A break in the pipeline

They say a good mensch is hard to find. Without the Professional Leaders Project (PLP), the Los Angeles Jewish community might never have met mensches like Gabe Halimi and Ari Moss (“L.A.’s Top Ten Mensches,” The Jewish Journal, Dec. 31). Or innovators like Elishia Shokrian Bolour, who launched the Society of Young Philanthropists here in Southern California and is expanding it to Dallas. Now that PLP has announced it will suspend operations, who knows how many prospective mensches will never be discovered?

What appears to be the end of the PLP story next week will mark a milestone in the history of the Los Angeles Jewish community: the first time in recent memory that a major nationwide initiative was born here in Southern California, grew and thrived for a time, and then closed its doors. PLP, one of several L.A.-based organizations that have helped to define the innovation ecosystem nationally, has become the premier independent entity for developing and educating the next generation of Jewish leaders, both volunteer and professional. Thousands of people will carry the lessons they learned through PLP to organizations old, new and yet to be born.

PLP founder Rhoda Weisman and her team understand well the fluid nature of nonprofit leadership in the 21st century, recognizing that individual leaders, and the relationships between them, lie at the heart of effective innovation and advocacy for change. The values they have instilled in PLP’s programs are applicable throughout Jewish organizational life: institutional independence, the recognition that volunteer and professional leadership are intertwined and often interchangeable over the course of a person’s career, and, most importantly, not only a genuine belief in and commitment to the process of innovation and renewal, but indeed the explicit acknowledgement of the real contributions that new leaders bring to the missions and institutions they serve.

More practically, the Jewish community is losing a critical clearinghouse for the entire nonprofit workforce pipeline. This is not a trivial need. As the NonProfit Times reported on Aug. 13, the senior management gap in U.S. nonprofits is a matter of growing nationwide concern. The Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit human capital think tank, predicts that overcoming this “leadership deficit” will require a commitment “to attract and develop a leadership population 2.4 times the size of the total number currently employed” (Finding Leaders for America’s Nonprofits, 2009).

This issue is only magnified in the organized Jewish community, where according to a recent study for the Jewish Funders Network and The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies (ACBP) entitled “Executive Development & Succession Planning: A Growing Challenge for the Jewish Community,” retirements by long-serving baby boomer executives will create succession challenges at as many as 90 percent of Jewish organizations over the next decade. As the only independent initiative dedicated to identifying, recruiting, nurturing and mentoring new volunteer and professional leaders regardless of their institutional affiliation, PLP has played a vital role seeding the Jewish ecosystem with human capital.

PLP’s absence will have an immediate impact on the hundreds of young leaders who have been a part of its networks and participants in its leadership development programs. These include hundreds of emerging leaders from around the nation who were recently recruited for PLP’s LiveNetworks 2009, a yearlong seminar series incorporating leadership development, Jewish learning, analytical tools, coaching and mentoring.

Especially pressing is the question of how to honor the commitment made by the newest members of the LiveNetwork hubs here in Los Angeles, as well as in Chicago, New York City, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., 20- and 30-somethings who signed up (and even were willing to pay) for training, networking and mentoring as volunteer and professional leaders in 2009 and 2010. They now have nowhere to go. Our community cannot afford to let their energy go untapped: We must find alternate ways for them to engage their passions and skills. For example, we could imagine local agencies in each of the five cities adopting the LiveNetworks members, either by creating new programs for them or by absorbing them into existing next-generation training projects.

Earlier this summer, in these pages, we challenged the Los Angeles Jewish community to establish a common strategy and comprehensive support system for local innovation (“Let’s Bring Innovation Into the Fold,” July 10). PLP’s suspension of operations only adds to the urgency of our task, opening a critical gap not only locally but indeed nationally. Los Angeles still can be a vital source for the current wave of Jewish creativity and innovation, but sustaining that energy will take vision, hard work, and, most importantly, collaboration across and within our community. We should feel great pride in PLP’s homegrown success story, deep regret at its departure and a strong sense of responsibility to carry on its mission of turning Jewish leadership over to the next generation. It’s what a mensch would do.

An earlier version of this op-ed, co-authored with Joshua Avedon, appeared on eJewishPhilanthropy.com.

Shawn Landres is the co-founder and CEO of Jumpstart, a think tank, catalyst, advocate and support system for sustainable Jewish innovation.

Face of a Crisis

Rhoda Weisman never figured she’d be a victim of the economic crisis that has rocked the Jewish world over the past year. After all, her specialty was identifying and nurturing the kind of leaders who would thrive in such crises; who would, in her words, “create new paradigms.”

What could be more important than that?

Weisman was hardly whining about her situation when I bumped into her at Jeff’s Gourmet the other day. She was simply lamenting the fact that the organization she founded five years ago, Professional Leaders Project (PLP), was no longer, and she wondered who would pick up the slack.

The demise of PLP last month was big news in the community, partly because it was so sudden. Jewish organizations — especially hot and successful ones — rarely die a sudden death. A demise is usually preceded by cutbacks, layoffs, “retrenching,” rumors of financial hardship, desperate fundraising, etc., and, even then, the organization often survives as a shell of its former self.

Not PLP. Its first bad news was its obituary.

And what an obituary it was. They might well be the James Dean of Jewish organizations: a shooting star that made a few amazing performances before crashing in an unfortunate accident.

For Weisman, these “amazing performances” meant amazing people. More precisely, it meant talented Jews with the potential to make a lasting impact on the future of the Jewish community.

Ask Weisman to give you names and examples, and you will enter her comfort zone. On a recent Sunday afternoon, with a Diet Coke in one hand and her white Maltese in the other, she rattled off a list of people who benefited from PLP’s various training programs:

A woman helping to lead the Conservative movement’s new initiative to incorporate ethics in kashrut; a young artist who started the first Moishe House in Los Angeles; a corporate lawyer who became national director of BBYO; a Hollywood producer who is now the top fundraiser at American Jewish World Service; a young woman who helps run “The Conversation”; a senior program officer for the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, among many others.

What’s original about Weisman’s training philosophy is that she mixes different kinds of people into the same pot. She identified early on a problem with Jewish leadership training: walls. Weisman can’t stand walls. The way she sees it, why separate lay people from professionals, young from old, entrepreneurs from managers — since we all have to work together anyway?

“It’s important for the future of the Jewish community that the rebels and the mainstream are integrated for the greater good,” she said.

Her own journey has had a tinge of rebellion. She can’t pinpoint how or where her passion for Judaism started, but she thinks it might have to do with the fact that unlike her older brothers, she didn’t go to Hebrew school while she was growing up in Detroit.

“I remember sneaking into their rooms and reading their Jewish books. I even remember the blue cover and title of one of the books, ‘The History of the Jewish People,’” she said.

Eventually, her personal breakthrough came when she decided in the mid-1980s to get a master’s degree in Jewish Professional Development from Brandeis University. After graduating, she spent most of her career with Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, both at the national level and at the regional level in Los Angeles.

All that was preparation for her real breakthrough, which came when she started PLP five years ago. Because of her connections with philanthropists like Michael Steinhart and fundraisers like Bob Aronson, the organization had a smooth opening and a fast rise. At its peak, its annual budget reached $2 million, which helped Weisman lead a national network of 50 professional team members and over 1,000 participants.

And then it crashed.

The crisis hit when one of their major donors, William Davidson from Detroit, passed away, and in the sorting out of his affairs, his annual gift to PLP became a casualty. Weisman and her cohorts figured they would replace the gift by reaching out to other donors, but in the aftermath of Bernie Madoff and the general economic downturn, their timing couldn’t have been worse.

“Everyone was lovely, but we didn’t get what we needed,” she said.

She decided to wind down the operation instead of running a skeletal version that couldn’t live up to its mission.

Now she herself is back at the starting gate, hoping and looking for another breakthrough. “I haven’t put together a resume in 20 years,” she told me.

She has until the end of the year to find something. She’ll have to balance her deep desire to make a difference in the Jewish world with her equally deep desire to avoid, as she said with a smile, “food stamps.”

If only there were another Rhoda Weisman to help her out.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine, Meals4Israel.com and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at {encode=”dsuissa@olam.org” title=”dsuissa@olam.org”}.

The moment it dawned on me that being Jewish is important

During the opening session for the Professional Leaders Project (PLP), a conference for young Jewish leaders, a man delivered inspirations via PowerPoint, asking us to consider the one “moment” that inspired us to connect to Jewish projects and commit to the Jewish professional world.

So charged, the room began to buzz with energy as enthusiasm spilled forth from the mouths of the newly inspired, freshly minted Jewish leaders, many of them products of Taglit-birthright israel, or of youth groups that showed them the way. But my story is a lot less dramatic.

“What made you committed, when and why?” Well, committed is the right word. Sometimes I feel like I’ve signed away the papers to my own sanity, voluntarily committing myself to a Jewish nonprofit facility. When I graduated college, I discovered that beginning salaries in publishing were $17,000 a year, while Jewish organizations were paying $21,000. Punch line: I went into Jewish nonprofit for the money. But that’s probably not the kind of answer they’re looking for in this exercise.

“What was your ‘moment’? When did it dawn on you that being Jewish is important?”

Good questions. Had I ever had such a moment of awareness, belonging, mission or peoplehood? Maybe one Yom Kippur, when I was too dehydrated and hungry to notice? Or maybe that time I passed out on an airplane was actually a dawning awareness so momentous that it rendered me unconscious.

“Why be Jewish?” Because it’s all I know. It’s an important part of my family life, my professional and personal rhythm, and my social context. I write paragraphs and pages trying to determine which of my connections to Jewish life and to Israel — Jerusalem in particular — are authentic and which ones are conditioned. It might not matter, as long as I feel they’re of value. But that’s an emotional response. Intellectually, it bothers me that I can’t articulate a specific why.

It seemed like everyone I knew who was involved in Jewish projects had a moment to write home about. Once on another path, they have now chosen a road less traveled: my road, as it happens. They were lyrical and articulate, recounting the moments of their revelations. But a Jewish writer who lives in a world of words 24/6 comes up with a blank page.

For doctors, lawyers, Internet gurus or others who have been suddenly born again as Jewish professionals, there’s a eureka moment as their skills mesh with a newly discovered passion for Jewish identity and self-exploration. Approaching the Jewish world from the outside, they spoke of “trigger” moments: Israel, a college experience at Hillel, the connection on a social justice level, some other experience that “activated” their connection to Jewish life. Their eyes shine with purpose, while I look back at them, simultaneously awed, and envious of a trigger I’m not sure I ever had.

I’m not really complaining. Living my life in an observant Jewish home and receiving a Modern Orthodox education, I was given an enviably solid background in text and tradition. I connect to the Hebrew language like none of my secularly educated friends can. I feel the earth of Israel as living Torah, even if I don’t observe every precept. And for some undefined reason, I connect to Jews more frequently than I connect with non-Jews.

But because I was born into my Jewish connection, which was then carefully and painstakingly nurtured, I was cheated of the opportunity to experience this level of revelation. I’m brainwashed by education and a drone by birth. If there’s a “moment” of importance, it could be this one, in which I’m beginning to question the nature and depth of my connection to this confounding fabric of my being, discovering how I really feel about my own faith and people.

I’m a writer, so I understand. It makes a better story when a secular kid has a birthright epiphany and then devotes his or her life to Jewish content. I love those stories, too; they can be inspiring, and usually feature amazing people who have a right to recognition. But as a freelancer who’s worked in the Jewish nonprofit world for over a decade, I can tell you that familiarity is not always a Jewish professional’s friend. Organizations expect seasoned professionals to do something for almost nothing, or to give them a “friends and family rate” — to which we often agree, undercutting our profits and undervaluing our services. To expect anyone to work for little or nothing is unrealistic and unfair. And yet, in certain organizations, it is also de rigeur.

But I am still hopeful. Having just come back from the General Assembly, I was extremely gratified by the olive branches extended by the establishment to some more innovative initiatives. I hope that some of our creativity will inspire mutually beneficial partnerships and match experienced professionals and volunteers with their next-generation counterparts. I am seeing projects like PLP and ROI, which have committed to investing in the future through people like my creative band of friends and me. In all their initiatives, my “newly activated” friends inspire with a passion and commitment that reinvigorates my own. And I provide a more experienced voice, an intensely educated influence, and skills that I’ve been nurturing in the world that they’ve just entered.

The road’s wide enough for all of us. By integrating our stories, they intertwine in a way that benefits everyone. Pooling our education, our acquired knowledge and our particular skills, we create a reservoir of passionate commitment and renewable energy for a stronger, more sustainable Jewish future, and generate many more meaningful moments for tomorrow’s Jewish professionals.

For more information, visit ” target=”_blank”>http://jewishleaders.net.

Esther D. Kustanowitz writes for many blogs, including JDatersAnonymous.com and MyUrbanKvetch.com, and is senior editor for PresenTense Magazine (presentense.org), a publication by and for Jews in their 20s and 30s.

‘Generation Next’ powow at Professional Leaders Project parley

Generation Next

By the end of the Professional Leaders Project gathering in Santa Monica, I walked away with three things: a stack of business cards, some good stories and a condom from KinkyJews.com in a package that featured an Israeli flag on the front and an off-color, yet highly creative tagline we can’t print here.

These may be the usual accoutrement, left over from a weekend of Jewish networking, yet with respect to this conference being a progressive think tank, the cards are unusually fancy:

There’s Ariel Beery, the 20-something editor and publisher of a cutting-edge mag on Jewish life (the current cover of PresenTense features three unmistakably ethnic Jews under a headline that reads, “Funny, You Don’t Look Jewish”). Then there was Lindsay Litowitz, who is independently seeking funds tofinance a documentary film project, called “Four Corners,” on Jewishcommunities around the world. Others there were producers, entrepreneurs, nonprofit executives, artists and budding religious leaders.

The invitation-only crowd was comprised of significant young Jewish professionals and volunteers — most were hip and well dressed, all shared “smart and successful” and were qualitatively labeled “talent.” And there you have the traits of the nation’s future Jewish leadership.

Well-funded and well-organized PLP flew in these rising stars for three days of Jewish learning, networking and highfalutin keynote speakers. Israeli-born Harvard professor Tal Ben-Shahar, who commands up to $20,000 for a single speaking engagement, delivered a spiel on positive psychology that didn’t quite live up to my expectations, so I hope PLP got his nonprofit rate.

During my in-and-out stint, I caught Dov Rosenblatt performing with his band, Blue Fringe. Afterwards, I mistakenly offered a handshake to Chasidic rapper Y-Love (a.k.a. Yitz Jordan), who abruptly flung his sweaty beret over his palms before he would touch me. The much-anticipated conclusion, “Michael Steinhardt Uncensored” was a bust when he fell ill, but the ever-eloquent and engaging Rabbi Naomi Levy stepped in and delivered an empowering message on good leadership.

Despite the lack of an overriding message articulated over the course of the conference, there was a sense of hopefulness. The Jewish future is in ready hands, able hands — and maybe next time, they’ll have a concrete objective of what to do with those hands.

Jane Usher is no plain Jane. She’s an active environmentalist, attorney and president of the Los Angeles City Planning Commission. Flanked by eco-Hollywood and go-green Angelenos, she was honored by TreePeople at their annual gala fundraiser, “An Evening Under the Harvest Moon,” which raked in half-a-mil for L.A.’s urban forest. Since a group of teenagers started the organization in the 1970s, more than 2 million trees have been planted in our beloved, angelic city.

What a pair! Of sisters, that is. Although the John Wayne Cancer Institute’s breast cancer fundraising luncheon makes clear reference to a woman’s most salient body part, the perky set at this event was actress Joely Fisher and her sister, Trisha Leigh Fisher, who presented Joley, the smokin’ star of FOX’s “Til Death,” with the Angel Award for her brazier-like support of breast cancer research.

Comedic actor and ubiquitous philanthropist Brad Garrett also attended the fete, as he and Joely are slated to emcee the Zimmer Children’s Museum’s seventh annual Discovery Award Dinner on Nov. 8.

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.