Bold agenda. Building Jewish identity. Developing young leaders. Improving the larger community.
Ours is a shrinking Jewish community, but that hasn’t deterred Rachel Wright from focusing hard on retaining participants and donors as she takes the presidential reins of NEXTGen Detroit, the Detroit Jewish community’s engine for young-adult communal engagement and leadership development.
Thinking big, the Birmingham resident hopes to end her presidential year next June with the highest retention percentage nationwide among young adult agencies affiliated with the Jewish Federation network.
“What this will mean is that we are not only giving our community meaningful young adult programs and leadership development opportunities,” she tells the JN in a wide-ranging interview, “but we also are creating a sense of ‘home’ for our NEXTGen community.
‘’When we have this accomplished, it assures our continued success within the Federation system.”
That’s a prudent plan.
Wright, 33, is a star on the national stage of young adult activism. She is national women’s membership chair for the Jewish Federation of North America’s National Young Leadership Cabinet. From that perch, she helped organize the 2012 JFNA TribeFest conference in Las Vegas, which drew nearly 1,700 young adults, including almost 100 Detroiters.
Power Of Connection
NEXTGen is sending positive vibes about local Jewish life in the wake of Michigan’s economic downturn. Young people still leave for urban areas perceived to be hipper as well as riper with jobs and nightlife, much to the chagrin of their parents, grandparents and the larger Jewish community here. Still, more are returning than had been, based on the buzz around town, an improved job market, increased venture-building prospects and NEXTGen participation numbers.
Meanwhile, despite outmigration, there have been young people here all along.
Connecting the diehards, the newcomers and the returnees to the Jewish community is the NEXTGen rallying cry.
“When people connect, it becomes contagious,” says Wright, ever optimistic, but also a doer who leans on inclusivity in how she approaches NEXTGen. “Young people needed this sense of community again in a way that would lead to hope and a future.”
NEXTGen became a division of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit last year when it incorporated three previously separate Federation young adult agencies. Its budget has grown to more than $550,000 — roughly 30 percent from Federation, 40 percent from foundations and directed giving, and 30 percent from event sponsorship.
NEXTGen is on pace to log 5,500 event participants in 2013, compared to 1,500 in 2010. In 2012, it recruited 2,300 donors, who gave $780,000 — up from 1,004 donors and $604,000 three years before.
The 2013 projection is at least 2,500 donors and $850,000 raised for Federation’s Annual Campaign, which helps support local, national and international Jewish causes. Jewish Detroit has had a special relationship with, and has been a significant supporter of, Israel since statehood.
NEXTGen’s 2014 fundraising goal is $1 million. Achievable or not, it’s reflective of Wright’s “Set Your Goals High” mantra.
Finding Her Way
Professionally, Wright, a former magazine editor, is strategic development director for EHIM Inc., a Southfield-based healthcare strategy solutions company. She attends Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield.
Wright graduated from Michigan State University in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a portfolio of Hillel involvement, including joining a free, 10-day Taglit-Birthright trip to Israel with peers. Following graduation, it would be three years before she re-entered the organized Jewish world. In 2005, Federation asked her to help restart Latke Vodka as a social event.
“I immediately reconnected to the need I always felt to be part of something larger than myself,” says Wright, who ended up chairing Latke Vodka from 2006 to 2009.
She visited Israel for the second time on JFNA’s 2006 Tel Aviv One national young leadership mission.
“Because of that mission, and remembering what I had been part of during Birthright on my first Israel visit, I was hooked,” Wright says, “Suddenly, I realized not only how important we all were to world Jewry, but I also realized the impact Jewish Detroit has made overseas.”
Wright has been back to Israel five times, most recently on a 2011 Federation-hosted Sherman Campaign leadership mission, during which young leaders learned about the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Israel. They also accompanied 93 Ethiopians who were making aliyah.
A Multilayered Audience
Executive director Miryam Rosenzweig, associate director Jessica Goodwin and president-elect Jay Hack of Detroit also are part of the NEXTGen leadership. Rosenzweig says Wright “creates an environment of greatness that we all want to be part of.”
Hack describes Wright as an innovator who welcomes and leverages change.
“For instance,” he says, “she was a pioneer for our community in the social media promotion of events and in bringing a large-scale fundraising event to Detroit from Chicago — namely, EPIC.”
Some NEXTGen events serve as fundraisers that require a minimum donation to Federation’s Annual Campaign. While numbers matter as a metric of success, Wright says building a vibrant Jewish community isn’t measured so much by donors as by how many young adults are showing up at NEXTGen events. These attendees are tapping into their Jewish identity through the attraction of young adult programs or activities as opposed to through traditional Jewish institutions that built our Jewish community.
An outgrowth of such rising event participation, despite a Jewish Detroit population drop from 96,000 25 years ago to 65,000 today, is the creation of a pool of future communal leaders.
Explains Wright: “If we look at the community as a pyramid, we need a large base to feel part of the community so a smaller portion will be energized to support it and so that an even smaller group will be inspired to volunteer time and effort as communal leaders.”
It’s hoped that giving grows along that continuum.
In the pursuit of improved retention numbers, Wright is seeking to do more than just have great attendance at such NEXTGen signature events as Latke Vodka, EPIC, TribeFest, Pitch for Detroit and the Becker All-Star Mission to Israel.
“Retention means more than just showing up,” Wright says. “We need to engage people and inspire them to do more Jewishly.”
Retention may be center stage this year, but securing new donors grabbed the NEXTGen spotlight the past two years. In 2012, NEXTGen attracted 1,200 new donors, not a sustainable model as Jewish Detroit strives to find resurgence and stability after years of young adult flight.
“That is why we are putting all our energy into retaining those who have made a commitment in the past,” Rosenzweig says. “That is why the fact we are 400 donors ahead of last year — and of that, 325 are returning donors — is so important. We are increasing numbers in our core demographic.”
As NEXTGen looks to heighten Jewish communal engagement, it has set its sights on the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, which have the most Jewish students from Metro Detroit in the state.
“We want to build a relationship with these students while they are on campus,” Rosenzweig says. “Hopefully by connecting with us now, they will choose Detroit after college and immediately connect with the Jewish community.”
Giving Follows Engagement
“Clearly, we’re more focused on attracting and retaining young people so we’ll have a generation that cares about the Jewish community,” says Federation CEO Scott Kaufman, one of the staunchest NEXTGen advocates. “We want a relevant, exciting community where young people want to be and where they care about being Jewish.”
Kaufman underscores that playing the young adult engagement card primarily to expand the Federation donor base is a loser.
“Young people have to like you and trust you before they’ll give,” Kaufman says. “Landing new donors isn’t a hidden goal, but it’s a secondary goal. Their giving becomes an ancillary result.”
The bump in young-adult donor numbers is a nice start, he says, but the better return for NEXTGen has been in more young people doing more Jewish things, from Torah on Tap to deeper Jewish learning, social justice programs and synagogue or Chabad initiatives.
“We’re getting away from the old command control and moving toward connecting and collaborating,” Kaufman says. “NEXTGen is the impetus for that, but we want that to spread to the rest of the organized Jewish community.”
NEXTGen has become a national example for the core values and working philosophies employed to engage young Jews. Both Rosenzweig and Kaufman are in demand as speakers before other Federation CEOs and young adult directors. Just last week, they hosted 18 such retreat-goers for 2½ days at the Westin Book Cadillac Detroit Hotel.
In February, the Oklahoma-based Charles & Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation sent a member of its senior leadership team, Seth Cohen, here to study the NEXTGen model.
The next day, Cohen posted on Facebook: “I’ve seen the future of Jewish young adult engagement in America and it’s in Detroit. Really. Special thanks to the entire NEXTGen team at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit for an amazing day of learning, dreaming and scheming. The entire Jewish world should be paying attention to what they are doing. I know I am.”
Another top NEXTGen goal is helping 30- to 45-year-olds feel the pull of Jewish communal involvement, not just the warmth of a fun night out. Via NEXTGen’s Hub, young Jewish professionals will be able to network while also discovering Federation on their terms.
On a broader spectrum, creating follow-up event experiences that sustain and elevate interest levels among 22- to 45-year-olds remains a NEXTGen priority. The challenge lies in setting goals that look four weeks and six months out following events. That’s a lesson Taglit-Birthright Israel quickly learned after finding its trips were wildly successful until the afterglow dimmed. Then, nothing was in place to secure the fragile ties that trip-goers had built with the ancestral Jewish homeland. Wright was part of Birthright in 1999.
NEXTGen calls this excitement vacuum the “And then what?” factor.
Says Rosenzweig: “The ‘And then what?’ will look different for each of our programs. It needs to be tailored, but equally important, it must be documented so we can measure real impact.”
NEXTGen has addressed the Birthright dilemma locally by integrating the trip into a Jewish Detroit experience in Israel. Following his December 2012 Birthright trip, Sean Martin, 27, of Rochester told the Federation Board of Governors about the experience, then said about NEXTGen: “We get off the plane and they were ready for us.”
For example, he and other Taglit alums enjoy the Good Shabbos Detroit dinners hosted by NEXTGen and local synagogues. Ditto for Torah on Tap, co-hosted by Federation and the Southfield-based Yeshiva Beth Yehudah’s Jean and Theodore Weiss Partners in Torah program.
Wright’s zest for best practices and new ideas imbues the NEXTGen board. President-elect Hack says: “It’s important to note her focus is on making the board meeting a leadership development tool instead of a series of unending committee reports.”
Wright embraces the thorny engagement and retention challenges ahead for her local leadership board, but is proud of all the young adults who have answered the bell since NEXTGen came calling as a full-fledged Federation division last year.
As she puts it: “In a way, we have helped amplify how many people wanted to say, ‘Hineini. Here I am.’ Now, we can show how every single person is part of something so much larger.”
Helping Boost Our Central City
One of the biggest hurdles as a result of Detroit’s bankruptcy filing lies in assuring the global community that our central city isn’t dead; it’s just in need of revitalizing.
“We have some marketing work to do, to let others know we, as a region, are open for business,” says Scott Kaufman, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. “We get that, but many others may not.”
He adds, “In talking to people in business and real estate who are much more knowledgeable than me, the filing is a necessary step to right-size our city. Locally, people understand what the situation is; there’s a lot of confidence in Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr.”
But there’s no question professional recruitment will present a challenge given the perception in some quarters that “we may not have the electricity working,” Kaufman says. “But I feel the filing may be a more traumatic thing to my colleagues elsewhere than to us here.”
Social media will prove invaluable in helping spread the right message nationally as will TribeFest 2014, to be held March 16-18 in New Orleans.
Federation has a large stake in the city of Detroit because of the Jewish community’s historical and business ties as well as its philanthropic and cultural support. NEXTGen Detroit, Federation’s young adult division, has a vested interest in helping the city resonate for young people looking for a community with a strong urban core to live, work, play and raise a family.
Thanks to NEXTGen, Federation has increased Detroit-originated programming 400 percent in the past few years, Kaufman says.
The latest example took place this past Sunday. For the first time, Pitch for Detroit, a 12-team charity softball tournament benefiting the Do It For Detroit Fund, moved to Belle Isle from the suburbs. The Fund, a great promoter of what’s right about Detroit and the surrounding area, offers micro grants, ranging from $500 to $3,000 to support selected grassroots initiatives designed to effect positive social change in Detroit as well as to engage Jewish young adults in meaningful volunteer service. This year’s funding theme is health and wellness.
“Our best brand ambassadors,” Kaufman says, “are our people, whatever their age — not just on behalf of Federation and the Jewish community, but also on behalf of our city center, Detroit.”
By Robert Sklar, Contributing Editor