NEW ORLEANS – “The average age here is 90,” a participant in his early 30s told this reporter, in his late 20s, at the annual gathering of a major Jewish organization that took place earlier this year. “There are a few our age, but not many. Stay close or you might die of boredom.”
After he became aware that he was talking to a member of the press, he asked not to be quoted.
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However, the issue is hardly a secret. On top of being male-dominated, the top cadres of the US Jewish establishment tend to be in their 60s and onwards. This is why this year, one of the first events held at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly in New Orleans on Sunday was a gettogether for young leaders held by GenNext, the organization’s forum for young Jewish professionals.
Some 150 Jewish activists in their early 20s to mid-40s – which is still considered young by Jewish establishment terms – hailing from 35 communities throughout North American were brought together to talk shop and address JFNA’s present and future.
“The fact that we’re bringing in these people and holding this event is significant,” Alice Varislov, 46, the co-chairwoman of JFNA’s young leadership, told The Jerusalem Post on the sidelines of the event.
“We need to do a lot of listening here,” added Steven Scheck, her co-chairman from Miami, aged 37.
“In the past we’ve asked for things to be done differently, but people weren’t willing to listen to us,” Varislov said.
What changed? Varislov quickly answered, “Jerry Silverman,” JFNA’s CEO. She said since he took office last year he made nurturing the next generation of leaders one of his top priorities.
The organizers sprinkled tables with Crayola markers and candy for the benefit of the babes of Jewish social involvement, showing they either had a sense of selfdeprecating humor or a lack of self-awareness.
Either way, they didn’t shy away from questions speaking to the heart of the matter. What works in the current JFNA giving model? they asked, a polite way of asking what does not. And how would you restructure the JFNA model to make it the NextGen’s as opposed to our parents’ JFNA?
Some were puzzled by the former question.
“I don’t know what the details of JFNA’s model are, so I wouldn’t know how to go about changing it” said one participant.
A variety of lively debates emerged, ranging from the growing divide between mostly conservative Orthodox Jews and their Reform coreligionists, who are more liberal, to whether sponsoring alcohol-laden parties was the best way of attracting new recruits to Jewish communal life.
Stephanie Gertz, 42, of Boston, said she felt spurned by the relative shortage of women in the top echelons of Jewish leadership.
“There’s still a boys club, smoke-filled feeling,” said Gertz, who is involved with Combined Jewish Community. “We’re not really let in.”
However, if the makeup of the GenNext event is any indicator, Gertz can be encouraged. Women made up at least half – if not a majority – of participants at the discussion. Whether they will succeed in climbing the leadership ladder, however, is another matter.
Another issue on the agenda was finding ways of using social media to enable communication with members of the community.
Yonatan Ben-Dor, 30, was one of the participants actively making use of the web to reach out to donors and build his community.
“‘Israel Gives’ is Israel’s portal to childhood giving,” Ben-Dor said of
the website he started. “We’ve helped help recruit money and support
for organizations in Israel. Since we started we’ve helped web-based
philanthropy grow by 250 percent in 15 months.”
He said his model can be used to generate more donations for charities in Israel and the US.
Over the next few months JFNA leaders will go over the multitude of
opinions heard at the three-hour gathering and draw conclusions on how
to shape the organization’s future based on what its future leaders
want, Scheck said.
“We realize there are things we have to do differently and this debate is aimed at realizing what those changes are,” he said.