Make way for Russian-Jewish Millennials

In cultivating the next generation of Jewish volunteers and philanthropists, most communal organizations are challenged to attract millennials as they come of age and strive to assume leadership roles in their communities. Nonprofit organizations are exploring ways to include young people in governance, to involve them in a variety of special projects, and to provide hands-on volunteer opportunities. And, over time encourage their financial support.

Though inroads are being made, progress is slow because young volunteers today want to make a direct impact quickly, insist on financial transparency, and want to be involved in leadership roles, and organizational decision-making, now! These facts were clearly identified in the recent Pew Center report, Portrait of Jewish Americans.

Although there were some involvement techniques in previous eras that did the job, social and cultural interaction has changed, along with communications and outreach techniques. Millennials live their lives through mobility and mobile technologies. While glued to their smartphones, young women and men today want to interact with their peers for social and business-related opportunities and connections.

In my experience as a Jewish communal lay leader, philanthropist, and board member of several major Jewish organizations, and co-founder of Limmud FSU (former Soviet Union), I know that traditional organizations are struggling to develop new paradigms to attract young people and create new opportunities to engage these emerging community leaders. Over the past seven years, my work with Limmud FSU showcases a unique opportunity to change the conversation about the Jewish communal future.

Limmud FSU specifically targets young adults with Russian-Jewish backgrounds, between the ages of 23 and 40. The organization provides an atmosphere where people from diverse ideological, religious, cultural and geographic backgrounds come together to learn from one another, to develop a shared future, and to heighten a sense of Jewish identity, proving that new models and paradigms can be built and do succeed.

Our new paradigm changes the traditional conversation by giving these young volunteers the responsibility for creating their own conferences and enabling the volunteer-led organizing committees in each community to ‘own’ their future. Thus, Limmud FSU brings volunteers along with gentle guidance where it counts, i.e., letting them govern and make decisions for themselves rather than dictating through a hierarchical structure.

In fact, roughly 1,000 young adults and their families from the New York metro area are expected to attend the upcoming Limmud FSU USA Conference, this weekend in Parsippany, NJ. And, to prove the point, the amazing growth of Limmud FSU, from a few hundred in 2006 to roughly 27,000 participants in 2013, demonstrates the yearning for Jewish knowledge throughout the transglobal Russian-Jewish world.

Every time I meet with this important group of emerging Russian-Jewish leaders, this huge cohort of future communal volunteers and philanthropists, I’m deeply impressed with their new ideas and energy, their technology acumen and knowledge about social media, and especially their know-how to relate to, and engage their peers. These young Russian Jews hold the potential to become our next leaders and donors.

Today, Limmud FSU develops leadership through annual conferences in eight countries engaging new attendees and volunteers at each event, seeking to attract unaffiliated, young Jewish adults and young families through a broad range of topics, and in an open, pluralistic, dynamic environment.

This inspiring setting augurs well for young American Jewish leadership, encouraging the sharing of ideas and interests, and providing fertile conditions for future collaborations and community building, locally and throughout our global Jewish community.

About the Author
Sandra Cahn is co-founder of Limmud FSU and a philanthropist with longtime involvement in fundraising for numerous major organizations. She co-founded UJA-Federation of New York's Women's Executive Circle, a group serving female CEOs, CFOs, and presidents of significant corporations. As a professional, Sandy has held executive positions in business and the nonprofit sectors. She serves on the boards of the American-Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and UJA-Federation of New York, and is a past president of the Queens College Hillel.