Most of the 750 young adults who packed a cavernous room in Manhattan’s Puck Building last week wouldn’t have come near a UJA-Federation of New York event three or four years ago, one of the function’s organizers said. And half of those who came last week, he added, will never again be seen by federation leaders.
But the other half will, said Jeffrey Cahn, UJA-Federation’s campaign director for Emerging Leaders and Philanthropists, and that, he believes, counts as success. “They’ll come back for our mission to Argentina,” a five-day journey scheduled for later this month. “They’ll come back for a seminar on Darfur” or for a volunteer event helping the elderly. And, yes, “some will come back to find a husband or wife,” said Cahn, pronouncing that, too, a worthy goal.
Last week’s party took place under the aegis of Generosity, one of 13 groups overseen by Emerging Leaders and Philanthropists (ELP), an arm of federation created about three years ago. Aimed at professionals in their 20s and 30s, Generosity has generated considerable “buzz” in the New York social world, said Pamela Wohl, one of its co-chairwomen, and the annual party is the group’s signature event.
The professionals who attended the function, which combined dancing, fundraising and education, raised an estimated $300,000 for UJA-Federation. The funds came from ticket charges, sponsorships, gifts made at the event through newly developed donor-pledge technology, and matching grants. Members of the sold-out crowd learned about the event primarily through online invitations, many of them sent through social-networking sites like Facebook, and by word of mouth, according to guests and federation leaders.
The event is a decidedly upscale affair, with ticket prices for last week’s function starting at $150 and climbing as high as $250, the admission fee to a special VIP reception before the party. One indication of the party’s cachet may be the involvement of Natalie Portman, the Israeli-born actress, who served as the honorary chairwoman of last week’s event and addressed the gathering in a videotaped message. Another sign is the publicity the event receives in such venues as the New York Social Diary, a prominent Web site, and Out & About, a column published by the New York Sun.
But the very nature of the event raises a question in the eyes of some: Are there young adults who felt excluded by such a gathering and, if so, what’s the cost in terms of community-building, one of ELP’s other missions? Indeed, many of those attending the event seemed to have come from the financial world, and two guests told The Jewish Week that they have friends and colleagues who, in all likelihood, couldn’t afford the function.
Jerome Shapiro, an associate at Merrill Lynch, said he knows of some people who were interested in attending “but found the cost [of the event] prohibitive.” A member of Generosity’s steering committee, Shapiro, 26, said many of those targeted by the group are the sons and daughters of UJA-Federation donors, as well as young professionals.
“I didn’t see many of my colleagues [at the event],” said Evita Sokol, education director at Manhattan’s Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, speaking several days after the party. “I thought the event was a bit pricey for teachers.”
Both, however, said the money is going to a good cause, a consideration that drives their own involvement.
“I believe in the precept from our commandments that we should give 10 percent of our income to charity,” said Sokol, “so when I plan my year and my budget, I put money aside for that purpose.” She added that she also “thinks about the organization” behind the function when deciding which events to attend.
Shapiro said “the reality” of producing a fundraising event often dictates the high cost of admission. Like other areas of federation, he continued, Generosity tries to maintain a balance among various objectives, such as building community and raising funds for the services it provides. Other events are either free of charge or carry a lower cost, he said.
Echoing those comments, Cahn suggested looking at “the roster of programs” sponsored by Generosity. “We run literally hundreds of programs each year that have nothing to do with fundraising,” many of which are educational or emphasize social action. The group, he said, targets a range of young professionals, from real estate magnates and hedge fund managers to members of the community who hope to learn something about a Jewish topic or meet other young Jews.
“I always want to have different programming for different people,” said Michelle Waranch, manager of ELP and the main organizer of last week’s party. While Generosity events “tend to be a little higher end,” she said, the group also sponsors monthly volunteer activities that are “totally free” and open to anyone who wants to attend. Projects have included delivering food packages to the homebound elderly, sprucing up the grounds of a Jewish day camp, hosting a party for underprivileged children and working the phones at Super Sunday.
Cahn also suggested that an upscale event such as last week’s party involves building community as much as any other activity, free or otherwise. Those who attend the annual function tend to be outgoing, sophisticated, successful people, he said, but they are also philanthropic — “and we’re hoping to teach them to be more philanthropic.”
It was Waranch, now with UJA-Federation for more than five years, who came up with the idea for Generosity and later, in consultation with others, created its name. At the time, she recalled, federation’s vehicle for young adults was the Young Leadership Division, but it skewed a bit older, toward people in their 30s and 40s. Some say it failed to cater to different interests and different lifestyles; and that there was little or no follow-up after events to keep guests involved.
Not even its leaders believed they could attract younger adults, said Paul Kane, a senior vice president of UJA-Federation, who said the division needed a shakeup. The result was a lay committee that met for nine months, looking at “how we could revitalize what we do with young people,” and the establishment three years ago of ELP, Kane said.
Today, Generosity is only one of the divisions sponsored by ELP, which also runs groups based on professional affinity and groups based on lifestyle. In addition to Generosity, the latter includes a group for young families, a group for Russian-speaking émigrés and a group for “highly successful young adults” who are already philanthropic leaders.
“All the groups have their own brands and their own personalities,” said Cahn, who added that the “magic” in making them work boils down to identifying and nurturing the right leaders — those who will be running UJA-Federation 10 or 20 years from now. “The term we use is ‘philanthropic potential,’” Cahn said.
In building the leadership for Generosity, Waranch sought people “who had grown up around philanthropy, shared our values and hoped to give something back” — young adults much like Waranch, 29, a native of Baltimore whose own family was involved in that city’s federation. One of the leaders she found was Abby Levin, the group’s other co-chairwoman and the daughter of Carol and Jerry Levin. Jerry Levin is chairman of the federation’s board.
Referring to the group’s name, Waranch said she and her peers wanted something “a bit more meaningful” than Young Leadership — “something catchy and edgy. … Generosity spoke to a void for us.”