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.
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