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Giving Together: URJ Partners with a New Generation of Reform Jews

It wasn’t clear at first if it would work. 40 millennials, 5 cities, meetings, a monetary contribution?! These things don’t appear to add up.

But they did. When the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) sought out an educationally- and engagement-rich format to reach 20’s and 30’s on their own terms, a philanthropic giving circle made sense.

With indispensable help from Amplifier, the URJ created Emergent Givers, a giving circle for Reform and Reform-interested millennials centered around the URJ’s social justice work.

We took three principles as the foundational brit of our circle:

1. Nothing about us without us: Respectfully borrowed from the queer community, we aimed to create a giving circle in the image of its members. In other words, the URJ did not define what the circle was or how it should be run. The process was at every step co-constructed with the members.

2. Millennials are people too: An unspoken yet positive motivation of Jewish philanthropy is access. It feels good to be in conversation with community leaders. After all, most of us are in this to create the robust American-Jewish reality we all desire. So, we built interactions between Emergent Givers, the Board Chair, and the President of the URJ into the program.

3. Millennial leadership matters: Our organization, movement, and community benefit from diverse voices and decision-makers. We know that the American-Jewish institutional framework was constructed to serve a Jewish community that is dissimilar from millennial Jews in numerous ways. Emergent Givers themselves not only upended traditional modes of leadership within the circle, but by design served and continue to serve in a variety of leadership roles throughout our organization and movement.

So what does this look like in practice?
URJ Emergent Givers

We began recruiting for the circle months before we started it. But rather than recruiting members as a normal circle might, we recruited co-chairs, who helped us to recruit members and to set up the structures, norms, and practices of the circle. We were led by 15 co-chairs, spread across our five target cities (Boston, Chicago, Dallas, New York, and San Francisco.) These co-chairs debated and voted on the five social justice topics and URJ initiatives the full group would decide between, set responsibilities like committees to establish decision-making mechanisms and proposal presentation, and recruited their friends, colleagues, and fellow community-members to join.

Geographic distance presented an instant problem: How could we create community – a stated need and goal of almost every Emergent Giver—when spread over five cities and three time-zones? Access to existing URJ programs and events helped. While official meetings were held with the entire cohort by video-chat, in-person get togethers arose when URJ leadership was in town. NFTY Convention in Dallas? A great opportunity to sit down with URJ Board Chair Daryl Messinger and President Rabbi Rick Jacobs. Rabbi Jacobs is in Boston for Shabbat? A Thursday evening happy hour at a student bar in Cambridge was on. Coupled with Jewish values-centered Shabbat dinners powered by Amplifier and led by co-chairs in each community, we were able to create deep personal intra-city bonds.  

Finally, we were sure to share what was going on in Emergent Givers. Through the giving circle process, members learned about and offered advice on multiple URJ social justice initiatives, from gun violence prevention and racial justice to mental health at camps. Members serve on local congregational and Reform 20’s/30’s community boards, participate in fellowships like Wexner and Dorot, and impact our national lay-leadership. We look forward to inviting a number of Emergent Givers onto the URJ’s North American Board in the year ahead. 

There’s no reason to assume that young people don’t have the capacity to give financially and in time and energy to American-Jewish life. Instead, communal leaders need to turn inward to search for why younger and more diverse Jews aren’t joining our institutions like they once did. The URJ continues to believe our three principles – by and for millennials (and soon Gen-Z), access, and broadened leadership—are a recipe for success. There’s no better model than a giving circle—supported by Amplifier—to help make it happen.

Sam Rubin was the Presidential Executive Fellow at the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest and most diverse movement in American Jewish life.


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