Jewish Journal

UJC reaches out to young innovators

by Jacob Berkman

December 6, 2007 | 7:00 pm

Dan Sieradski, JTA's director of digital media speaks at a UJC General Assembly plenary session. Photo by David Karp

Dan Sieradski, JTA's director of digital media speaks at a UJC General Assembly plenary session. Photo by David Karp

A self-described professional Jewish lesbian. A Web guru who calls himself the Orthodox Anarchist. A young, Oscar-winning producer.

The United Jewish Communities (UJC) looked to this group and their disenfranchised peers for help at its annual General Assembly (GA) in Nashville in November, giving them an entire plenary to talk about themselves, what they need from the North American federation system and why they have a hard time becoming a part of it.

It was a recognition by the UJC that it must embrace new, innovative thoughts and programming that can attract a younger population that does not see itself bound by traditional Jewish lines.

Jewish federations are fretting over how to bring young Jews into their fold because the failure to do so could cause a crisis down the road for a system that takes in more than $3 billion annually in charitable dollars.

"What you saw is a beginning," the UJC's chair, Joseph Kanfer, said. "It strikes us that the federation system needs to become a capacity builder and an engine to bring people together."

Kanfer envisions a future federation system in which "we will have not created the new ideas but we have support for the new ideas."

In this future, he said, "many great things would have died out if not for the support of the federations. The federations will have not always had the early passion surrounding great ideas, but they have the capacity to allow ideas to flourish."

The plenary session featuring young Jewish innovators signaled a change in thinking for a system that critics perceive as one that collects money primarily from major, older donors and allocates those funds to the same local, national and international projects and service agencies year after year.

Looking at the federation system as an enabler of new projects, rather than the organization that has to own all the Jewish projects, is central to a new operational strategy adopted by the UJC in June. The plan is designed to help sagging campaigns and maintain the federation system as North America's Jewish backbone.

Kanfer described a bleak alternative future for the federation system if it does not embrace new ideas.

"If we are simply a system that hangs onto the old ideas and wants to do that, then we will have done a magnificent job in promoting those old ideas and our day will sunset."

The chair of the UJC's executive committee, Kathy Manning of Greensboro, N.C., opened the GA's first plenary with a joke, imploring its largely middle-aged cohort to pay attention to the 275 college students that attended the event through Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

"Please take a moment to get to know them," she said. "Don't forget they will be building our nursing homes."

The presence of the Hillel students contrasted with last year's GA, when the UJC invited 700 Hillel students to Los Angeles to perform a community service project but failed to invite them into the GA itself, according to Hillel's executive vice president, Wayne Firestone.

But the UJC became more daring with the younger set last month, opening a plenary session to seven young Jewish innovators and activists -- leaders that stray from the typical mold of the federation "leader."

They included an up-and-coming film producer, Ari Sandel, who won an Academy Award for his short film, "West Bank Story," a farcical musical about a love that springs between the scions of two warring fast food joints in Israel -- one kosher and one hallal.

He was followed by Sarah Chasin, a senior at George Washington University, who, after seeing the devastation of post-Katrina Mississippi while on a Hillel Alternative Spring Break, took a year off from college to volunteer in Mississippi with AmeriCorps.

Chasin was followed by two Israeli young men who were trying to settle the Negev and the Galil by building youth villages there. They were followed by Idit Klein, the director of Keshet, a Boston-based gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.

Next up was Esther Kustanowitz, a noted blogger and senior editor of the startup magazine, PresenTense, which is focused on the next generation (see First Person, Page 56).

Closing the plenary was JTA's director of digital media, Dan Sieradski, a Jewish Web maven. Known outside JTA as Mobius, the Orthodox Anarchist, Sieradski started the influential and iconoclastic blog, Jewschool, and is prone to post-Zionist outbursts.

The speakers offered some critical advice. Sieradski scolded the established Jewish community as too parochial in its funding, and he called grant makers "disconnected" and "soul crushing."

The next big Jewish idea, in fact, "has probably already come and gone, and been shot down by no less than a dozen Jewish grant-making organizations," he said. "And because the innovator will have no resources at his or her disposal with which to continue his project, he will probably walk away from it crushed and discouraged. And a revolutionary idea that could have transformed American Jewry forever will never come to be."

Still, Sieradski envisioned a future federation system much like the one described by Kanfer, in which the federation is not the seed bearer for new Jewish initiatives but the system that nurtures those ideas by accepting and funding them.

Following the plenary, UJC CEO and President Howard Rieger was beaming, laughing off Sandel's line to the crowd that they "had to kick their children and grandchildren in the ass" to get them Jewishly involved.

Involving these new voices is central to the plan Rieger and Kanfer have implemented to move the UJC forward. Part of the strategy includes beefing up the organization's presence overseas and establishing a more active office in Israel to oversee foreign operations. Another feature is establishing a system for federations and the UJC to promote and share the best practices.

"What we will see in 25 years is an organization that will go the way its constituency wants it to go," Rieger said. "It will evolve. It will be different. It won't be tied to past models because past models can't prevail over 25 years."

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