March 20, 2011

Jewish Federations Try a Sin City Adventure to Woo a New Generation of Donors

Jewish Federations of North America

An entertainer performs at Tribefest.

“I barely remember Friday,” Alex Levin, a 36-year-old Web-development entrepreneur, admitted toward the end of a five-day jaunt through Las Vegas with the country’s largest Jewish charitable network.

Mr. Levin had arrived two days early from his home in Minneapolis for a conference that the Jewish Federations of North America called Tribe­Fest, a social and cultural gathering of Jews ages 22 to 45. His binge through Sin City included nights spent at Vegas clubs and restaurants, several encounters he openly hoped would stay in Vegas, and a $2,000 tab for vodka at Lavo, a bar at the Palazzo hotel and casinos.

The federations are gambling that his revelry will eventually translate into serious donations from younger Jews and build stronger relationships with donors like Mr. Levin.

Battling Apathy

Some 1,300 Jews showed up at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino for TribeFest for a steady lineup of high-profile speakers, music, and all that comes with a trip to Las Vegas.

But behind plying the next generation with booze and fun lies a savvy marketing ploy to reach out to a generation the federations fear they are losing.

Some 155 Jewish federations collectively raised $2.7-billion in 2009 through general fund-raising campaigns and other efforts that raise money to support local Jewish programs and help Jews in Eastern Europe and Israel.

Impressive as that number is, though, it is a worrisome sign. The number of donors to the federations has declined by half over the past 25 years, from about 900,000 to 450,000, according to a 2010 Jewish Federations of North America study. The decline is due, in part, to a decision by the federation’s leaders to focus their attention largely on wooing big donors. But as its pool of donors is getting disproportionately older—some 90 percent of federation donors are older than 45—officials are especially concerned about reaching out to the young, as those under the age of 45 have been particularly apathetic toward the federations.

Only 29 percent of Jews ages 19 to 36 even knew that federations exist, according to a separate study, conducted in 2009.

Cursing Encouraged

TribeFest, which the federations have been planning for two years, was an open acknowledgment that they had to find a new way to connect with a younger audience.

For nearly a century, federations raised money for big Jewish needs. They supported the founding and settling of Israel, helped Israel through each of its wars, and helped free Soviet Jews. Around these crises, they built a vast donor network that kept money flowing during calm times.

New donors were groomed through the National Young Leadership Cabinet, a six-year program that recruited young members, taught them how the federations worked, and encouraged them to give $5,000 or more a year. Then successful members would be asked to join their local federations’ boards and increase their gifts to five, six and sometimes seven figures.

But the effort has grown stale, and the cabinet was seen by many young Jews as too elitist for a new generation. As a result, the group is trying to find new ways to inspire younger leaders to join the cabinet and become federation donors. “We can no longer expect people to just understand federation and give to federation,” says the cabinet’s co-chair, Steven Scheck, an executive of a wireless Internet company in Miami. “We have to change the strategy if we will be successful with this next generation.”

The result is TribeFest, which marks a sharp departure from the cabinet’s recruiting conference, an insider’s affair that had been held in Washington every other year since the early 1980s. The Washington event often focused on politics and federation policy and featured speakers such as David Gregory, the host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” and Jenna Bush, the daughter of George W. Bush.

In Las Vegas, journalists and politicians took a back seat to performers like Vanessa Hidary, a slam poet also known as the Hebrew Mamita, who opened the conference with a riff on relationships called “PhD in Him” using profanity, which is not often heard at federation events.

She said organizers actually encouraged the cursing. “They just wanted me to be myself and to talk about what I talk about,” she said.

Fewer Elitist Trappings

Organizers are betting heavily, of course, that the younger set wants to hear more voices that speak their language than the language of the previous generation.

Attendees paid $475 plus their own airfare and lodging. The federations picked up part of the bill, though organizers did not say how much they spent to attract a crowd of young Jews with an average net income of at least $130,000 per year and homes valued at more than $400,000.

Many young Jews have been turned off by seemingly dated messages about the tragedy of the Holocaust and fears of anti-Semitism, as well as hard-line language about Israel that seems out of step with a young American populous that sees Israel as increasingly complicated.

TribeFest’s main stage mostly saw a string of young, prominent Jews who expressed not necessarily the message the federations wanted to convey but positive messages about what it means to be young and Jewish.

Mayim Bialik, best known as the star of the ’90s sitcom “Blossom,” spoke about the balance she finds in Judaism. Ben Mezrich, author of The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, a Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal, spoke about how the movie made out of his book—“The Social Network”—was perhaps the most Jewish movie ever. And the owners of the Minnesota Vikings and the New England Patriots football teams, Mark Wilf and Jonathan Kraft discussed the Jewish angle to owning an NFL team.

Mr. Scheck and his fellow Cabinet leaders dropped some of their elitist trappings. Cabinet members typically wear ribbons that connote how much money they each give. TribeFest disallowed them.

Open to Competitors

They also dropped an uptight attitude toward outside organizations in an attempt to show that the federations are conveners and not stodgy gatekeepers.

For years, outsiders have criticized the federations as one wary of partnerships with organizations they did not found or support. But the federations opened up the planning of TribeFest even to longtime competitors. Nearly all of Tribe­Fest’s conference sessions—which included topics such as gay, lesbian, and transsexual Jews; Arab-Israeli issues; interfaith family issues—were run by outside organizations.

“Surprisingly, they very warmly invited us in,” said Ben Murane, a director of outreach for the New Israel Fund, an organization that is pushing for religious and political pluralism in Israel.

Perhaps most important, the federations dropped any pretense that TribeFest was not a party. The longtime Washington event that was its predecessor long had attached to it a wink and nod acknowledgment of after-hours shenanigans and raucous boozing.

“There was some vandalism,” Mr. Levin, recalled of the one Washington conference he attended. “The Jewish lawyers getting out of control. You have to keep an eye on those guys.”

TribeFest, however, owned the party. Each night led off with a main event at about 7 p.m. that featured musical appearances and nine open bars.

“For every reason you can think of to not have it in Vegas­—the strip, the gambling, and the shows—for all those reasons, I can make the argument why that was the best reason to have it in Vegas,” Mr. Scheck said.

The federations purposefully made no fund-raising pitches, instead looking at the event as the first step in a long-term effort to attract big donors. Organ­izers used scanners to read bar codes on each person’s nametag and closely tracked who attended what sessions. They will use that information later to promote specific programs to people who attended TribeFest.

Word of Mouth

Some people skipped most of the sessions for socializing, gambling, and hangovers.

But the Jewish federations are placing their chips on 24-year-olds like Sara Lukasiewicz.

The actress from Los Angeles admitted she had to “take off my drunk hat” before she talked to a reporter outside an after-hours party in a Mandalay Bay suite, where free alcohol flowed, high-ranking federation officials mingled with the young, and one couple kissed passionately in front of everyone.

Ms. Lukasiewicz said that she has an affinity for Jewish causes, but when she returns to Los Angeles, she plans to talk up the good time she had in Las Vegas to her other Jewish friends—many of whom are wary of Jewish causes. It’s the word-of-mouth marketing the federations are seeking.

But will she consider giving money to a federation?

“Definitely,” she said, adding that while she didn’t know much about what the federation system did, the good time she had in Las Vegas helped her gain an understanding of what it stands for. “The Jews party hard.”