Young Professionals Learn to Lead Pack


Not long ago, Tali Pressman, 24, found herself sitting in a room full of civically minded young Jews in Los Angeles — that elusive demographic of 20- to 30-somethings targeted by so many religious and political recruiters.

The goal: How to better collaborate and organize their diverse work for nonprofits and Jewish communal services in the city.

“Our first meeting turned into a five-hour kvetch session, saying it would be great to collaborate but that there’s not enough supervision, there’s no mentoring, there’s no ladder,” she said.

Now Pressman and others like her are at the forefront of a new leadership movement in Southern California created by Jewish youth, for Jewish youth.

Pressman at the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) and David Cygielman at the Forest Foundation are both spearheading brand-new programs, which recognize that new leaders do not emerge out of thin air — they must be cultivated.

Interpreted broadly, there are numerous programs designed to reach young Jews and connect them to their heritage through service. From leadership-building trips to Israel offered by Birthright Israel and Hillel to career-building programs offered by the Professional Leadership Program (PLP), options exist.

Marcia and Eugene Applebaum, part-funders of PLP, put it succinctly: “We are facing an impending crisis in Jewish professional leadership due in large part to our failure to attract enough highly qualified people in their 20s and 30s to work in the Jewish communal world.”

But what emerged at PJA, called the Jeremiah Fellowship, is unique in a significant way. The fellowship is about using Jewish ethics to solve societywide problems, both within and outside the Jewish community. This is more about the fire of progressive activism than about replacing the previous generation of graying leaders in Jewish organizations.

The name, not incidentally, is biblical: “And seek the well-being of the city in which you dwell … for in its peace you shall find peace” (Jeremiah 29:7).

Starting in January, the 16 fellows will generally meet twice a month. Half the meetings will be field visits. In one case, the fellows will go to a mushroom farm, meet with workers, and speak to United Farm Workers Vice President Irv Hershenbaum. He’ll explain the personal Jewish ethic that he believes underlies his work.

Other notable field trips include speaking with Southern California ACLU Director Ramona Ripston and City Councilman Eric Garcetti.

The other monthly meeting will connect fellows with a scholar such as Aryeh Cohen, University of Judaism chair of rabbinic studies, to discuss what Jewish tradition says about the developments they saw in the field.

“This is an unabashedly progressive fellowship,” Pressman said. In Los Angeles in 2005, that encompasses a significant number of labor issues, including the ongoing hotel worker dispute in Los Angeles and a review of Jewish involvement in labor, she said.

“We have a Jewish and progressive obligation not only to volunteer at the soup kitchen, but also to address why people are hungry, because it’s not an accident. There are political, economic and social structures in place that need to be examined,” Sokatch said. While combating anti-Semitism and supporting Israel are critical issues for American Jews that many organizations deal with, Sokatch said, there are other concerns that need to be addressed.

In this vein, the fellows could well decide that Jewish precepts impel them to pursue careers working on behalf of non-Jews in fields like labor, economic equity and civil rights — thus the biblical allusion.

“So much of my social activism I feel comes from Judaism,” said Natalie Stern, one of the recently admitted fellows and a graduate of Northeastern School of Law. “I really want to learn why I feel [that way]. Where does it come from textually?”

Therein lies the second half of Jeremiah: To explore the origins of compassion and service to the entire city in Jewish tradition.

And as for Stern’s career goals, networking with big organizations like the ACLU won’t hurt either.

“I think the fact that this came out of a young person is the most important part about it,” Jeremiah fellow Matthew Loebman said.

That’s especially important when considering whether a program like this has broad appeal, Loebman said. And he should know. Loebman works for a company that does marketing for nonprofit organizations.

“There are tons of Jewish young people who are self-identified progressives and activists; they’re not working in a Jewish vein because no one’s given them that opportunity,” Loebman told The Journal. “But when I look back to see where this sort of morality was built into me, it was from Jewish sources, Hebrew school and summer camp,” he said.

At least in Los Angeles, the Jeremiah Fellowship aims to bridge that gap. The success or failure of Jeremiah in Los Angeles may shed light on the power of liberal values in the next generation of Jewish leadership.

Meanwhile, the Forest Foundation is offering its own version of Jewish youth empowerment in both Santa Barbara and Berkeley. The program, helmed by a 23-year-old, connects college-age Jews to local Jewish organizations that need help.

Again, there is something unique about Forest as compared to other Jewish leadership training. Instead of paying to attend conferences or seminars, the students actually get paid by the foundation for their work within various agencies.

Even more impressively, if the participants have an original idea that will benefit the Jewish community, Forest will both help them organize it and pay them to make it happen. So instead of a concentrated political imperative, the Forest Foundation provides a powerful incentive for college-aged Jews, many of whom must find part-time work during their studies anyway.

“The basic idea is to empower these students so they become Jewish leaders and are inside Jewish organizations now rather than after they graduate or have held a job for while,” Forest Director David Cygielman said.

“We went to every local organization and asked the question, ‘What is it that you can’t do because you don’t have enough time or money?'” Cygielman said.

After Forest filled those gaps, it began to fund students’ individual projects: Cooking and activities with senior citizens, a Jewish Business League, a young women’s society or recruitment efforts for Hillel at UCSB, to name a few.

Now organizations routinely call Forest when they need an extra body, whenever they need to alleviate the most common nonprofit conditions of being understaffed and underfunded. Forest, in the meantime, is looking to actually expand its existing roster of 21 participants up to 60. Young Jews not in school can apply as well, and even college grads can continue to work if their projects are successful.

Both PJA’s fellowship in Los Angeles and Forest’s programs in Santa Barbara and Berkeley are in their early stages to say the least.

Richard Gunther, who with his wife funded PJA’s Jeremiah Fellowship, clearly sees what they are both trying to accomplish: “I think one of the universal problems that the Jewish community has, certainly in Los Angeles, is how do you keep young members of the Jewish community really concerned and involved?”

Whether the focus is on incentives to keep them working on behalf of the Jewish community or simply infusing them with Jewish ethics to do good work outside of it, the battle to prevent their drift from Jewish tradition is the same: Recall all the dire predictions you’ve heard from rabbis about Jewish youth as the most religiously unaffiliated. Recall the frantic postulations about the unknown politics of that same group in the run-up to the 2004 elections.

If programs like Jeremiah and Forest succeed and spread, then perhaps in the future finding the civic or social pulse of American Jewish youth won’t require polling or statistics — the proof will be in the boardrooms, the courtrooms and the demonstrations.


L.A.’s New Leaders

If you’re a young Jewish leader who would like to know more about Los Angeles civic life, or if you’re a young civic leader who wants to be more in step with the Los Angeles Jewish community, the New Leaders Project might have a place for you. NLP, sponsored in Los Angeles by the Jewish Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation Council, is currently seeking applications for its fourth class.

The program, which graduated its first class a few months after the riots split the city asunder in 1992, aims to create an informative blend of civic instruction and Jewish values that appeal to its audience of about 15 to 20 men and women, ranging from their mid-20s to early 40s.

“I loved the idea of 16 of us sharing background and ideas and thoughts. It broadened my knowledge of this city.”

— Larry Greenfield, businessman, attorney and political activist

“Each year, we’ve attracted people into the program who I don’t think would have entered into a traditional Jewishleadership program,” said NLP co-founder and co-chair Donna Bojarsky. One of the main goals, she said, is to build bridges across the city between the civic and Jewish communities.

“As our cities have become increasingly complex and diverse places, it’s important to call upon Jewish values to inform us as good Jewish leaders and also to be civic leaders,” said Bojarsky, a longtime political and Jewish activist who is a public-policy consultant to actor Richard Dreyfuss.

As in the previous two sessions, the 1996 program, which ended in October, began with a weekend retreat in which speakers — including rabbis, previous NLP graduates, Federation and civic leaders, and media representatives — spoke about such topics as Jewish values and public policy, the meaning of Jewish leadership and spirituality, and, of course, the challenges facing Los Angeles. In the months that followed (usually on alternate Sundays), NLP participants met with leaders from the African-American, Asian and Latino communities, as well as with city officials, educators and Jewish leaders. Other events included potluck Shabbat dinners, a spiritual retreat, and a discussion on leadership from the Orthodox Jewish perspective.

One of the most meaningful parts of the program, according to some participants, was creating a community-service project that could be put into action and, presumably, would have some impact. Working on a project helped Dean Shapiro tie his business skills with Jewish activism. Shapiro is vice president of international theatrical sales at Metromedia Entertainment in Century City. He and another NLP member, Nicole Silverton, produced a reading of a new play titled “Magda’s Story” at the Wiesenthal Center. Putting together the production, with actors Stockard Channing, Michael York and Larry Drake (Benny in “L.A. Law”), was “really thrilling,” Shapiro said. The play, a Holocaust theater piece for schoolchildren about a righteous gentile’s effort to save a former boyfriend from the death camps, proved popular and will be staged again this summer with a different cast.

For Shapiro, the play’s message about people of different backgrounds helping each other “is the core of the New Leaders Project.” The 27-year-old Los Angeles native, a member of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, said that the program was stronger in its civic than its religious components, but that he received “an excellent foundation on how political Los Angeles works, how the Los Angeles Jewish community works, and how they work together.” It also proved invaluable as a networking tool. “I now know someone at AIPAC, someone who works in Israel Bonds and at City Hall. When, in the rest of my public life, I need to call them, I can. And when there’s something I might know about, they can call me.”

Scott Stone, another member of the class of 1996, was also impressed with how much he learned about the way the Los Angeles Jewish community works. Other than his involvement with his synagogue, Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, Stone, 41, who has his own television production company (Stone Stanley Productions), had had little understanding or connection with the organized Jewish community here. “For me, this was a way of being exposed to a much more Jewish approach to tikkun olam, to creating bridges between communities I was already involved in.”

Stone’s project, which is still a work in progress, grew out of his commitment to both the Jewish and gay and lesbian communities. He is making a documentary about successful gay and lesbian couples, where both partners are Jewish. “My hope is that by showing examples of couples in relationships of anywhere from six months to 50 years, I will be able to depoliticize and take the religious edge off the issue,” Stone said.

Larry Greenfield, a businessman, attorney and political activist for international human rights and Jewish causes, refers to himself as “born and bred into Conservative Jewish life,” in Los Angeles. Among other things, he is co-chair of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Leadership 2000 group, on JCRC’s board of directors and co-chair of Unity ’97, Los Angeles Young Adult conference commemorating Zionism’s centennial. Being part of NLP allowed him to become more familiar with civic Los Angeles, Greenfield said. “I loved the idea of 16 of us sharing background and ideas and thoughts. It broadened my knowledge of this city.”

At graduation, however, Greenfield made a speech in which he challenged the facilitators of the NLP program to seek out not only the “usual minority coalition partners…but also such groups as the Christian Right or the Libertarians or Cultural Conservatives or others with whom you do not often agree.”

The New Leaders Project, however it evolves in the future, has already spawned programs in four other cities: Boston, Indianapolis, Detroit and Flint, Mich. Two additional cities, still unnamed, will offer the program later this year.

NLP in Los Angeles is funded by grants from the Charles I. Brown Foundation, the Hillside Foundation, Stanley Hirsh, the Audrey and Sydney Irmas Charitable Foundation, the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Righteous Persons Foundation through the National New Leaders Project, the David Polak Foundation, program alumni and many individual donors. Richard S. Volpert chairs the program, and E. Eric Schockman is the program director.

NLP applications are encouraged by May 16, but will be accepted until May 30. For information, call (213) 852-7730.