L.A. Federation at G.A. offers ideas for attracting young Jews

Leaders of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles were in Jerusalem this week to take part in The Jewish Federations of North America’s annual General Assembly (G.A.). In all, the G.A. — which is held in Israel once every five years — attracted more than 3,000 participants from North America, Israel and Europe. 

While much of this year’s conference focused on challenges Israel is facing, Federation leaders and Israeli officials also spent a great deal of time discussing the recent Pew Research Center survey on U.S. Jewry, which indicated that Jewish affiliation among non-Orthodox Jews is declining at an alarming rate. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the delegates his government is creating a “broad and deep initiative” to reach “the inner cores of identity of the Jewish people around the world” as a way to fight assimilation. 

This follows Netanyahu’s statement during a government summit on Diaspora issues last week that it is “particularly important to embrace this initiative and work together” and to “create a firm base of identity” for Jews outside Israel. Details on the plan have not yet been announced. 

During the G.A., leaders from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles helped lead sessions on Federation innovation and Jewish continuity. They told other community leaders about Nu Roots, a new program they are launching in Los Angeles  to engage 20- and 30-somethings in a proactive Jewish life. 

“For two decades” many American Jewish leaders “have ignored the trending revealed by Pew,” Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of the L.A. Federation, told the Jewish Journal. “Truth be told, the non-Orthodox community is dwindling at a rapid rate. Jews are proud to be Jewish but not necessarily to connect Jewishly. This is a wakeup call, an electric shock.” 

Richard Sandler, chairman of the L.A. Federation, said it is focused more than ever on providing young members of the community  “multiple entry points to their Jewish journey. It’s something we’ve developed following a lot of research. We’re looking at what others are doing to connect people to their Judaism and learning from the best models.”  

Sandler said G.A. participants spent a great deal of time discussing why many young Jews find Judaism irrelevant to their lives. 

“We really believe that one of our failings is that we don’t really educate our kids well as to what it means to be Jewish, to really teach them the value system and what has preserved us for thousands of years.” 

Far too many young people don’t grasp that being Jewish “is a life of meaning, a life of giving” long after a child’s bar or bat mitzvah, Sandler said.

He spoke of a sermon by Rabbi Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, that emphasized the importance of asking children why it is important to them to be Jewish. 

“It needs to be a conversation, not a lecture. That’s what we’re focusing on here,” Sandler said. 

Sanderson believes the American Jewish community has “created a Jewish community based on ‘episodic Judaism.’ There’s the bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah, Birthright, but they’re not linked to other events. The L.A. Jewish Federation believes we must change the model, to adapt to the findings of the Pew report. ” 

Many Jewish community leaders, Sandler said, are so preoccupied with their community’s immediate needs, from providing food to the poor to housing for the elderly, that they sometimes find it difficult to plan for the future. 

Les Bider, the Los Angeles Federation’s incoming chairman of the board, said the L.A. contingent shared its fundraising model with the leadership of other federations in hopes of inspiring change.  

“It was an opportunity for us to meet with people from different communities, to vet ideas about how we and they are changing.”

Many communities, Bider said, start with a fundraising budget and the activities that budget has funded in previous years as a way of determining what to fund in the coming year. “It’s funding first, then programming,” Bider noted. He said L.A.’s Federation does things differently.

“We define what the needs of our community are by engaging with the community and then raising funds to support those needs.” To do otherwise, Bider said, “means being less in touch with the community.” 

“Communicating our message from L.A. is starting to impact Jewish life in a positive way, and we’re pushing that agenda,” Sanderson said. 

While the G.A. focused first and foremost on strategy, it was also a chance for Israel-based organizations to meet some of the people who support their programs from abroad. 

At a booth in the Jerusalem Conference Center, where the G.A. was held, Elyssa Moss Rabinowitz, director of Kol HaOt, which provides interactive Jewish educational visual and performing arts programs in Israel, noted that the L.A. Valley Alliance Women’s Mission had participated in a Kol HaOt program just a few days earlier. 

“It was exciting and gratifying that they could finally see us in action. We’ve work with their missions, their Birthright groups and a Catholic educators mission, but to have those women who are so involved in the Federation was really very special,” Rabinowitz said.