Jewish charities, already having a hard time because of intermarriage, assimilation and growing competition from non-Jewish nonprofits, face what could be their biggest challenge yet: finding a way to appeal to legions of young Jews who stand to inherit billions over the next 20 years, but whose Jewish identities are generally weaker than that of their parents.
If Jewish federations and agencies fail to forge a close relationship with this highly independent generation of Jews, Jewish charities, experts say, might struggle greatly in years to come. That could mean less money to combat Jewish poverty, bury indigent Jews or provide food and shelter for the elderly and infirm at Jewish nursing homes.
To prevent that nightmare scenario from materializing, federations and Jewish institutions around the country have taken aggressive steps to reach the elusive under-45 set. Whether those efforts can succeed remains to be seen.
Locally, the Jewish Community Foundation (JCF) earlier this year inaugurated a program that brought together Los Angeles teenagers and schooled them in principles of Jewish philanthropy.
Over two months, eight girls and six boys -- all nominated by affluent JCF donors, including family members -- learned about the Jewish concepts of tikkun olam (repairing the world) and g'milut chasadim (acts of lovingkindness). They gained exposure to several local Jewish and non-Jewish charities, including the Anti-Defamation League, the Bureau of Jewish Education and the Puente Learning Center in East Los Angeles, which offers computer and literacy programs for the Latino community.
The young students, after making on-site visits and presenting their findings to one another, then voted on how to divvy up the $10,000 the foundation had given them to donate to their favorite causes. So how did the young Jewish philanthropists-in-training decide to spend the money?
Two non-Jewish organizations, the Los Angeles Free Clinic and PATH (People Assisting the Homeless), topped their list. At the behest of JCF executives, group members later added Vista Del Mar Child and Family Care Services, a Jewish organization.
"I thought it was a little ironic that we were doing this for the Jewish Community Foundation and we picked two non-Jewish organizations," said Scott Cutrow, a 15-year-old 10th-grader at Crossroads who participated in and said he benefited from the JCF youth program. "I don't think that was the ultimate goal of the people who set it up."
Ironic? Yes. Surprising? No.
Unlike past generations, young Jews consider themselves "much more American than Jewish," said Gerald Bubis, a former board member at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and founding director of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion School of Jewish Communal Service. Whereas Jews 50 years ago gave largely to Jewish organizations, especially federations, younger Jews are now just as likely to give to such universal causes as the environment, universities or the arts, he said.
Jewish affairs expert Gary Tobin said he found that development unsurprising. The president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco said that only about one-quarter of American Jews belong to synagogues, with lower participation rates among the young.
The MTV Generation largely stays away from temples and other Jewish institutions, Tobin said, because many of those organizations lack warmth, a sense of community and a welcoming spirit. As a result, young Jews are failing to build the communal bonds that could one day lead them to contribute their inherited or earned wealth to Jewish causes.
"A lot of Jewish institutional life is not very interesting," Tobin said. "If it's a turnoff for a 70-year-old and for a 50-year-old, it sure as hell isn't going to turn on a 25-year-old."
Another turnoff is the heavy-handed approach Jewish institutions sometimes take toward young and other donors, said Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network in New York. Some federations and other Jewish organizations, he said, have an arrogant, expectant attitude and treat donors like money machines who deserve little gratitude or explanation about how their gifts will be spent.
That approach might have worked in the past but not with young donors, who demand a more personalized approach to giving, Charendoff said. Simply put: They want direct control over how their dollars are spent and are willing to bypass federations altogether to ensure that happens.
To that end, an enormous network of family foundations have sprung up over the past seven years, from about 2,500 to 8,000 today, he said. Those foundations fund a variety of causes, ranging from AIDS research to the environment, and have siphoned money away from federations and other traditional Jewish charities, Charendoff said.
The United Jewish Communities (UJC), the umbrella organization for the nation's federations, has seen donations stagnate in recent years. In 2003, volunteers raised $827.5 million, about $500,000 less than in 2000.
Partly to reverse that trend, federations around the country have made building bridges to young Jews a major priority.
"We have an absolute obligation to reach down to that younger generation to make sure they're not only involved but engaged and excited in ways that will encourage them to lead the community," said Gail Hyman, UJC senior vice president of communications.
In that vein, about 40 federations have created "Blue Knot" affinity groups over the past couple years that cater to mostly young, high-tech workers, she said. The Las Vegas Federation recently held a Vodka Latka Chanukah celebration that attracted 200 hip revelers.
(Interestingly, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the sponsor of the original Vodka Latka, has stopped holding the party, even though the most recent one in 2002 attracted about 1,000 young Jews. Craig Prizant, the Los Angeles Federation's executive vice president of resource development, said Vodka Latka demanded too much staff time and was too big to expose revelers to The Federation's important work.)
The Los Angeles Federation, which eliminated its money-losing young leadership initiative a couple years ago, has replaced it with a Young Leadership Division that combines Jewish education and fun. At monthly meetings, young Jews attend movie screenings, meet for java at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf or gather for Shabbat dinners, where, in addition to socializing, they learn about The Federation and Jewish values, Prizant said. He estimated that the revamped leadership program has added an extra $750,000 to The Federation's coffers.
In recent years, the organization also helped create the Los Angeles Venture Philanthropy Fund (LA-JVPF), a self-funded group of youngish entrepreneurs and professionals that has raised and awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars to nonprofits that benefit Jews. Several LA-JVPF participants have become first-time Federation donors.
Other local Jewish agencies have begun emphasizing the need to recruit young Jews.
In October, the Jewish Free Loan Association (JFLA) created a 14-member young professionals advisory group to raise awareness about the organization's mission and to develop the next generation of leaders and donors, said Danielle Walsmith, JFLA's director of communications. At present, most JFLA donors are 55 or older, she added.
The Zimmer Children's Museum has recently reconfigured its board to include more young members, executive director Esther Netter said, adding that she thought Jewish institutions should make an effort to educate very young Jews about the importance of giving to Jewish causes.
That appears to be happening, said Ann Cohen, a business consultant who has worked with UJC and other Jewish organizations. The rise in attendance at Jewish day schools over the past decade should inculcate those youngsters with Jewish values and an understanding of tzedakah (charitable giving), she said. That could translate into more money flowing to Jewish institutions in the future.
JCF's Marvin Schotland said he remains optimistic about his and other Jewish organizations abilities to eventually win over younger Jews (see page 13). Even though the group of students participating in the Foundation's pilot program favored non-Jewish charities over Jewish ones, Schotland said time is on JCF's side.
"We're building a relationship with them," he said. "Fifteen or 20 years from now, some of them are going to be back here, and we'll have credibility with them. We'll also have some idea what [causes] they're interested in and be able to bring them something in the Jewish community consistent with their interests."
"We have a very long view," Schotland added.
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