The effect of this generational shift on the financial sustainability of Jewish organizations could be tremendous.

Recent years have seen an explosion of small, independent Jewish organizations – more than 300 in operation as of January 2009, according to a survey by Jumpstart, reaching upwards of 400,000 people, a significant number of which are young adults. This growth makes for a compelling argument that the next generation is turning away from the ‘establishment’ and towards new Jewish outlets they find compelling.

Jos Thalheimer, a 20-something young Jew, is an involved player in the next generation and shares the legacy from an established Jewish philanthropic family. From his vantage, he notes this issue is partially “the natural process of being the next generation. The next generation has had (for many generations) a preference for newer, independent things, rather that what was established by the previous generation.”

So, where is the “establishment” to make any headway? The answer might be right in front of them.

Even with the growth in “startups,” they are still only reaching a fraction of the “next” generation. There are still many young people, like Seth Cohen, who are looking for more. A blogger who writes on a large range of Jewish topics and is a young lay leader with several organizations, Cohen underscored in an interview that he is “trying to figure out if all this ‘innovation’ is just a trend, and if not, is it impactful? Some needs aren’t trendy, they are just essential.” Cohen represents an opinion shared by more people than just himself alone – noting the relevance of the establishment goes back to the needs they respond to.

Establishment organizations shouldn’t first ask how to attract young Jews to their organization. They should start by asking whether their missions are still relevant, since being relevant to the next generation has to do with what issues are essentially important to them.

Organizations need to go back to what they stand for, and how they stand for it, and determine if their missions transcend history. If all signs point to “yes,” then they need to confidently move forward. But that is not enough. As Thalheimer would argue, “the establishment organizations will do anything for the next generation except listen to them.” This goes to the point of how much they invest in people knowing about the issues they champion, how easily a new idea can move in the organization, and what are the ways that people can take part in and impact their mission. If the conversation is stagnant, stale, and limited, then their culture will not be relevant to this generation. Essentially, the rush to be attractive often overshadows the more substantive questions.

The parking cone weathered the history of driving because it now comes in all different shapes, sizes, and colors for different kinds of roads. It is reflective so you can always see it. And, perhaps most importantly, it is flexible.

The same can be said for our establishment organizations, who will only be as “real” as their mission and culture are. If established Jewish organizations can harness the deep and lasting meaning of their work, internalize some of the “flexibility” of a parking cone resilient enough to get run over, and then leverage their unparalleled size, reach, and resources, they can become accessible to everyone, young and old.

Sarah Y. Eisenman is the Director of Next Generation and Service Initiatives at the American Joint Distribution Committee

image: JDC Short-Term Service Program participants from University of California Santa Barbara Hillel refurbish a Jewish school in Vilnius, Lithuania, August 2009. Photo by Naomi Sage.

This post is from the just-released PresenTense Philanthropy issue; you can also subscribe to PresenTense Magazine and receive this, and future issues, delivered directly to you.