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. For some, that kind of openness, fostered by the loose format and lots of built-in unstructured time, made the conference feel like a lot of talking with no clear message. For others it felt just right.
"What I like about this experience is it is very organic. After a meeting is held we can get together for open space, because we understand that something happens when you can continue the conversation," said Michele Citrin, 26, a folk rock singer-songwriter based in Brooklyn who had her peers whooping to a Rosh Hashana song but whose repertoire is not generally Jewish oriented.
"If you think about this generation, people in their 20s and 30s, how are they connecting to Judaism? It's through art, film, music, through going to concerts and clubs, and it is really outside of the synagogue," she said.
Just look at what some of her cohorts are doing. Many work at Hillels, JCCs, Federations and smaller organizations, many in programs targeting their age group, most trying to change things from within. Some have founded their own groups or are involved in innovative newer groups.
Ben Healy, who became the youngest city councilman in New Haven while still a student at Yale, now lives in Moishe House Boston: Kavod Jewish Social Justice House, one of about 20 homes across the world where a small group of young people both live and together run an organization. Healy and his three housemates -- all of whom are students or have day jobs -- host Shabbat dinners, social justice projects and arts events, and serve as a gathering point for 20-somethings.
Lindsay Litowitz created the FourCorners project, where she meets and collects stories and experiences from Jews all over the world and then shares that diversity with others.
Jodi Berris, who tests Nike soccer equipment for a living, and also is on the volunteer ski patrol and volunteer fire department, became a one-woman outreach center when she moved to Portland, Ore., where she now hosts Shabbat and holiday events, club parties and the new Co-Ed Jewish Dodgeball and Drinks League.
But not all the talent has that sort of scrappiness, the whatever-it-takes mentality, Uziel said.
"The people we see are people who have had privilege, who have developed both sides of their brain and have been able to have many gifts and opportunities. Because of that they are somewhat naive about the world," Uziel said.
Leadership skills workshops, along with the coaching, are meant to address that. Uziel also took on the challenge of helping the talent unwrap the Jewish communal structure, in part as a way to help them see that starting from scratch isn't always necessary -- they can also change existing structures from within.
Now it's just a matter of getting Jewish organizations to see that this generation has a new, out-of-the-sanctuary, online, in-the-moment way of being Jewish.
"One of the real challenges is that our Jewish organizations have to be ready for these amazing, talented young people," said Rabbi David Gedzelman, executive director of the Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation, one of the funders of the group, along with philanthropists William Davidson, Eugene and Maria Applebaum, Lynn Schusterman and Jewish Federation of Detroit CEO Bob Aronson.
"These organizations have to manifest the values of creativity and openness that these folks expect. It's our job to work with organizations to help them make the changes they need to take advantage of who these young people are."
One of PLP's latest initiatives is to work with Jewish organizations to help place talent in positions, and to encourage an atmosphere that will make them want to stay.
John Fischel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, is excited about the energy PLP brings to the community.
"I am personally very receptive" to opening the door to young people, Fishel said at ThinkTank3's opening dinner, "and I think we may be going into an era where the institution may be receptive to some really significant change."
Michael Hirschfeld, who spent much of his career at the Federation's Jewish Community Relations Council and is now the director of Jewish Communal Professionals of Southern California, is also energized by his PLP experience, but he says Jewish organizations, including The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, have a long way to go to move away from the hierarchical leadership models that are anathema to this generation where everyone is always on a first name basis and where they want to see good ideas implemented immediately.
"We're all staid -- we're stuck," Hirschfeld said of himself and his peers. "So seeing all these young people and being exposed to their enthusiasm, and their gut to want to do things differently and demand change -- it's very cleansing. I feel like my cynicism has been wiped away and it makes me feel better about the Jewish community."