Stuck At The Kids Table: Are Federations Leaving Millenials Behind?

“The window of opportunity is shrinking quickly, as a time will come when those passionate young people will turn elsewhere to lend their time and voices,” declared a January 2017 open letter from two Jewish university students, directed “To the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations”. The letter was a plea to immediately get more young Jews onto the boards and leadership of today’s Jewish community infrastructure, or else the l’dor v’dor of Jewish leadership would be lost.

When this was sent to me, it forced a look at the Minneapolis Jewish community, and in particular the Minneapolis Jewish Federation. How many board members are close to my age? Since that time, the answer is (to my knowledge): 0. How accessible, organizationally, is the Minneapolis Federation to young adult Jews? As most students I know at the University of Minnesota couldn’t tell me what the Federation does, even as it supports many programs at the U, it can be argued: not very.

So do there need to be more young Jews as board members and leaders? Absolutely.

The Minneapolis Federation is the axle around which the Minneapolis Jewish community rotates and should rotate. As a community, we need a central point to meet with our differences when we have them, a place to support one another over important issues, and a place from which community investment and leadership can grow. Before a Federation can be this, however, there has to be trust with the community that it serves. Without sustained trust, any Federation becomes irrelevant over time.

Currently, more and more young Jews feel disconnected from mainstream Jewish communal authorities and are finding their future in other community ventures. Without today’s young Jews, future generations of the Jewish community will lose valuable passion, ideas, and leadership. But most of all, the Jewish community will lose countless members that can sustain and build the trust necessary for the Minneapolis Federation to operate.

In order for the Federation to have our trust and future commitment, it needs to be connected to our lives through more than just financial support. In order to be connected to our lives, it needs to be connected to us. And the Federation can only be connected to us if we are involved. With more college-aged Jews in the Federation, there can be better and more meaningful engagement of adolescent and young adult Jews across the board.

This does not imply a takeover of Jewish communal life. Young Jews don’t have the same level of communal experience that the older generation does, and we don’t have a familiarity with the way the Minneapolis Federation operates. It would be irresponsible to pile the Federation full of fresh college students or graduates just give us instant gratification. At the same time, if the Federation wants the talent, trust, and engagement of young Jews, it needs to scout for us and bring us in, rather than wait for us to knock or walk away from mainstream Jewish communal life.

The challenges of today in regards to Israel, Judaism, non-profit work, and youth engagement are best met with the Jews of today. And right now, as shared in the first sentence, “the window of opportunity is shrinking quickly…”. If the Minneapolis Federation wishes to be relevant and to continue to be the positive force in the Jewish community that it is, it needs to reach out, incentivize, and invite young Jews to share their skills and ideas as board members or in other positions of leadership.