REISTERSTOWN, Md. — It’s no secret that the mention of federation is often met with blank stares among 20-something Jews.
You’re far less likely to find young Jewish adults today who consider the North American Jewish federation system an energizer of Jewish life than those who associate it with bureaucracy and irrelevance. Dishing out banter on federation is a pastime for Jewish communal professionals, both young and seasoned.
But as part of a generation hoping to effect change in the Jewish community, we’d like to offer a shift in discourse.
Back in February, we were among 25 young Jewish communal professionals who gathered for the initial retreat of the Kivun Intensive, a professional development program of the Center for Leadership Initiatives funded by Lynn Schusterman. In person and online, a conversation developed about the relationship between federation and young Jews.
Our personal frustrations with federation aside, we all agreed that there is potential for federation and Jews of our generation to work collaboratively to ensure a viable Jewish future.
One participant acknowledged her challenge in “thinking about what it would take to move beyond ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ or, ‘They don’t get it; we do.’ ” Another participant reported, “I’m realizing that if we don’t insert ourselves in the federation structure, we lose the opportunity to adapt what could be an extremely useful vehicle for us.”
We found ourselves willing to wrestle with how to become partners in helping this established structure meet the needs of a diverse Jewish landscape — one the Kivun cohort itself reflects.
We are religious, secular, queer, straight, Israel supporters and Israel critics (often simultaneously); artists, writers, activists and entrepreneurs. We share an understanding that the Jewish communal voice is actually many voices — a notion federation seems reluctant to recognize and embrace.
Without including younger voices, federation risks its own survival.
Without a channel to the most organized fundraising and community-building Jewish infrastructure in North America, we will see many of our initiatives fall by the wayside, particularly in these challenging economic times.
If federation is ready to capitalize on the opportunity to re-think itself at this critical juncture, the question becomes how, and in partnership with whom.
The key to real change is not to make young Jews an agenda item; it’s to allow us to help shape the agenda itself. Why not let young Jews help make federations relevant again?
We’re willing to address critical issues of buy-in, and financial contributions to earn ourselves a seat at the table, and we have some recommendations for federation leaders:
1. Invest in startups. If federations are not creators of new programs but rather enablers of Jewish life, they should support Jewish startups that need infrastructure assistance;
2. Create seats for young Jews on federation boards. Instead of reserving a symbolic seat for a young board member, federations should embrace younger recruits and give them full voting privileges. Current board members might “sponsor” young adult board members’ seats, or younger board members might be allowed to make what is, for them, a meaningful gift rather than a minimum donation.
Alternatively, federations could cultivate a future fundraising force through young adult board membership. A board whose voting members reflect varied experience only enriches conversations and nurtures lay leaders who will advance federation for decades to come.
3. Involve younger Jews as members of planning and allocations committees. Let these committees oversee allocations for programs that are spearheaded by young Jews to serve young Jewish demographics. Many federations are now redefining their priorities, and young Jewish leaders should be among the first people consulted. Bridging the generational divide by inviting Gen-X Jews to join the conversation — as opposed to being talked about or allocated for — is exactly the role that federation should play.
4. Meet young Jews where they’re at. Find us! We’re in independent minyanim, nonreligious community centers, activist circles, and in arts and culture movements. We move frequently but, no matter where we are, most of us are on Facebook, Twitter and e-mail. Many of us read blogs or are blogging ourselves, often about Jewish identity and innovation. Federation leaders could benefit from plugging into these worlds.
If these recommendations seem lofty, consider Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the Boston federation that convened its Young Jewish Leaders Council for the first time last winter. The council brings together professionals and lay leaders from more than 40 young-oriented local Jewish organizations for skill building and leadership training. CJP also established a Young Adult Planning Committee to decide how resources should be allocated for initiatives to engage 20- and and 30-something Jews.
CJP is partnering with PresenTense to launch change-making initiatives and soon will pilot the Boston Social Entrepreneurship Fellowship to support young Jewish projects in the Boston Jewish community.
Many believe that moments of crisis and change are best met with creative risk-taking. Federation could take some creative risks of its own by engaging the leadership that younger Jews can offer. We’re ready to do our part.
A post on the Kivun listserv captures this spirit: “I would be comfortable working in a crunchy feminist world where I feel at home. But my sense is that real change — for the community I believe in — will only happen if I work in partnership with those who are not like me. I could probably learn a few things from them, too.”
So let’s get to work. If not now, when?
(Jordan Namerow, Joelle Asaro Berman, Joanna Kabat and Jeremy Moskowitz are graduates of The Kivun Intensive 2009. In their mid-20s and residing in New York, Washington, D.C., and Oakland, Calif., they are part of The Kivun Intensive’s network of young professionals who are committed to strengthening the Jewish community. )