Some 60 people fill a Short Hills living room as the American Jewish Committee reaches out to attract a younger generation of members.
Photos by Robert Wiener
AJC leader Julie Winer told her audience she wanted to “address members of the 30- to 50-year-old group and develop leaders among us.”
December 11, 2008
The Metro New Jersey chapter of the American Jewish Committee is taking active steps to attract a younger generation.
Its latest recruitment program, called “Parlor and Policy,” reflects the concern of the AJC and many other Jewish organizations that their memberships are top-heavy with people nearing or past retirement age.
The series of home-based lectures and social gatherings is aimed at attracting and developing leaders among adults in the 30- to 50-year-old age group, according to AJC area board member Julie Winer, who conducted the program at the most recent get-together, held in the Short Hills living room of Diana and Michael Levy.
About 60 people gathered Dec. 2 to hear guest speaker Brian Carney, an editorial writer for The Wall Street Journal.
Such events give participants “a chance to discuss various social and economic issues that pertain to us as American Jews, a unique social opportunity to meet friends who are also interested in perspectives on current events, and to socialize in a new growing organization,” said Winer.
“Like every other nonprofit organization and certainly every other Jewish organization, we want a whole new generation to join and become leaders,” said Allyson Gall, executive director of AJC’s Metro NJ area. “We have to make them understand what AJC is all about.”
Before Carney addressed the gathering — on “An Insider’s Advice to Our Next President,” AJC members and prospective members in attendance, virtually all under 50, considered the challenge of broadening the group’s age range.
Chapter president Ken Peskin described himself as being in “a mature generation,” somewhat older than the average age of the people at the meeting.
“If you believe in the mission and the values, you are always concerned about perpetuating it and making it stronger. Looking to people who are younger is a big piece of what we are trying to do,” he said.
Gall estimated that on average, chapter members are in their 60s. Some 90 of its 850 active member families are age 50 and under, she said. “There are people in their 30s and 40s who are interested in policy issues. That is the kind of people AJC wants. Our agenda is pretty broad. Issues that are important to America are important to AJC. We are an advocacy organization. We want not just talk, but action.”
That idea appealed to hostess Diana Levy, who joined the chapter a year ago. By getting involved in AJC, she said, “people can get together and learn more about issues that are important to the Jewish community, then work as a group to advocate for those issues.” “I think it is crucial to find people who are interested in the same issues so that you are not out there alone.”
Amanda Damesek of Short Hills has been a chapter member for four years.
“Typically, Jewish organizations have involved an older generation, and I think that’s been a negative reason” younger people might not get involved, she said. “I think the draw of AJC is the education part of it and the non-focus on fund-raising. It is not all about the money.”
‘Speak truth to power’
Founded in 1906, AJC has staked out a centrist position in American-Jewish politics, with a strong emphasis on Israel, foreign affairs, human rights issues, and, lately, a sustainable energy policy.
Making a direct pitch for membership, Gall told the audience, “We are not your synagogue, your Jewish home away from home. We are not your federation, and we are not AIPAC.”
Although she called those institutions “critical,” the AJC leader said her organization represents “the premier diplomats on behalf of Jews and Israel all over the world. We work hard to cultivate relationships with Jewish and non-Jewish leaders. We have access to power and speak truth to that power.”
Many of those in attendance are members of nearby Congregation B’nai Jeshurun and were invited by current AJC members, including Genesia Kamen, who is active in the Short Hills synagogue.
“We are trying to reach out very personally to get a next generation involved,” she said. “A lot of people in their 40s just do not know what AJC is. They have no idea why they should support it. So we have this core group here,” said Kamen, another Short Hills resident and co-organizer of the event.
“We invited friends — people who came out to hear an interesting speaker,” she said.
Among those friends was Maurice Ades of Short Hills. Although he is not a member of AJC, Ades attended the evening with “about 10” of his fellow congregants. “I’m not really familiar with the organization and what it’s about, but I’m keeping my mind open,” he said.
Congregation president Eric Sellinger said he came “to learn more about AJC. I think it is important to learn about Jewish organizations.”
On the morning after the meeting, Gall said she was pleased with the turnout. “We had 56 reservations, but there were a number of people walking around with handwritten name tags who weren’t on the list,” she said. Two days later, after some vigorous outreach by people who attended, she said, at least 14 nonmembers had expressed some interest in joining.
But, she insisted, future attendees at Policy and Parlor forums will not be “just a B’nai Jeshurun group. We want people from other synagogues and people who belong to no synagogue at all. We want people who are interested in political advocacy and political issues.
The next get-together is scheduled for early March, and although its subject has yet to be determined, the hot topic of India and Pakistan may well be on the agenda. Three of the people who attended offered their houses as venues for upcoming meetings.
“We do know the numbers of people coming to these Parlor and Policy meetings is growing,” said Gall. “Each time we’ve done it we’ve had many more people enjoying it, and we want them all to become members of AJC. That is what we need.”