Yosef Abramowitz had the floor at the closing session of the first national Jewish Youth Philanthropy Conference in Denver last April. Striding around the hotel conference room among about 100 teenagers, microphone in hand like a latter-day Phil Donohue, he exhorted them to see themselves as powerful agents of change, as prophets and leaders. He talked about great visions of a Jewish future, quoting philosophers from Zionist thinker Achad Ha’Am to “Star Wars” wise man Yoda. He held their attention for about 20 minutes. Problem was that the session lasted three hours, and Abramowitz seemed oblivious to the fact that the teens had tuned him out. Some quietly chatted with friends, others looked glazed, and still others walked right in front of him to leave the room.
But Abramowitz viewed the talk as a triumph, trumpeting his imitation of Yoda as a powerful example of how to reach Jewish young people. In the talk he described himself as a Yoda-like keeper of wisdom, the owner of Jewish secrets that he was prepared to share but that conference organizers and their parents didn’t want them to know.
It was classic Abramowitz — passionate, quirky and motivated by love for the Jewish people — but also peppered with references to his own activism (in what must seem like the Jurassic Age to these teens) that came across as less than humble. In speaking about his own agenda rather than the teens’, he failed to connect with them. Abramowitz, 42, is the founder and CEO of Jewish Family & Life media, a Newton, Mass.-based, multimillion-dollar mini-empire of Jewish publications and projects ranging from a colorful magazine and Web site for middle schoolers, BabagaNewz, to the Koret Book Awards. It also runs the intellectual journal Sh’ma and has created a distance learning website for Jewish educators, Jskyway.com.
He’s won a bunch of awards for his writing in Jewish newspapers and magazines (the plaques are stacked up over a foot high on a table in his office), and in 2004 he was awarded a prestigious Covenant Foundation Award for Excellence in Jewish Education. For the past decade has also served as president of the Union of Councils for Jews from the Former Soviet Union.
Abramowitz continues to be a quixotic combination of gadfly and innovator, visionary, and to some, snake-oil salesman. Some people find him irritating, others inspiring. He is a relentless self-promoter and also a sweetly humble guy struggling to be a better husband and father.
Abramowitz recently announced a dramatic step down from the day-to-day operations of the company he founded a decade ago in order to spend more time with his family and write a book, an almost unheard-of step for a man. In August they are moving to a kibbutz in the Negev desert, where they plan to stay nearly two years. Abramowitz will still be involved in JF&L, but in a reduced and long-distance capacity. The company is now searching for a new CEO.
Even as he takes a step back, Abramowitz still seems uniquely positioned to answer the central issue driving so many recent efforts of the organized Jewish community, one the establishment doesn’t seem to have the tools or language to master: how to reach young Jews with a values-driven message that makes Judaism fun and meaningful.
Or in Abramowitz’s marketing-driven lingo: how to rebrand Judaism as a must-have pop culture commodity.
Yet questions linger over whether Abramowitz’s approach is effective, or whether it is too much flash and not enough substance. The ‘Vision Thing’As befits his outsize personality, Abramowitz presents himself as an expert on a wide range of things: education, Jewish peoplehood, new media, entrepreneurship and Jewish philanthropy. “I’m the love child of Achad Ha’Am and Jim Collins, and need to bring together the two worlds for the benefit of the Jewish people,” he says. Ha’Am was a great Zionist thinker and writer. Collins is a management guru and author of influential business books including “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t.” “How can we go from a lot of the mediocrity of today and break through, in terms of strategy?” said Abramowitz, referring to the impact of the Jewish establishment on the unaffiliated and disengaged.Some see the wild-eyed naivete that characterized his early years at JF&L changing.
“He is a guy who I think has matured a lot,” said mega-philanthropist Michael Steinhardt. “There was a period where he’d say things that were too optimistic and reflective of a lack of mature judgment, and I think he’s over that and has come a long way.”
About a year ago, at one of the conferences where Abramowitz regularly runs into Steinhardt, he challenged him to a public debate. Then Abramowitz had his office put together an ersatz prizefight poster, with two boxing gloves hitting each other with a cartoonish “POW!” The copy reads: “Fight of the Century! Gadfly Michael Steinhardt, Messianic Pessimist v. Upstart Yossi Abramowitz, Activist Optimist. The Battle is ‘The Future of Jewish Life.’ ”
Steinhardt demurred, saying that he doesn’t have a big plan, but rather tries different projects and sees what works, Abramowitz recalled. Like few others would have the chutzpah to do, Abramowitz then said to the father of birthright israel that Steinhardt’s “mission return on philanthropic investment is probably a lot lower than mine because he doesn’t have a comprehensive vision. I do, and I deliver results.”
But while Abramowitz is quick to criticize the $2 billion that he says the Jewish establishment has spent on outreach since 1990, with nothing to show for it except a tiny bump in non-Orthodox Jewish day school enrollment, the question remains:
What are his results? Do the 11 million-plus hits he claims for his Web sites count as success?
“That’s a very good question,” says Abramowitz as he muses on it. And there is little by way of hard evidence. His company’s high school magazine, JVibe, just completed an evaluation survey, completed both by readers online and Jewish youth educators, he says. Both the print and online versions of JVibe are focused on celebrity and pop culture but weave in social justice and other basic Jewish values messages. Sixty-one percent of Jewish teen readers say that reading JVibe strengthens their Jewish identity, Abramowitz says, and 47 percent of youth educators integrate the magazine into their informal education programs.
But even one of his biggest fans questions whether Abramowitz’s products reach their ultimate target.
“I know kids read it,” said Kvod Wieder, of JVibe. Wieder is director of the B’nai Tzedek Teen Philanthropy Program of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, and he invited Abramowitz to present at the teen philanthropy conference that he organized.
“My guess is that the ones who read it are already connected in some way. I don’t have a reason to believe that they’ve been able to penetrate kids who aren’t affiliated and that it has provided them with a way in.”
Abramowitz is quick to confess to not having perfectly built his company.
“While we have probably launched more media ventures than anybody else in Jewish life, we’ve also closed more,” he says, including kaddish.com, ShabbatShalom.com and Jewishhealth.com.
And, he admits, the company might be further along if he had earlier stepped back from some of the chief executive responsibilities where his skills are weak.
Yossi “is a visionary, he’s a believer. He does not do details,” says the chief operating officer of JF&L, Amir Cohen. “He is almost oblivious to bad news. His half glass is always completely full. “If he believes in Jewish peoplehood he cannot imagine why this is not the thing everyone is fully committed to. There’s almost blindness about him. To those who don’t know him well that can come across at times as self-centered,” said Cohen. “I don’t think it is. I think it’s vision and mission-driven.”
Jewish Family Life
In retreating to Kibbutz Ketura — chosen because it’s in the Negev, remote from the major urban centers — Abramowitz aims to commit to paper the book he says that he’s been writing in his head for the past several years (working title, “Peoplehood with Purpose,” a nod to Evangelical preacher Rick Warren’s wildly successful book “The Purpose-Driven Life”).
Abramowitz’s wife, Susan Silverman, is a rabbi and writer and stay-at-home mom who has juggled most of the running of their busy household. (Her sister is comedian Sarah Silverman, who has talked about the Abramowitz-Silverman family on The Tonight Show). Their three daughters – Aliza, 13, Hallel, 11, and Ashira, 3 – are their biological children. Their sons were both adopted from Ethiopian orphanages. Adar is 7 and the newest addition is Zamir, age 4. He came home with Susan in March. His adoption and citizenship were finalized as they stood before a judge this Tuesday.
After starting out as a student activist on behalf of Soviet Jewry two decades ago, as president of the World Union of Jewish Students while at Boston University, Abramowitz attended Columbia University’s journalism school and became an activist-journalist before starting a magazine, Jewish Family & Life. It lasted only one issue in print but turned into the Web site and a book that he co-wrote with his wife.
JF&L the company began with three employees and a $150,000 annual budget. Since then it has grown into a company that raises nearly $4 million a year from major Jewish foundations. The company claims to have more reach into the Jewish population of 10 to 30 year olds than any other vehicle. At the end of the day, maybe Abramowitz is neither a snake-oil salesman nor the Jewish community’s next Moses.
A better metaphor, perhaps, is a religious revival preacher, the kind still found setting up tents this time of year in neighborhoods where people are hungry to hear The Word from a charismatic preacher offering listeners a vision of a world to come that they can be part of.
But rather than asking people to act on faith, as Pentecostal preachers do, Abramowitz wants them to act on his vision of what the Jewish community could one day be. In the meantime, Abramowitz still has the Steinhardt v. Abramowitz boxing poster hanging on the wall behind his desk.
Perhaps a debate is in the offing for his first visit back to the states from Israel. Because today, said Steinhardt, “I’d happily debate him now.” “He’s one of the more original and creative people in the Jewish world,” Steinhardt said. “He is a valuable asset to the Jewish world and will become increasingly more so over time.”