Attracting the younger generation at General Assembly

A dozen officials from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles flew to Baltimore this week to attend the annual conference of the national body representing 155 federations, where they discussed many of the urgent challenges confronting American and Canadian Jewry.
November 13, 2012

A dozen officials from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles flew to Baltimore this week to attend the annual conference of the national body representing 155 federations, where they discussed many of the urgent challenges confronting American and Canadian Jewry.

But Gary and Ellen Bialis, who reside in Santa Barbara, came privately and with a more personal agenda: to shep nachas from their daughter.

That is because their daughter, Laura Bialis, took center stage before 3,000 people Monday afternoon to moderate a plenary session in which Jewish Agency for Israel chairman Natan Sharansky and Nobel Prize-winning author Elie Wiesel reflected on the landmark Washington rally for Soviet Jewry, held 25 years ago.

A documentary filmmaker who lives in Tel Aviv with her husband and 2-year-old daughter, Bialis was tapped by Sharansky to chair the session because she had made a 2007 documentary, “Refusenik,” about the struggle he and many other Soviet Jews endured in pressing for religious freedom at home and for the right to immigrate to Israel.

The session was an important one for the conference to host, because the 1987 rally “needs to be remembered,” Bialis, who was raised in Los Angeles and attended the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, told the Jewish Journal. 

Many attendees at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), she said, don’t know or have forgotten about the Soviet Jewry movement. “This was yesterday’s news,” Bialis remarked.

Her comments echoed a common refrain about a more contemporary challenge expressed during the three-day conference: how federations and other organizations can draw young Jews into active participation in communal life. (For a related story about the conference’s focus on seeking new directions in funding, see page 26.)

The matter is a key item on the agenda. Esther Kustanowitz, who runs the NextGen Engagement Initiative at the Los Angeles  Federation, spoke at five sessions dealing with issues ranging from the role of Jewish media in shaping community to NextGen engagement strategies. One of the recurring themes was the use of social media to amplify today's organizational messages and more meaningfully engage young Jews who otherwise might remain outside communal and organizational life.

The stakes are high both for local federations and for JFNA in meeting the needs of Jews in the 21st century. Federations annually raise approximately $1 billion, which are disbursed to such communal institutions as synagogues, day schools, hospitals, Jewish community centers and senior citizen residences; and for such services as vocational training, counseling, food banks and Jewish programming on college campuses.

Left unstated, at least explicitly, was that failure to “engage” — the favored verb for this context — the young generation in Jewish affairs means to risk the future viability of the entire philanthropy mechanism and the charitable works and Jewish life that it has enabled over several generations.

“With all the distractions, inputs and noise in modern society, we are today all Jews by choice,” William Daroff, JFNA’s vice president for public policy, said in an interview. “It is incumbent upon the organized Jewish community to provide as many on-ramps as possible for Jewish engagement. Jewish federations are focused on involving and empowering our next generation of young leaders as a key to ensuring a vibrant Jewish future.”

Richard Sandler, chair of the L.A. Federation, said that he is “always interested in how the federation is trying to engage the younger generation. I regard this as being as important as anything we do to help young people find their entrance into American Jewish life.”

Sandler, who attended one of Kustanowitz’s presentations Monday, believes social media might be a valuable tool in the effort to reverse the alarming slippage in population and affiliation among North American Jewry.

To a casual observer of this week’s proceedings, a demographic-generational gap was evident between the federations’ volunteer leaders and professionals, and the 300 college and high school students in attendance. But the divide may be narrowing, based on the plethora of conference sessions dealing with applying social media to reach young Jews precisely where they are most comfortable.

In a session held Monday morning, for example, the approximately 100 participants were divided into several groups, each of whose members discussed the methods they were employing to capitalize on social media.

In the group Kustanowitz led, members — who work primarily in the media-outreach departments of local federations and other Jewish organizations — shared best practices for recruiting young people in fundraising campaigns. Other groups dealt with such campaigns as publishing a Jewish cookbook completely through online discussions and encouraging people to buy Israeli products.

The session, titled “Social Explosion: An Interactive Lab Experiment,” had “never been done before” at a General Assembly, said Shana Sisk, JFNA’s online marketing specialist.

As the group discussions began, Sisk lowered expectations, stating that she did not expect earthshaking conclusions to emerge from a 90-minute session.

At that, a male voice called out, “In 90 minutes, you can change the world!” Sisk, smiling, said she concurred.

Not all young participants had social media on their minds, though. Two L.A. residents in their mid-20s, Rachel Barton and Becca Ross, came for the more traditional draws of conferences: listening to speakers and networking in the corridors. Both women attend Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion.

To Barton, who went to last year’s assembly in Denver, attending the many sessions here on Israel and international Jewry helped to crystallize issues that sometimes appear amorphous.

In Los Angeles, “we participate in campaigns for overseas giving, but to know what the impact is is a great opportunity,” she explained. “It’s one of my greatest interests. I skimmed through the program, looking for [sessions] related to Israel.”

Ross said that she was motivated to enter Jewish communal work, in part, from her job several years ago at the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, where she witnessed the manner in which its executive director and board members returned to Oregon re-energized from the General Assemblies.

“I can only learn so much in textbooks,” said Ross, who was attending her first General Assembly. “But to meet people who run programs and hear how they get their ideas is very exciting.”

As to the federation establishment’s seeming quandary over how to navigate the generational divide, Barton said a misperception exists.

The assumption “is that when you see a young person texting or on Facebook, that [means] they’re disconnecting from the world,” she said. Instead, she continued, “they are connected. There is a search for community. It’s just happening in a different sphere than it used to.”

While acknowledging the reality of Generation Y’s “not being as connected to their Jewish heritage,” Barton said, “the argument that social media has created a generation that is not interested in connecting to the world is false.”

Jewish organizations, she said, deserve credit for understanding the power of social media and for harnessing it to reach young people.

“But it’s a learning curve, and it will take a while for the pieces to come together,” she said. “I think we’re on the right track.”

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