May 30, 2012
Fueling the jFed generation
How the mainstream is staking its future on young innovators
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You scratch my back …
The increasingly symbiotic relationship is clearly evident in Federation’s connection with JQ International, a group that supports gay Jews and their families.
Federation needed JQ International so that it could reach the LGBT community. JQ needed both funding and visibility.
Since 2008, JQ has been a member of NextGen Engagement Initiative (NEI), which brings together some 40 organizations serving young adults.
“I fought for many years to get visibility in the Jewish community, and I was not making any headway,” JQ International founder and executive director Asher Gellis said. “Through NEI, that has changed dramatically, because we’re now integrated into Federation structures. I didn’t know people in Federation before, and now I know so many people in Federation. It’s a big change — and not just on an organizational level. There is a feeling among my membership that they are in a community that seeks to engage them in a truer way that I think wasn’t there before,” Gellis said.
As a result of NEI connections, Gellis said, members of his organization have staffed Birthright Israel trips and helped with training for Birthright Israel staff. He’s collaborated on programming with many organizations, bringing JQ’s message of inclusion to mainstream groups.
Federation also awarded JQ International a one-year grant of $40,000 enabling it to hire staff to create more robust programming and development — a boon to an organization with two part-time employees and a budget of $65,000.
The grant came through Federation’s Community Partners Program (CPP), which this year awarded a total of $250,000 to six young organizations to enable them to build capacity. In addition to the funding, some groups will receive space at Federation, and all will receive professional support and mentoring.
Other recipients are 30 Years After, which serves young Iranian Jews; Jewlicious and JConnect, which reaches thousands of unaffiliated Jews in their 20s; East Side Jews, an alternative group that has mobilized the Silver Lake and Los Feliz areas; and two groups that have found success mostly on the East Coast — Reboot, a network aimed at helping this generation take ownership of its Jewish identity, and PresenTense, which fosters entrepreneurship and innovation.
“All of these reach slightly different demographics than our core participants, so that enables us to stretch to different parts of the community,” said Esther Kustanowitz, program coordinator of NextGen Engagement Initiative, who is also overseeing CPP.
Federation handpicked these six organizations, asking them for proposals as to how they would use new money for capacity building. A committee of lay people and professionals worked with the groups to come up with agreements.
The burgeoning relationships may be closing the gap between Federation and young organizations.
“A lot of people are out to prove the notion that there’s this polarity between innovation that occurs outside of mainstream organizations and what goes on inside mainstream organizations, and that is not necessarily accurate,” said Yechiel Hoffman, executive director of LimmudLA. “It doesn’t have to be the small, outsider, grass-roots efforts, and then the mainstream, centralized force. There doesn’t have to be two sides.”
Hoffman is an active member of NextGen Engagement Initiative, which brings together professionals working with young adults for monthly meetings, professional development and online discussion. The group has become a hub for different organizations, which now do more joint programming and coordinated calendaring, participants say.
“It’s also pushed people to be more collaborative, and to take greater risks and try new things, because they’re seeing what other people are trying,” Hoffman said.
Founded in 2008, NEI is funded with a Cutting Edge Grant from the Jewish Community Foundation, which wanted Federation to bring together other young-adult grantees so they could collaborate and support each other. Kustanowitz came in to lead the group in 2010 and has expanded the network and its activities.
“It allows me to introduce people to different parts of Federation, and Federation to what the young adult community is doing,” Kustanowitz said. “It creates a much more porous boundary and accessibility, and creates opportunities for cross-pollination between and among projects.”
One of Federation’s newest collaborations is JCC Without Walls (JCC WOW), a program aimed at young families that takes Jewish life to unlikely locations, often in geographically underserved areas. JCC WOW collaborated with other organizations to lead a Jewish-themed tour of the Santa Monica Farmers Market, and hold Jewish story time at the Playa Vista Library and a concert in Pan Pacific Park.
The JCC Development Corp. — an organization that owns the Westside JCC and supports other JCC projects in Los Angeles — funded the program at $250,000 over two years. Marisa Saltzman, director of JCC WOW, works at Federation’s headquarters and is treated as part of the Ensuring the Jewish Future staff in terms of supervision and programming coordination.
“We’re trying to send the message to the community that it’s OK express your Judaism in whatever way you want. We, as the institution, just want you to find yourself and want to give you the tools, and the resources, and access to other Jews being Jewish,” said Merav Goldman, managing director of Ensuring the Jewish Future. “We are setting the table and inviting them to put whatever they want on it. And if it works for them, it might work for someone else, too.”
In fact, much of the activity surrounding young adults is organically grown — that is, the young adults themselves are seeding programs. For a generation that has found success in self-published books and independent films posted online, getting started on their own makes sense.
“The Jewish community saw young-adult groups forming themselves, and that is how this focus started in the first place,” said Maor Shaffin, Federation’s program director for Birthright Israel Alumni Engagement. “Our generation is more about creating what we want for ourselves, rather than having someone else put something out there and us showing up.”
Federations’ approach to Birthright alumni is based on providing resources and then stepping back.
The Los Angeles Federation has invested heavily in sending young adults on Birthright Israel, and is solidifying that investment with follow-up for the estimated 18,000 Birthright alumni in Los Angeles.
Charlie Jasper, 27, went on a Birthright trip in February, and he was appointed a fellow of the Kahn Leadership Engagement Program, which will give him a budget and a small stipend to create programming for his group and other groups. A “Mad Men”-themed Shabbat dinner with another group in early June will be their first formal event, and some informal gathering and social action work has already happened.
For Jasper, Birthright was a life-changing event, and he is committed to stretching the burst of Jewish energy beyond the 10-day trip and its immediate aftermath.
Jasper was a first lieutenant with the United States Army’s 108th Air Defense Artillery Brigade and served in Iraq in 2008. He grew up in L.A. with minimal Jewish connection, and had gone into the Army looking for a community. Instead, he was taunted about his Jewish heritage, but eventually found some Jewish friends on the base toward the end of his service. They urged him to go on Birthright, and he found what was so elusive to him in college and in the Army.
“I grew up in a Jewish environment, but I didn’t see that that was the community where I belonged. Birthright helped me see that,” Jasper said.
Like Jasper, Jennifer Rheuban also now feels that she has place to belong, and she thinks it can be life-changing. While institutional structures and background shifts in philosophy may not be visible to her, the outcome is.
“I feel when it all comes together, and it all clicks, and you have that moment of, ‘Wow. This is what I was looking for,’ there are no words to describe what that can do for you.”
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