Heather Greenberg has long known that she wanted to give back. Greenberg, 36, remembers well how Jewish charities helped her family as she grew up. There was the scholarship provided by the Jewish Community Center (JCC) in North Hollywood when her parents, recent émigrés from Canada, lacked the money to pay tuition for her older brothers. Later, the family was able to afford such things as JCC after-school care, a father-and-daughter program and Jewish sleep-away camp.
Greenberg, a second-grade teacher at Playa del Rey Elementary School, never forgot how the JCC's generosity had changed her family's life. She promised herself that one day she'd do the same for others. As the new co-chair of the Young Leadership Division of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, that's exactly what she's doing.
The stylish, blue-eyed, blonde educator joined hundreds of young Jewish leaders at the Beverly Hilton March 18-20 for the United Jewish Communities Western Leadership Conference. The mission was to inspire the assembled to sally forth into their respective communities and spread the word about federations' good deeds. Hailing from California, Nevada, Minnesota and nine other western states, the 260 Jews, aged 25 to 45, attended lectures on how to become better leaders, went to Shabbat services together and discussed what it means to be Jewish. They left behind children, spouses and a relaxing weekend at home to try to make a difference.
Despite the laughs shared among old friends, lingering eye contact among some of the singles and the generally upbeat ambiance, conference participants took their duties seriously. After all, these young Jews have assumed the responsibility of helping to raise money from and the consciousness of fellow young Jews to feed poor Jewish children, house indigent, elderly Jews, and help Jewish immigrants find jobs in their newly adopted country.
"I think it's important for Jews to help other Jews," said Greenberg, explaining one of the reasons behind her work on behalf of Jewish charities.
For Greenberg and other participants at the conference, the challenge of exciting young Jews about giving to Jewish causes has never been greater.
Assimilation, intermarriage and increased competition from secular charities have loosened the ties of young Jews to their heritage. With less than one in four members of the MTV generation belonging to a synagogue, communal bonds that once led their parents and grandparents to give to Jewish charities have weakened considerably. Unless the nation's federations can find a way to tap into the legions of young Jews who stand to inherit billions over the next 20 years, experts said, Jewish charities could struggle greatly.
To prevent that, federations have added or tweaked programs to make them more appealing to a generation of Jews who favor a more hands-on approach to giving. In recent years, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles launched the Los Angeles Venture Philanthropy Fund, a self-funded group of young entrepreneurs and professionals who have raised and awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars to nonprofits that benefit Jews.
The local federation also eliminated a money-losing young leadership program and replaced it with the Young Leadership Division, which places less of an emphasis on partying and more "on combining the social experience with substance, with the educational, with the spiritual, with something a little bit more meaningful to engage the next generation," said Deborah Dragon, L.A. Federation spokeswoman.
Elsewhere, about 40 federations have created affinity groups catering mostly to young, high-tech workers in recent years.
Conference co-chair Leslie Sidell of Colorado said that the enthusiasm generated by the three-day event would inspire the young Jewish leaders "to go back into their communities and get more involved in the federation -- and bring their friends."
Jim Felton, a 41-year-old attorney and former co-chair of the Valley's young leadership division, said he came to the event already motivated. For more than a decade, he and his wife have given to the L.A. Federation with the hope of making the world a little better. Felton gives the local philanthropy $7,500 per year, which he calls a small price to help "repair the world" as mandated by Judaism.
Stacy Kaplan of Newport Beach said she has attended 11 young leadership conferences over the years but never tires of them. She said she came away from the Beverly Hilton feeling energized, especially after hearing "West Wing" actor Joshua Molina's talk about how he's challenging other celebrities to speak up on behalf of Israel.
Like Kaplan, Yael Irom said she left the conference energized. She said she honed her leadership skills. Irom also realized that she must better educate herself about the L.A. Federation's many beneficiary agencies both here and in Israel to excel in her new position as the Young Leadership Division's co-chair.
"Our generation has a responsibility to step up for our people's history, our present and our future," she said. "The world is changing, and we need to take care of each other. By doing so, we will strengthen our community."
For more information on the Federation's Young Leadership Division, visit www.jewishla.org/html/younglead.htm.