Communal Groups Try To Tap Younger Generation

By Sheldon Teitelbaum

Published September 10, 2004, issue of September 10, 2004.
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The mock want-ad on the cover of the spring 2004 issue of Contact, the journal of the Jewish Life Network and the Michael Steinhardt Foundation, said it all:

WANTED: Jewish Professional

JOB DESCRIPTION: The Revitalization of Jewish Life


High level of experience/Excellent communications & writing skills

Vast knowledge of the Jewish community/Willingness to work long hours under pressure/Messianic capacities for problem solving/Ability to cope with difficult people/Thick skin/Sunshine attitude


Or nearly all, as 150 handpicked 20-somethings from across the country learned last month after convening at the Universal City Hilton in Los Angeles. They had come to this shrine of glitz and artifice, just outside the gates of Universal Studios, to consider the inconceivable: whether to sign up for careers as Jewish communal servants. Or if not, to repay their share of the estimated $250,000 cost of the three-day confab — the “20-Something Think Tank & CareerBreak” — by telling their hosts just what was keeping them out.

That was it. No other hidden agenda. Well, almost none. There was that declaration by one of the billionaire backers, Michael Steinhardt, that if the participants preferred to pair off and head for their rooms — to rectify American Jews’ lamentable failure, in his eyes, to replenish their numbers — he, for one, would not stop them, nor consider his money ill-spent. “Take phone numbers,” he said. “Flirt, meet, breed, do whatever is necessary, and know that what you are doing is for the right reason.”

At a poolside cocktail party later that evening, Steinhardt shuttled furiously between the parties, trying to generate some reproductive heat, looking like a cross between Captain Kangaroo and Yenta the Matchmaker.

“We all know this is an agenda at most functions for people our age,” said Michael Steinberg, a third-year law student from Northeastern University, reflecting over a bagel the next morning. “But I’ve never seen it so brazenly expressed.”

It is precisely because Generation Y — those born between 1981 and 1995 — rarely registers on any Jewish radar screen other than as a potential source of demographic replenishment that Steinhardt, together with fellow philanthropists Lynn Schusterman of Tulsa, Okla., and William Davidson and Eugene and Marcia Applebaum of Detroit, funded the gathering. People in their 20s, most organizations assume, do not have the wherewithal to become significant donors. And if they can’t give, what, besides procreating, are they really good for?

More than most community insiders realize, said Robert Aronson, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit and project consultant to Davidson and Steinhardt. Organized Jewish life on this continent will live or die, he said, by the community’s ability to tap into this rising generation.

“There isn’t an area of Jewish life that isn’t suffering today because it doesn’t have really good people working in it,” Aronson told the Forward. “Whether it’s the synagogues, the day schools, the federations, the fund-raising organizations or the foundations, when the search begins for entry-level people, we have no qualified candidates. And the few who do come in quickly burn out and leave.”

If Gen Y members, sometimes referred to as Millennials, tend to crash and burn, it’s not because they are inherently unfit for communal life. If anything, they may be even better suited than the baby boomers who now run the show, said Rhoda Weisman, executive director of the newly formed Professional Leaders Project, which organized the summit.

This is the first generation in recent memory, Weisman said, that experienced mandatory public service while in high school. And while many were latchkey children raised with a strong sense of independence, they also developed a talent for teamwork that’s evident in the workplace.

“They are more resourceful than any generation before them,” Weisman said. “And they are faster and more effective. Programmed since childhood to get into the right schools, they are goal-and time-oriented.”

When it comes to recruiting this cohort, however, the obstacles are abundant. As implied in the mock want-ad, the Jewish nonprofit arena is plagued by low pay, low professional esteem, endless hours, lack of support, systemic isolation and few delineated paths for advancement.

And there’s more: for example, a dearth of mentors, considered in most fields to be an essential element in career growth. There are few mechanisms for intervention when relations between professionals and lay leaders go awry, as they often do. “In many instances,” Contact Editor Eli Valley wrote in his spring issue, “a dysfunctional culture becomes the norm for lay leaders and professionals alike, leaving no level of Jewish organizational life immune to tension, contention and, in some cases, outright abuse.”

Such settings, added Weisman, can be especially inhospitable for women, who rarely reach the top in major Jewish organizations, as studies increasingly show.

Aronson, the initiator, said he didn’t need academic studies to tell him things were amiss. After 22 years in Jewish federation work — seven in Milwaukee, 15 in Detroit — he had seen recruitment and retention rise from afterthoughts to top priority, displacing even “continuity.” Today, he said, agency jobs from the top to the bottom are going begging nationwide. Searches for senior officials increasingly turn up the same narrow pool of candidates, perpetuating the image of Jewish organizational life as an impenetrable old boychiks’ club.

Aronson recently approached Steinhardt, the legendary hedge-fund manager turned full-time philanthropist, and asked him and a few others to support him while he tackled the problem.

After convening a meeting of academics, professionals and foundation managers to take the community’s pulse, Aronson began to formulate a strategy modeled on the recruitment efforts of successful medical and business schools. These institutions set out to identify the kinds of students they wanted, and worked proactively to find them and keep them.

To lead the new initiative, Aronson turned to Weisman, a top Hillel official who had spent the last 10 years training Jewish activists through the Hillel-led Jewish Campus Service Corps.

“This was very close to my heart,” Weisman told the Forward. “But before we could talk programming, or even recruitment, we had to talk to the people we were targeting. I needed to know from their own mouths what they were thinking. What did they need? What did they want? Would they come?”

They did come, attracted by the prospect of face time not only with the billionaire benefactors, but also with top thinkers and leaders such as Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg of New York, Aipac Western States Director Elliott Brandt and Miami organizational behaviorist Nancy Berlin.

In every group, someone took notes; in some, audio- and videotapes ran continually. The conference organizers say that after transcripts have been compiled and the weekend’s ideas tabulated, the real work — finding ways to fit round pegs into a square holes — will begin in earnest.

“We can’t afford to lose them,” Rabbi Greenberg said as the retreat wound down. “We needed to reach them and debrief them, if only on a one-shot basis. We’ll have a serious assessment later.”

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