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.
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.”
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.”