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Jewish Journal

Fueling the jFed generation

How the mainstream is staking its future on young innovators

by Julie Gruenbaum Fax

May 30, 2012 | 1:00 pm

The “Break Your New Years’ Resolution” event at the V Lounge in Santa Monica launched Federation’s rebranded YALA, which shifted focus from creating young leaders to providing meaningful Jewish experiences.  Photo courtesy of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles

The “Break Your New Years’ Resolution” event at the V Lounge in Santa Monica launched Federation’s rebranded YALA, which shifted focus from creating young leaders to providing meaningful Jewish experiences. Photo courtesy of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles

Jennifer Rheuban wasn’t exactly plucked from Jewish obscurity.

Rheuban is a self-described “JCC kid from a JCC family.” She grew up at the West Valley Jewish Community Center and went to Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu for years. But in college she dropped out of Jewish life, and then she never quite re-entered Jewish life as an adult.

The fact that she has rediscovered Jewish meaning at the age of 35 speaks to both her desire for a fuller life and to the fact that when she looked, she found something that spoke to her.

“It’s very easy to say I was going to be involved anyway, but when it comes to extracurricular things in your life like this, you have to seek out what you want. And it’s not a given that it’s going to be there for you,” said Rheuban, a regional manager for a winery.

Her answer was to get involved in The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles — traditionally not a place where hip young Jews look to find Jewish connection.

But over the past year, Federation has revamped its approach to young adults, restructuring and rethinking everything it does for them. It has hired more staff — many in their 20s and 30s — and made young adults a priority as an investment in the Jewish future. Federation has also forged partnerships and is collaborating with dozens of young-adult organizations, hoping not only to reach new audiences but also to harness their know-how.

In a sure sign that Federation is making inroads with GenNext, some young professionals have begun referring to the quintessential establishment organization as “jFed.”

It’s a matter of listening to, rather than programming for, a new generation.

For too long, “We’ve been giving people the answer why, as opposed to asking what they are looking for, or what being Jewish means to them,” said Jonathan Jacoby, senior vice president of Programs for Jewish Life at L.A. Federation. Jacoby, 58, is the lead professional for the new initiatives.

Many of the new programs are funded by new grants from outside foundations, while other money came from an overall restructuring that Federation President and CEO Jay Sanderson undertook when he took office in 2009. Sanderson and Jacoby both said that young-adult engagement is now Federation’s No. 1 priority. Among the solutions is to create or identify a network of hubs of Jewish activity across the city.

[Can millions of dollars power a new kind of community? Click here for more]

Whether the shift will indeed create a more robust Jewish community with a vibrant future, as Federation hopes it will, won’t be known for years, possibly decades.

But right now, at least for Rheuban, the new approach worked.

In November, she met some people involved in Young Adults of Los Angeles (YALA), Federation’s programming arm for young adults. She attended a few events — a “Break Your New Years’ Resolution” post-New Year’s celebration at the V Lounge in Santa Monica, an open house at Federation headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard, and “Spring Into Syrah,” an intimate gathering of wine lovers at Sonoma Wine Garden in Santa Monica.

Rheuban found she clicked with other young Jews with similar interests, and she liked the straightforward vibe. In March, she attended TribeFest, The Jewish Federation of North America’s weekend in Las Vegas, which draws some 1,500 young adults each year.

“At TribeFest, I looked at my friend one day, and I started crying — I said, ‘I feel like I’m home,’ ” Rheuban said. She felt the same non-judgmental warmth that she had loved in her camp days. “It was a powerful moment for me. I’m 35, and I haven’t had this experience in almost 20 years, and now with YALA I have found a way to get it back into my life.”

Rheuban is now on YALA’s outreach and engagement committee, and this summer she’ll visit Israel for the first time, with a YALA mission.

“It is my belief that young people are looking for exactly what Judaism offers in their lives, without necessarily being aware of it,” said Federation Chairman Richard Sandler. “They want community, meaning, interaction with others, they want to give back to their families and their communities — that is why so many programs have been so successful.”

It’s not about the money

In addition to the usual happy hours and big events, YALA hosts small clusters — interest groups that may go hiking, to comedy shows or to a neighborhood Shabbat dinner. Their “Lunches With Machers” series puts young people in touch with leaders and successful professionals, and all the groups have lay boards made up of participants in the age group.

YALA came into being just last January, after more than a year of rethinking and reshaping what was for years called the Young Leadership Division (YLD).

In the past, Federation treated young adults as potential leaders or potential donors, expecting them to grow into the shoes of those who preceded them. Federation structures fundraising around professional groups — lawyers, real estate professionals and the entertainment industry, as some examples — and each of those divisions had a young leadership cabinet. Programs for leadership development were geared toward moving young people up through the ranks of Federation.

But now, the organization is seeking a different relationship with its young people.

“We made a philosophic decision that Federation young adult programming was going to be more about Jewish engagement than about Federation engagement or Federation fundraising,” said Andrew Cushnir, executive vice president and chief program officer at Federation. “The whole impetus in creating YALA is about building community, and micro-communities, and layers of relationships.”

Over the past year, Federation has pulled all adult programming from its campaign divisions and concentrated it in Young Adult Engagement, part of the Ensuring the Jewish Future department. Young Adult Engagement, with a budget of $3.1 million, focuses on university campus activities, as well as Birthright Israel and follow-up to those trips, along with layers of social and social justice programming for 18- to 40-year-olds — from young singles to parents of preschool-age kids. These days, the leadership-development track aims to create leaders for all Jewish institutions, not just Federation.

Pulling young adult programming out of the fundraising division is more than just a semantic change, according to Tal Gozani, Federation’s vice president of Young Adult Engagement and Leadership Development.

“When we reach out to young adults, it’s not about getting their money, which is what a lot of people think Federation is all about,” Gozani said. “Federation has changed. I think what we’re doing in Young Adults shows a different message. It’s about engagement — and not just one-time engagement, but sustainable engagement. The goal is to offer as many people as possible meaningful Jewish experience that will keep them engaged and interested and invested in being Jewish in some way.”

While moving from leadership to engagement is a national trend among Federations, Los Angeles is one of the only Federations in the country that has taken the bold step of moving young adults out of the campaign department, according to Tali Strom, director of Young Adult Populations for The Jewish Federations of North America, a Washington-based umbrella group representing 157 Federations.

“Los Angeles is definitely on the cutting edge,” Strom said. “I think [Federation President] Jay [Sanderson] came in with an unconventional, experimentative approach, and he is open to trying new things. He did a lot of restructuring and shaking things up, and asked the right questions. As a result, a lot of things have changed for the good.”

Steven Windmueller, professor of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, has been watching this trend nationally.

“How we are going to reach and serve and engage young adults is probably the single most pressing question in the Jewish communal world,” Windmueller said. He sees this as the end of a cycle of that began more than 25 years ago.

Between 1985 and 2005, he said, hundreds of single-issue organizations arose in the Jewish world — groups like MAZON: The Jewish Response to Hunger and The Progressive Jewish Alliance, focused on social justice. Many were founded by social entrepreneurs, who were pushing against the centralized, hierarchical setup of organizations like Federation.

Now, Windmueller detects a merging of those two veins.

“Each is bringing to the table certain benefits that the other party doesn’t have,” Windmueller said. “The wisdom, resources and infrastructure of Federation, and the dynamics, organizing skills and grass-roots framework of these other institutions, including the fact that they already have in play a lot of young people, which is what the Federation system would relish.”

Whether Federation can make itself nimble enough for a generation that is accustomed to instant response is not clear.

“I think the amount of time it takes to work with Federation is glacial,” said the head of one organization that has begun to see the rewards of Federation’s focus on young adults. “The way we work, we see something that needs to be done, we do it. The Federation has to have 20 committee meetings before anything can happen.”

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