Get ready Jewish leaders, the Next Generation is here


We gave them melting ice caps, outsourcing and global terrorism. They’re giving us — energy and optimism?

If the group of Gen Y-ers — also known as Millenials or NextGens or iGens — who gathered for a Jewish leadership conference in Santa Monica last week are any indication, it seems that parents who did everything to build their children’s resumes and self esteem may have been on to something. This handpicked group of Jewish leaders in their 20s and early 30s have the self-confidence to think — to actually believe — that if the old people would just make some room for them, or maybe get out of the way altogether, they could fix this mess of a world. They are committed to social justice; they are willing to get their hands dirty; they have great ideas, time to volunteer, and they have the arrogance, self-centeredness and technological savvy to bring their ideas to fruition.

The question is how to channel all that into the Jewish community.

The Professional Leaders Project (PLP) took on that challenge when it was founded three years ago by some of American Jewry’s biggest philanthropists, who sensed that young people with leadership potential were staying far from a Jewish establishment they perceived as staid and uninterested in hearing new voices or developing the skills and careers of newcomers.

Through programs that combine mentoring, peer networking and a two-way conversation between top Jewish leaders and young people, PLP has made some inroads into this age group.

Over the past three years, PLP has identified and nurtured more than 200 young people, and it now has many success stories of professionals who have moved from careers in law or finance into professional Jewish leadership, as well as volunteers who have rechanneled their energies into Jewish causes. Among others, they targeted artists who might not have considered themselves leaders and people who are already working in –or had recently left — Jewish organizations, hoping to keep them happier in Jewish careers. With a budget of $1.5 million annually, PLP also funds about 12 graduate students in nonprofit management or pubic administration programs, with the requirement that the fellows then commit to careers in the Jewish community.

“I’m looking at the next 20 years, and I’m elated, whereas before I was disappointed, frustrated, and had written off the Jewish community to a large extent. PLP has made me optimistic,” said Ari Moss, a 28-year-old attorney who got involved with PLP three years ago. While he had been active in organizations specifically targeting young Jews, he felt the “pay to play” model of establishment organizations excluded young Jews.

“PLP sees a Jewish community that looks radically different than the organized Jewish community that exists today,” said Moss, who co-chaired last week’s conference. “They see a future Jewish community that is warm, inclusive and more inter-connected, that is more than just dinners and golf tournaments.”

PLP leaders have done an admirable job of getting out of their own Gen X or Baby Boomer mindsets and into the quirks and needs of this generation.

On the surface, PLP has created an image that is slick and hip, using the lingo and the look of a new generation. Participants are known as “talent,” a word that even when spoken seems to require quotation marks; trendy word treatments — like ThinkTank3 — adorn printed materials worthy of the graphic design generation, and, of course, everything is online, and everything is green. (At the closing session, it was announced that the hotel staff had picked the plastic cutlery out of the garbage for recycling; where’s the social justice in that?).

The catering at the conference was elegant, but outside of every meeting room was an oversized bucket of Red Vines licorice and a shiny pile of Israeli Bisli snack bags, a testament to the fact that this generation isn’t quite ready to admit to being adults.

But it’s not just the trappings that are Next Gen. At the centerpiece of PLP is LiveNetworks, a one-year program where 20- and 30-somethings dialogue with one another and with high-profile Jewish leaders about the larger vision and smaller practicalities of maintaining a vibrant Jewish community. In monthly meetings in five regional hubs, high-ranking professionals and volunteers discuss with the talent real case studies, and the group also participates in Jewish text study and leadership skills. They receive one-on-one coaching from their hub director and are paired with mentors from the established Jewish community.

“They are very interested in the generations above them and want to be mentored,” said Rhoda Weisman Uziel, founding executive director of PLP. “Maybe it’s because many of them had good relationships with their parents, so they are not angry and intimidated by boomers — in fact they see a lot of wisdom that can help them move forward, and they want to network with them.”

They are entrepreneurial and high achieving, yet team players, she said, although they have little tolerance for hierarchical bureaucracies.

“Respect is very important to them, and if they’re respected, they’ll respect you and be more courageous and be willing to take leaps,” Uziel said.

At ThinkTank3, the talent — a new cohort of about 75 people, along with about 60 from last year’s LiveNetwork, a dozen or so academic fellows, and some 35 other potential leaders — spent three days talking with each other, as well as about 180 Federation heads, rabbis, major philanthropists and veteran volunteers.

There were big name keynotes, such as Harvard’s positive psychology guru Tal Ben-Shahar. Mega-philanthropist Michael Steinhardt had to cancel at the last minute, so Jewish rockers Blue Fringe overnighted in from New York. Keynoters Scott Sherman and Jennifer Robin came, respectively, from the Transformative Action Institute and The Great Place to Work Institute, which pretty much speaks for itself.

But the conference was mostly about schmoozing. All the sessions were led by as many as four people, so that, rather than presentations, there were conversations on issues like interdating, spirituality, volunteerism, Jewish identity, the work-life balance, harnessing the power of the new media and lots and lots about social justice. There was a painful discussion on Israel, making evident that Gen Y-ers are not as passionate or as convinced about Israel as their elders — a message the establishment has been slow to take in.

Young Moseses


Quick Passover trivia: How many times does the name “Moses” appear in the haggadah?

The answer is none, not once. The man who stood up to Pharoah and led us across the Red Sea out of Egypt doesn’t even get a mention. And you thought “Brokeback Mountain” got robbed.

The standard explanation for this is that the rabbis who compiled the haggadah didn’t want to make an idol out of the prophet. We are to read the story of our freedom and deliverance as a sign of the covenant between the people of Israel and God, or, if you like, between our own addictions and enslavements and our struggle for enlightenment.

In any case, Moses has left the building, and we are obliged to imagine how a great Jewish leader would look and act.

An understanding of Moses, after all, would help us understand how a person confronts the challenges of leadership. But there are ways to approach that subject. And that’s why I went to Pat’s last Friday night.

The upscale kosher restaurant on the corner of Pico and Doheny — it’s Mortons for the glatt set — hosted a dinner for LiveNetworks, a yearlong intensive workshop in professional leadership for Jewish 20-somethings from around the country.

Los Angeles hosted the national kickoff for LiveNetworks last weekend, bringing together about 75 of the program’s 87 participants. Hailing from five regional “hubs,” the participants will meet about six times throughout the year in their hub location. In the process, they’ll meet with local leaders and philanthropists, attend seminars and receive individual coaching and mentoring.

It’s an impressive lot, chosen from about 300 applicants for their professional and academic achievement and their charitable involvement.

The young adults sitting around our table seemed to have this in common: They were curious or even passionate about Jewish life, and their Jewishness has imbued them with a desire to get more involved, but they were unsure what to do about it.

“I never imagined I’d be doing what I’m doing,” Shira Landau told me.

Landau, an L.A. native, is assistant religious school director at Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades. She said she has found developing curriculum and working with intensely involved, professional parents rewarding, and she applied to LiveNetworks to learn new skills and meet peers who are similarly enthused.

She’s among the half of participants already involved in professional Jewish life.

The other half are nonprofessional Jews, potential future lay leaders, with varying degrees of Jewish exposure.

Rachel Cohen, the daughter of a mixed marriage, had her Judaism awakened on her first birthright trip to Israel seven years ago. The trip changed her life: She switched majors from business to international relations, eventually getting a job with a U.N. ambassador and throwing herself into Jewish life.

Joshua Atkins, a studio game design director for Microsoft in Seattle, said he “came on a hunch.” Although he had little Jewish background or education, he had begun looking for ways to get involved in philanthropy, and friends suggested he sign up. A program tailored to his age group made sense to him.

“This is a generation that understands things move very fast,” he told me, speaking like a true video game designer. “They aren’t going to be satisfied just watching.”

Atkins took in the evening’s program — a quick, funny talk on making a difference from comedy writer Bruce Vilanch, and an energetic interactive Torah study with Rabbi Steve Greenberg — and by the end of the evening was warming up to the idea he’d made the right choice.

This leadership exercise, to be sure, involves a certain amount of latter-day kowtowing to Generation Y or Z or whatever it is. Previous generations, including mine, had to get inspired without this sort of recruitment-style outreach.

Back when I first wanted to explore Israel, I visited the crusty youth program adviser at his dim cubicle at the old Federation building. He handed me some dated brochures for programs, and when I asked him the best way to get to Israel, his endearing reply was, “I’m not a travel agent.”

Now, setting the hook in their eager young gums has become the new obsession of the uber-philanthropists and Jewish organizations. There is big money behind LiveNetworks: Michael Steinhardt (ID’ed in the information packet as a “demibillionaire), Detroit Pistons co-owner William Davidson and the Shusterman and Applebaum family foundations. Similar largesse has helped underwrite Reboot; the magazine Heeb; birthright; and other attempts to catch and keep these young’uns.

It’s The Old Mensch and the Sea, where crusty, dying Jewish organizations fish desperately for the elusive life force that will land them a rebirth in the 21st century.

But while older studies, like the 2001 National Jewish Population Survey, showed a large number of these younger Jews don’t attend synagogue or remain active in Jewish life, a slew of new studies prove the opposite. An up-and-coming generation is proud of its Jewish identity and culturally creative, JTA correspondent Sue Fishkoff writes. (See article on page 16.) It’s “coming up with new methods of religious expression and feels part of a global community linked by Jewish Web sites and blogs.”

Dining with this precious young cohort, I tended to believe the new studies. These Jews are not all that different from their older counterparts. They are not a different species after all, just a new generation.

This generation has the Internet to help educate and organize and connect to one another. At the same time, they have inherited a model of communal hierarchy and given that, being a new generation, they will challenge or even discard.

As Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion professor Steven Windmueller has written: “If the first ‘revolution’ launched the current Jewish Federation model 100 years ago, the second is now seeking to construct an alternative enterprise.”

L.A. law student Gabriel Halimi said he and his friends wanted to raise money for Jewish causes but found mainstream Jewish organizations “too inflexible.” So he helped found the Society for Young Philanthropists, which now raises and distributes thousands of dollars to worthy causes.

Today’s Halimi could have been any one of the young lions of Los Angeles Jewish philanthropy circa 1950. In other words, I suspect these new “revolutionary” approaches are differences in technology and style, not substance. What I saw and heard at Pat’s restaurant last Friday was passion, communication, a willingness to confront established power and a strong sense that the Jewish people have something to offer one another and the world.

Which, when you think of it, would be a good description of Moses.

Happy Passover.