Not long ago, Tali Pressman, 24, found herself sitting in a room full of civically minded young Jews in Los Angeles -- that elusive demographic of 20- to 30-somethings targeted by so many religious and political recruiters.
The goal: How to better collaborate and organize their diverse work for nonprofits and Jewish communal services in the city.
"Our first meeting turned into a five-hour kvetch session, saying it would be great to collaborate but that there's not enough supervision, there's no mentoring, there's no ladder," she said.
Now Pressman and others like her are at the forefront of a new leadership movement in Southern California created by Jewish youth, for Jewish youth.
Pressman at the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) and David Cygielman at the Forest Foundation are both spearheading brand-new programs, which recognize that new leaders do not emerge out of thin air -- they must be cultivated.
Interpreted broadly, there are numerous programs designed to reach young Jews and connect them to their heritage through service. From leadership-building trips to Israel offered by Birthright Israel and Hillel to career-building programs offered by the Professional Leadership Program (PLP), options exist.
Marcia and Eugene Applebaum, part-funders of PLP, put it succinctly: "We are facing an impending crisis in Jewish professional leadership due in large part to our failure to attract enough highly qualified people in their 20s and 30s to work in the Jewish communal world."
But what emerged at PJA, called the Jeremiah Fellowship, is unique in a significant way. The fellowship is about using Jewish ethics to solve societywide problems, both within and outside the Jewish community. This is more about the fire of progressive activism than about replacing the previous generation of graying leaders in Jewish organizations.
The name, not incidentally, is biblical: "And seek the well-being of the city in which you dwell ... for in its peace you shall find peace" (Jeremiah 29:7).
Starting in January, the 16 fellows will generally meet twice a month. Half the meetings will be field visits. In one case, the fellows will go to a mushroom farm, meet with workers, and speak to United Farm Workers Vice President Irv Hershenbaum. He'll explain the personal Jewish ethic that he believes underlies his work.
Other notable field trips include speaking with Southern California ACLU Director Ramona Ripston and City Councilman Eric Garcetti.
The other monthly meeting will connect fellows with a scholar such as Aryeh Cohen, University of Judaism chair of rabbinic studies, to discuss what Jewish tradition says about the developments they saw in the field.
"This is an unabashedly progressive fellowship," Pressman said. In Los Angeles in 2005, that encompasses a significant number of labor issues, including the ongoing hotel worker dispute in Los Angeles and a review of Jewish involvement in labor, she said.
"We have a Jewish and progressive obligation not only to volunteer at the soup kitchen, but also to address why people are hungry, because it's not an accident. There are political, economic and social structures in place that need to be examined," Sokatch said. While combating anti-Semitism and supporting Israel are critical issues for American Jews that many organizations deal with, Sokatch said, there are other concerns that need to be addressed.
In this vein, the fellows could well decide that Jewish precepts impel them to pursue careers working on behalf of non-Jews in fields like labor, economic equity and civil rights -- thus the biblical allusion.
"So much of my social activism I feel comes from Judaism," said Natalie Stern, one of the recently admitted fellows and a graduate of Northeastern School of Law. "I really want to learn why I feel [that way]. Where does it come from textually?"
Therein lies the second half of Jeremiah: To explore the origins of compassion and service to the entire city in Jewish tradition.
And as for Stern's career goals, networking with big organizations like the ACLU won't hurt either.
"I think the fact that this came out of a young person is the most important part about it," Jeremiah fellow Matthew Loebman said.
That's especially important when considering whether a program like this has broad appeal, Loebman said. And he should know. Loebman works for a company that does marketing for nonprofit organizations.
"There are tons of Jewish young people who are self-identified progressives and activists; they're not working in a Jewish vein because no one's given them that opportunity," Loebman told The Journal. "But when I look back to see where this sort of morality was built into me, it was from Jewish sources, Hebrew school and summer camp," he said.
At least in Los Angeles, the Jeremiah Fellowship aims to bridge that gap. The success or failure of Jeremiah in Los Angeles may shed light on the power of liberal values in the next generation of Jewish leadership.
Meanwhile, the Forest Foundation is offering its own version of Jewish youth empowerment in both Santa Barbara and Berkeley. The program, helmed by a 23-year-old, connects college-age Jews to local Jewish organizations that need help.
Again, there is something unique about Forest as compared to other Jewish leadership training. Instead of paying to attend conferences or seminars, the students actually get paid by the foundation for their work within various agencies.
Even more impressively, if the participants have an original idea that will benefit the Jewish community, Forest will both help them organize it and pay them to make it happen. So instead of a concentrated political imperative, the Forest Foundation provides a powerful incentive for college-aged Jews, many of whom must find part-time work during their studies anyway.
"The basic idea is to empower these students so they become Jewish leaders and are inside Jewish organizations now rather than after they graduate or have held a job for while," Forest Director David Cygielman said.
"We went to every local organization and asked the question, 'What is it that you can't do because you don't have enough time or money?'" Cygielman said.
After Forest filled those gaps, it began to fund students' individual projects: Cooking and activities with senior citizens, a Jewish Business League, a young women's society or recruitment efforts for Hillel at UCSB, to name a few.
Now organizations routinely call Forest when they need an extra body, whenever they need to alleviate the most common nonprofit conditions of being understaffed and underfunded. Forest, in the meantime, is looking to actually expand its existing roster of 21 participants up to 60. Young Jews not in school can apply as well, and even college grads can continue to work if their projects are successful.
Both PJA's fellowship in Los Angeles and Forest's programs in Santa Barbara and Berkeley are in their early stages to say the least.
Richard Gunther, who with his wife funded PJA's Jeremiah Fellowship, clearly sees what they are both trying to accomplish: "I think one of the universal problems that the Jewish community has, certainly in Los Angeles, is how do you keep young members of the Jewish community really concerned and involved?"
Whether the focus is on incentives to keep them working on behalf of the Jewish community or simply infusing them with Jewish ethics to do good work outside of it, the battle to prevent their drift from Jewish tradition is the same: Recall all the dire predictions you've heard from rabbis about Jewish youth as the most religiously unaffiliated. Recall the frantic postulations about the unknown politics of that same group in the run-up to the 2004 elections.
If programs like Jeremiah and Forest succeed and spread, then perhaps in the future finding the civic or social pulse of American Jewish youth won't require polling or statistics -- the proof will be in the boardrooms, the courtrooms and the demonstrations.
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