One of my odd jobs in rabbinical school was working to build an alumni database for a national day school association. I was tasked with creating two events, one in Chicago and one in New York, to bring together alumni from its different branches and build brand awareness. Immediately, I went to a few friends of mine who had a band and asked if, as alumni, they’d headline a concert. The leader of the band looked at me and said, “I am not an alumnus. You cannot graduate from camp, youth groups, and clubs.”
I was not there to argue semantics. Maybe he was right, but he was not correcting the wording so much as informing me that he had no attachment to the Jewish organizations that added value to his upbringing. This person has 15 friends who are inseparable, some of the closest-knit Jewish friends I had ever met, and their bond directly stemmed from attending summer camp and day school. How could he not credit the contributions of these organizations that clearly influenced his Jewish upbringing?
In general, I have been surprised to find out how many of my camp friends have not visited camp since their final days as campers or on staff, or how many day-schoolers are reluctant to credit their success to their day school education. The solution is twofold: Organizations need to connect to the individual’s lifelong journey and individuals need to recognize the outlets organizations offer that do not involve spending a summer at camp or going on a free 10-day Israel trip.
I might be an exception to the rule. The nature of my work as rabbi automatically keeps me connected to my summer camps, youth groups, day schools and other pivotal Jewish organizations from my youth. As a leader of a non-profit, I recognize that once we stop attending these camps, youth groups, and schools, our affiliation begins to dwindle because we no longer need them in our lives.
So for these Jewish organizations, whose resources are stretched and sparse, it is difficult to invest in these “alumni,” these non-dues-paying individuals whose careers and places of residence are in flux. Synagogues, for example, work daily to procure young professionals, but we acknowledge that most people return to synagogue when they have children.
I recently heard the paradigm “our personal organizations (i.e. camp, Hillel, etc.) are our stocks.” People are always interacting with their stocks, tinkering with the finances and engaging with them. Federations — and Chicago is lucky to have one like JUF, which supports such a vibrant Jewish community by promoting a variety of religious and cultural Jewish experiences — are our mutual fund. They remain steady, a safety net in case our smaller organizations falter. They ensure we are able to have robust Jewish options, a voice in the larger world and ultimately, they provide care for the Jewish organizations and experiences to which we hold a deep emotional attachment.
For individuals with an emotional investment in a Jewish program or organization, today’s landscape can be overwhelming. All Jewish organizations are starving for resources, so they’re asking for an investment or your reinvestment. They are understaffed and competing with one another. It is often healthy competition, but they must meet budget, inspire participation and constantly rebuild numbers to maintain the services that they provide. To continue to provide the same or better opportunities that years and even generations of Jews were able to benefit from, organizations rely on their “alumni” to help support the future. Way back when, they needed you to participate or sign up, but the truth is that they need you just as much now, when you are not directly benefitting from your investment.
While Jewish youth organizations might cut off at a certain age, our connection to them does not have to. A counselor of mine once said to me that Jewish summer camp was not intended to be Jewish education for the campers, but rather for the staff members. With that in mind, how can we reimagine the continual benefits we gain by interacting with these organizations? And how can we optimize that long-ago investment?
An organization’s board members are often chosen because of the “three Ws:” work, wisdom and wealth. I would say this holds true for what Jewish organizations need from their alumni. Of course they need people to write checks to ensure the lights stay on, staff is paid and families can feasibly afford programs. But all organizations need a healthy volunteer base and fresh perspective to create new ideas and meet unmet needs. So if you cannot open your pocketbook to provide the wealth, try to become the work or wisdom that your Jewish organization needs.
The highlight of my rabbinic career thus far — outside of meeting Mel Brooks — was at a Jewish camp where I met a young boy named Charlie who I had helped convince to go to camp that summer. When I first saw Charlie at camp, he spewed out the activities he was doing, Judaism he was experiencing, and how it was the best decision of his life. I walked away almost ready to retire — what could possibly top seeing another child so happily Jewish? If you ever loved your camp, school or Hillel as much as Charlie, it’s your obligation to never end that relationship, just as much as it’s the organizations obligation to offer pathways that allow us to never stop engaging.
I take deep pride in my position as a board member of a Hillel. I have seen remarkable change happen during this time. I hope others can find ways of engaging with the programs and organizations that impacted them, or work to create new avenues to express their Judaism that perhaps they wished existed when they were younger. If you found friends, meaning, value, or even a sense of belonging in your Jewish “alma maters” it is important to invest in your past in order for these organizations to have a future.