When Max Berger started college in 2004, he didn’t know whether he would finish. His father, uncle and grandfather all dropped out of school to start businesses. As a child growing up in a small town outside Boston, Berger was taught that “you kind of cheated” if you couldn’t achieve success without a college degree.
Six years, two political campaigns, a college transfer and one semester in Morocco later, Berger graduated from Reed College in Portland, Ore., with a degree and a job. He’s a new media assistant at J Street, the liberal Israel advocacy group founded in 2008.
“I always had a pretty strong sense of right and wrong, and felt a real need to do something about it,” said Berger, 25. In college, he found that actually completing his degree might be necessary for a career in politics. “The thing that I really love about J Street is that it’s an organization where I get to work to change things while recognizing the full complexity of my values regarding Israel,” he said.
Israel policy is known as the most polarizing issue that American Jews face today. But perhaps it deserves more credit for fueling growth in Jewish organizational employment. J Street, for example, began 2010 with fewer than 20 employees and is finishing the year with organizers, directors and advocates around the country totaling about 45. Now the group is seeking to hire five more employees.
This hiring surge is not confined to the liberal end of the political spectrum. In this series examining trends in Jewish employment, the Forward has found only modest hiring gains in education, communal organizations and fundraising, but the picture is more robust in the area of Israel advocacy. Anecdotal evidence shows that several groups are hiring at the same rate they were before the national recession, if not at a higher one.
For example, battling the so-called de-legitimization of Israel — specifically, combating boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns — has become the cause célèbre of mainstream Jewish organizations. In fact, in November, the Jewish Federations of North America made it a major theme in its three-day General Assembly in New Orleans. Around the same time, JFNA and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs announced the creation of the multimillion-dollar Israel Action Network, a venture that is designed to stop delegitimization in its tracks, and that — consequently — requires a staff of eight.
Likewise, Jewish Voice for Peace — the far-left group that interrupted Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at the G.A. — began in the 1990s as a living-room discussion group in California’s Bay Area. It became a national organization in 2006. As the debate over Israel’s policies became more pitched, JVP increased its staff. According to its executive director, Rebecca Vilkomerson, what began as a hobby now has six full-time staffers, two of whom were hired this year. The group is now in the process of hiring a new organizer.
The Israel Project, a not-for-profit advocacy group, is also adding to its ranks. After a recession-induced hiring freeze in 2008, it grew to 47 people from 35 — including about 10 this year. Its board has just approved and funded 12 new positions.
These stories are not exclusive to relatively new organizations. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, founded in 1953, emerged from the recession relatively unscathed, according to spokeswoman Jennifer Cannata. “Given the increase in threats facing Israel at this time, we think it requires us to expand our work force and our lay activist base throughout the system,” she said, though she declined to give specific numbers.
Meanwhile, at the Zionist Organization of America, National President Morton Klein said he didn’t see a need to do more hiring. Several years ago, the organization planned to expand, but because its “fundraising was not at the level that it used to be,” the ZOA put the plans on hold. The recession only made the group more careful. Still, Klein said that some new hires — especially within the ZOA’s campus program — may lie ahead, depending on the outcome of an upcoming board meeting.
But Berger was looking for something else, his sense of urgency a product of his upbringing in a home with progressive parents. “When I was a little kid and I would see homeless people in the streets, I would come home and cry,” he said. “I’ve always been concerned with the well-being of others. I got the bug.”
The bug followed him to college. In 2004, Berger worked on Howard Dean’s presidential campaign. Dean’s model transformed online campaigning into real-life action, setting the template for future presidential and congressional races. “There were tens of thousands meeting up for Dean already,” Berger recalled. “We started building them into the campaign. That was where I started.”
Two years later, he worked as the Internet director of what turned out to be the losing congressional campaign of Californian Robert Rodriguez. “We raised a lot of money online,” Berger said.
Berger had always been connected to Israel through his family and values, but until J Street’s formation, he had trouble finding an organization through which to engage. “J Street does a really good job of maintaining nuance while being engaged in action,” he said. “That’s a difficult nut to crack.”
After he heard of J Street’s formation, Berger, then a Reed student, e-mailed one of the group’s leaders out of the blue. The next thing he knew, he was starting a J Street chapter at his school — a process that came with its own set of challenges. “To be an outspoken supporter of Israel at a place like Reed can be isolating, because the left is organized in a way that the right is in other places,” he said. “People attack you.”
Now he applies the skills he learned on the Dean and Rodriguez campaigns and through other experiences to his J Street job, in which he manages the group’s e-mail initiatives and online programs. He makes between $40,000 and $50,000 a year. And he says he may even get a degree in law one day.
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