At UJA-Federation of New York’s Wall Street Dinner last week, Cardinal Timothy Dolan made a surprise appearance and told a story about being in the Conclave in Rome to choose the new pope. Outgoing NYPD chief Ray Kelly served as the keynote speaker. Lloyd Blankfein, the chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs, a man with such a high profile that he was portrayed in the HBO film “Too Big to Fail,” accepted the Gustave L. Levy Award recognizing vision and generosity.
And yet, according to the leadership of the charity, neither they nor the many titans of Wall Street sitting on the dais in the grand ballroom of the Hilton New York were the most important people in the room. Instead, it was the hundreds of men and women who represented “Young Wall Street.”
“We need to really put a lot of focus on getting young people to understand the importance of philanthropy, to understand the importance of supporting the collective Jewish work that we do,” said Mark Medin, the senior vice president of UJA-Federation.
A record 1,700 people, a majority of whom were in their 20s and 30s, attended the dinner, which raised $26 million, according to the charity. Those funds are in addition to the $46 million, also a record, raised at the annual kickoff event in October. With the campaign off to a strong start, federation officials are similarly positive about the contributions of its young leaders, even though comparatively few are major donors. The way they see it, engaging young people is an investment in the future of Jewish identity, as well as UJA, especially for secular, unaffiliated Jews.
“For them, they’re very active in Jewish life through their involvement in UJA-Federation,” said Medin.
The federation has made engaging young adults a priority and is devoting more manpower into what they call the “Emerging Leaders in Philanthropy” division than any other, according to Medin. Strategies include missions to Israel, inviting young professionals to volunteer at soup kitchens, old age homes and community centers, and even buying extra seats to the Wall Street dinner so those not active in the federation can get a taste of the work they do.
Citing the importance of a continued Jewish identity for the next generation of leaders, John Ruskay, the executive vice president and CEO of UJA-Federation New York, said that living in “the most open society where Jews have ever lived” is a unique challenge, as well as a rare opportunity.
“Can we create a Jewish community that is sufficiently inspiring that people will choose to identify, not because they have to — they don’t — not because they have guilt — they have little — but because of the meaning and purpose that Jewish life provides?” Ruskay asked. “If they’re positively identified as Jews, then they’ll support many of the institutions that now exist and hopefully they’ll create new ones.”
Upon receiving his award, Blankfein noted that his success was a direct result of Jewish organizations that helped him form his own identity growing up in East New York. These organizations funded his after school programs and allowed him to attend Jewish summer camps. He learned to swim at the YMHA. The programs broadened his horizons, showed him that it was possible to have a better life, and inspired him to go to college, he said.
“Benefactors I would never know and could never thank … funded these programs that were so meaningful to my friends and to me,” said Blankfein. “These are among the types of organizations that UJA funds today for the benefit of a new generation.”
David Wassong, the co-head of private equity at the Soros Fund Management, was honored with the Wall Street Young Leadership Award. He acknowledged that he wasn’t “out of central casting for UJA.”
“My idea of a Shabbos dinner is a Friday night reservation at Shun Lee. I don’t speak a lick of Hebrew despite the fact that my father grew up in Israel … and the icing on the cake is I have two fantastic kids with my fantastic shiksa girlfriend, Cynthia,” he said to a smattering of applause.
However, a year and a half ago he was invited on a UJA mission to Israel and visited an Ethiopian absorption center outside of Jerusalem where he learned how the Federation had a significant part in rescuing 75,000 Ethiopian Jews and showing them how to thrive in their new country. This experience and others taught him that he no matter how assimilated and secular he was, he had a responsibility to support UJA’s many programs.
In response to those who question UJA-Federation funding programs not exclusively Jewish, Ruskay said that 15 percent of UJA-Federation’s total grants go to agencies that work in partnership with the government that serves the whole city.
“Jewish life believes that everyone is created btzelem Elohim, ‘in the image of God,” he said. “The first obligation of UJA-Federation is to strengthen the Jewish community, strengthen Jewish identity. But we’re also, whether it’s in New York in times of crisis, in Katrina, in the tsunami or today in the Philippines, reaching out and caring for everyone.”
There is also the matter of whether it will continue to fund the scandal-riddled Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty (Met Council). Ruskay said that although final decisions won’t be made until the conclusion of the ongoing criminal investigation, it appears that aside from the actions of some “unlawful individuals,” the organization as a whole has continued to “act with integrity to care for those who are most in need.”
Medin added that while some donors have expressed concern about the Met Council scandal, the federation campaign is up 12 percent compared to the same time last year, an indication that the controversy hasn’t had an impact on fundraising.
The 90-minute cocktail hour preceding the award presentations provided an opportunity for up-and-coming Wall Street professionals to meet several giants of the industry, and to network and socialize with peers. Following the formal program, the 20s and 30s crowd filed out to a federation after-party for more mingling, dessert and Monte Carlo-style casino games.
The highlight of the evening may have been the appearance of Dolan, the archbishop of New York. Following a rousing and extended ovation, he recounted his experience at the Sistine Chapel immediately after Pope Francis was chosen by the College of Cardinals. The new pope adorned a white robe (“There was a small, a medium and a large. I knew I didn’t have a chance when there was no XXL there,” he joked about his own shot at becoming pope), but instead of proceeding to the balcony to be recognized in front of the crowd, Pope Francis raced to the back of the chapel, much to the confusion of the cardinals. It turned out he had gone to walk with two cardinals who were lagging behind, one with a walker, the other in a wheelchair.
“That gesture is about as common, simple, sincere and ordinary as you can get,” said Dolan. “I’m looking out at a room full of people who, like Pope Francis, sense a duty to show ordinary acts of concern and charity in a society that finds such gestures downright extraordinary.”