Generation Gap is the Focus as Federations Look to the Young
Rachel Pomerance, JTA
Marcella Kanfer Rolnick is the kind of young leader Jewish federations are dying to draw to their graying ranks. Rolnick, 32, is the bright and eloquent daughter of parents steeped in Jewish federation life. Her father, Joe Kanfer, of Akron, Ohio, chaired the 2005 General Assembly, the annual conference of federations, which ended Tuesday in Toronto. But at the same conference, his daughter felt the hair stand up on the back of her neck in conversations with several federation professionals. "It was a "we know better than you" attitude," she told JTA, saying the system tends to focus on sustaining itself rather than considering the wide range of challenges and opportunities for the Jewish people. If a daughter of the system is turned off by it, how can federations hope to attract her peers? The subject of ensuring the participation of the next generation of Jews in their local federations - a long-standing concern of the federation system - was a theme at the recent G.A. Rolnick in fact was given a platform, along with other young activists, at Tuesday's closing plenary, which highlighted the issue.
The centerpiece was a report by Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg, who found that the organized Jewish community is "somewhat out of touch" with young Jews. Reiterating the findings of past studies, Greenberg, who conducted a survey of young Jews, told some 4,000 Jews in attendance that organized Jewry is only reaching a small percentage of young Jews who are already identified. Among 18- to 25-year olds, Judaism, while a source of pride, is "fairly low on their list of things that they think about," Greenberg said. These younger Jews have multiple identities and Jewish officials might do well to "stop thinking about them as being Jews," and reach them through other interests, mentioning that evangelical Christians offer "extreme skateboarding" at some of their forums. The panel of young Jewish activists that followed Greenberg was moderated by Jennifer Meyerhoff of Baltimore. She called the closing plenary a "loud and reverberating wake-up call" to federations to make themselves relevant to the next generation. Howard Rieger, UJC president and CEO, closed the G.A. by urging federation leaders to "relinquish some control" and give opportunities to young Jews. But several young Jews in attendance said key obstacles block their participation: the federation system's financial expectations of its activists, its bureaucracy and resistance to welcoming new ideas and young people to decision-making positions.
They called for a system of respectful collaboration that empowers them to fuel their own Jewish inspirations. "You have to respect the $18 donation as much as you respect and go after the $5,000 donation," Aaron Bisman, founder of JDub records, a company that promotes Jewish music, said at the G.A.'s closing session. At an earlier session, titled "Rebels With a Cause," Bisman and other young panelists urged their peers to create the institutions that reflect their interests. "If what we do doesn't work for you, then you have to find something else or you have to start it," he said. Indeed, that is the approach taken by many young Jews, who are passionate about Judaism but disappointed in the opportunities available or the time it would take to develop new programs through the system. Rochelle Shoretz, executive director of Sharsheret, an organization for young women with breast cancer, formed her own group after she was diagnosed with breast cancer at 28 and found no outlet for Jews with the ailment. "As a young person and as a sick person, I didn't have the luxury of time' to endure the processes required to form a new program through the federation, she said at the closing discussion. Representatives of both generations say a healthy respect is lacking between them. At the "Rebels With a Cause." session, Edward Spilka, president of Connecticut's United Jewish Federation of Greater Stamford, New Canaan and Darien, asked the panel: "Is there a way other than spiking my hair for me to authentically connect to you guys?"
According to Abigail Dauber Sterne, who directs Limmud NY, which sponsors conferences of Jewish study and culture, says looking at the younger generation as alternative outsiders creates an artificial divide. Karen Lombart, a vice chair of the women's campaign of the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater in Virginia, said younger Jews should realize their knowledge is based on limited experience and that the older generation has learned from the many innovations they themselves employed in younger year. At the same time, she said, the older generation should listen to today's youth. Meanwhile, several federations are trying new ways to connect to this population. The UJA-Federation of New York has increased its investment in its young leadership division, and reorganized its approach to offer specialized programs by interest and profession rather than a broad-based method, said John Ruskay, its executive vice president and CEO. Steven Rakitt, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, said Jewish federations need to reach out with a diverse, welcoming approach. "It's not one size fits all," he said, suggesting that federations need to provide young Jews with fulfilling social, religious and business opportunities, for example. But some see another reality. Barry Shrage, president of Boston's Combined Jewish Philanthropies, lamented at the G.A. that thousands of young Jews were turned away from birthright israel due to insufficient funds.
The free trip to Israel for 18- to 26-year olds, financed by the federation system, philanthropists and the government of Israel, was trumpeted at the G.A. as one of the federation system's proudest accomplishments. Yet, the federation system has struggled to pony up sufficient funds for the program. Since last winter, birthright has turned away more than 20,000 people, and has closed registration early for the last two sessions because they don't want to disappoint people, given the high level of interest, said Deborah Mohile, director of communications for birthright. "We would take more if we had the money," she said. Rolnick says she supports the federation system because it offers a social safety net, but she added, "I have no intention in the future to give my time and my energy the way the current system is designed." If it fails to embrace change and support young people, "we're going to go elsewhere."