As a young summer associate with a Los Angeles law firm, Jeffrey Sklar looked forward to attending his first Justice Ball. He wanted to see '80s icon Billy Idol do the "Rebel Yell" live. He wanted to hang out with other young attorneys and law students. He wasn't going for any high-minded motives.
Back in 2000, Sklar, like most of the 20- and 30-somethings who go to the annual Justice Ball, had only the vaguest notion of what Bet Tzedek, the event's sponsor and a local Jewish legal-aid outfit, does. That would soon change.
Sklar, an attorney at Alschuler Grossman Stein & Kahan LLP, went to the Ball and partied with friends. He also listened as Bet Tzedek executives briefly took the stage and talked up their organization and its need for dedicated volunteers to help society's most vulnerable achieve a degree of justice. Their message resonated with Sklar, who, as a young boy, remembers dropping coins into his family's tzedekah box. Now, six years later, Sklar is a regular legal volunteer, he's helped recruit other lawyer friends to volunteer time, and he's helping to plan this year's event, which will take place July 8 at the Hollywood Palladium, featuring the Go-Go's.
Founded in 1997, the Justice Ball has grown into one of the nation's most successful nonprofit fundraisers/parties targeting young professionals, Jews and non-Jews alike. Over the past nine years, more than 16,000 attorneys, financiers and others have attended the soirees, and scores of them have gone on to become Bet Tzedek contributors and volunteers. Some, like Sklar, have gone on to serve on Bet Tzedek's Justice Ball planning committee and even on to the board of directors, making the event more than just a fundraiser -- it's an important gateway to the organization.
"The Justice Ball is absolutely a good way for young blood to get involved," said Bet Tzedek board member Brette Simon, a law partner at Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP whose first exposure to the legal aid society came from attending the mega-parties.
To date, Justice Balls have raised more than $3.2 million in ticket sales and corporate sponsorships, said Randall Kaplan, the Justice Ball's creator and cofounder of high-tech giant Akamai Technologies, Inc. Last year's event raised $425,000, or nearly 8 percent of Bet Tzedek's $5.5 million budget, Executive Director Mitch Kamin said. This year, the 10th anniversary gala is expected to be even bigger. Hopes are the popular L.A. Go-Go's will draw more than 3,000 revelers and raise as much as $500,000, Kamin said.
"Everyone in the philanthropic world is puzzling over how you engage the truly young generation of professionals who haven't been necessarily taught by their parents that giving is part of their religious or social responsibility," Kamin said. "This is a chance for us to introduce ourselves to them, give them initial exposure to Bet Tzedek and raise their consciousness."
Bet Tzedek's success at reaching the coveted demographic of young Jewish professionals comes as other Jewish organizations are struggling to do the same. Faced with the growing competition from non-Jewish nonprofits, Jewish charities are grappling with a generation that, because of intermarriage and assimilation, often considers itself more American than Jewish, experts said. With young Jews standing to inherit billions over the next 20 years, finding a way to appeal to their generosity is perhaps the greatest challenge faced by Jewish charities.
In Los Angeles, Bet Tzedek is not alone in its success in appealing to this group. Young leadership initiatives at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, including its Young Leadership Division and the Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund of Los Angeles, now account for about $5 million, or nearly 5 percent of The Federation's annual campaign, said Craig Prizant, The Federation's executive vice president for financial resource development.
Still, The Federation's strong showing appears to be the exception rather than the rule in the organized Jewish world. Simply put, the stodgy chicken-dinner fundraisers favored by so many Jewish philanthropies fail to bring young movers-and-shakers to the table. The MTV generation would rather rock 'n' roll all night long.
The Justice Ball gives them a chance to do just that, along with learning a thing or two about Bet Tzedek's mission of offering free legal aid to the poor, sick, elderly and homeless.
Soon after his first Justice Ball, Sklar joined the group's planning committee. Like others touched by Justice Balls before him, he went on to volunteer his legal services to Bet Tzedek, including assisting a Holocaust survivor obtain restitution from the Hungarian government.
"As a lawyer, you make a decent living. You get to sit up here in real tall buildings with a real nice view. You get to drive a real nice car," he said. "So the bottom line is you need to give back, you have to get back. This is a great way for me to do so."
For more information on the Justice Ball, visit www.thejusticeball.org.