Jewish Journal


April 10, 2003

Courting New Blood

Organizations revamp young professional divisions to attract members.


If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Perhaps a cliché, but it may well be the mantra of local Jewish institutions struggling to attract new blood, as organizations and synagogues revamp their young professional divisions in an effort to distance themselves from past programming that has failed to meet expectations.

For more than a decade, Jewish destinations here have been aggressively seeking to tap into the young Jewish market -- the lifeblood of charitable giving, programming and, eventually, the heirs of the Jewish community. But even in a city with the second-largest Jewish population in the country, white-collar professionals -- from post-undergraduates to age 45 -- are often an elusive market.

But not for lack of trying. There have been several well-chronicled success stories.

In a few short years, 35-year-old television director Julie Hermelin nurtured a private fundraising party into Vodka Latka, the annual star-studded Chanukah party for young professionals that now generates in excess of $30,000 a year for The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. In recent years, AIPAC and Bnai Zion have been modifying their young professional chapters. And The Kabbalah Centre has launched One Soul, aimed at attracting 20- and 30-somethings.

Sinai Temple, under the leadership of Rabbi David Wolpe, has, since the late 1990s, created social- and spiritual-minded programs, including the newly formed ATID and Kesher Sinai. Kesher Sinai, formerly Sinai's New Leadership, seeks to foster connections between single professionals in the Jewish Community at large. While ATID -- Hebrew for "future" -- will engage teens and young couples, as well as singles. In addition, Sinai Temple's continuing Friday Night Live attracts thousands of young Jewish singles each month to the Westwood congregation.

However, there are programs that have struggled to meet expectations, such as The Federation's ACCESS, a group created a decade ago that attempted to engage young professionals in community-minded activities through the lure of social and networking opportunities, such as Shabbat dinners and weekend picnics.

Ultimately, ACCESS failed to translate into substantial charitable giving, according to Carol Levy, The Federation's vice president of community divisions. In its last year, The Federation killed ACCESS when it came up $10,000 short of its $250,000 annual budget. A December 2001 organizational layoff resulted in the dismissal of four staffers working in young-adult programming.

The Federation spent 2002 reevaluating its approach to courting young professionals. The result of that process is the newly formed Young Leadership Cabinet, installed in early February and run by former ACCESS Chair A.J. Adelman and Jon Shulman.

Discussing ACCESS's dismantling, Adelman, 38, said, "It was actually a good thing, so we could restructure and see how we can enhance young programming for the coming years."

Another young professionals division that has gone through a transition is a subset of The Guardians of Jewish Home for the Aging. When Eric Winter became involved with The Guardians, he was vice chair of programming of Sixth Decade. That was in 2002. As of January, Winter now chairs the Young Men's Division of The Guardians. Same group, different name.

"We felt that we needed a stronger identity," he said of the division, noting, too, that there is also newly formed Young Women's Division.  "There was no brand identity with the old name. People didn't know what it was or represented, and we had a big enough challenge overcoming the stereotype of the Guardians [as skewing old]."

Winter, a marketing strategist, believes in keeping it simple and direct. Sixth Decade had been around since 1993, but the name "didn't tell the story." Since a December reboot reception in Beverly Hills, co-sponsored by the Young Women's Division, the Young Men's Division has seen a membership spike.

"Last year, Sixth Decade scored only three new members. That's an embarrassment," Winter said. "This year, I've got 22 new members into the Young Men's Division already, and we haven't lost anybody. People know what it is now."

Although ORT International has been in existence since 1880, it had never established young leadership divisions until a few years ago. That changed with a move by the group's New York chapter. Shortly after in Los Angeles, New Leadership was established, after Hannah Schmieder and Eric Moses met ORT supporter Stanley Black at a Chanukah brunch three years ago.

Schmieder, a marketing executive in her 20s, appreciates ORT's cultural and secular value and its Chabadlike international reach.

"Education is a very important Jewish value," Schmieder said. "If I'm anywhere in the world, I can get involved. ORT has chapters in Timbuktu. I love that."

ORT New Leadership recently changed its name in favor of a new one, ORT Next Generation Group, and the division has since established a 15-member planning committee and has a mailing list of 200.

Since its name change, the division has raised $7,500 at a reception last summer and $3,500 through a Clippers game event last month. A Hollywood Bowl trip,  golf tournament and cocktail party are pending later this year.

Penetrating Los Angeles' driven young adults can be difficult and inconsistent at best.

"People our age -- 20s and 30s -- are just getting started in their careers," real estate lawyer Greg Bell said. "They're out there juggling a lot of things -- establishing a career, a social life, a young family."

"It's not like we're retired," he continued. "After a long day of work, they want to go to the gym or watch TV, instead of going to meetings."

Bell talks from experience. In 2000, the attorney started Visions -- The Next Generation, Israel Cancer Research Fund's (ICRF) under-40 fundraising division. Now in his mid-30s, Bell recently opened his own practice, and he has a second child on the way.

Add to the mix an ailing economy, which means a smaller, less dependable young professionals pool, and organizations have their work cut out for them.

Despite the obstacles, Visions has transcended its original goal to raise $25,000 for a single ICRF fellowship. It has been able to fund two full fellowships through its Jazz Night Under the Stars and two Monte Carlo night events.

Some leadership groups come and go.

 "Attrition occurs," Bell said, "because they're committed from the outset for the wrong reasons -- meeting people, getting their name on the invitation -- instead of having a genuine connection with the cause."

Ultimately, leaders of young leadership groups believe that the rewards of their hard work stem from their personal connections with the cause. Visions members, including Vice Presidents Jill Ullman and Michael Rosenmayer, have lost relatives to cancer.

"Both of my grandmothers have been in homes," said The Guardians' Winter.

"I feel like I'm going to be part of this organization for life," said Schmieder, the daughter of Polish and Russian-German immigrants, not unlike those helped by ORT over the decades.

"I really enjoy working on the committee and coming up with different events," said Kesher Sinai's Faranak Rostamian. "The whole reason I wanted to do this is because I'm a single. I wanted a place to go to."

An ORT Next Generation Group planning meeting will be held  April 23 at 5 p.m. at 1640 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles. An ORT Next Generation Group Penthouse Party is planned June 5 at 7 p.m. at the Luxe Hotel Rodeo Drive, at 360 N. Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills.  For information on ORT Next Generation Group, call (310) 481-9929.

For information on The Jewish Federation's Young Leadership Cabinet, call (323) 761-8000.

For information on Sinai Temple's Kesher Sinai and ATID, call (310) 481-3244.

The Guardians' Young Men's Division will hold a cocktail mixer April 24 at Bliss in West Hollywood. For information on The Guardians' Young Men's Division and Young Women's Division, call (310) 479-2468.

For information on Visions -- The Next Generation of the Israel Cancer Research Fund, call (323) 651-1200 or visit www.icrfla.org/visions .

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