As the workplace landscape shifts, millennials take center stage — and the corner office

'They bring new ideas, energy and inspiration. They bring a deeper understanding of the impact of the culture of change in America'

If you follow Sheila Katz on Instagram, you know that in addition to being a passionate feminist, the CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women has a sweet tooth, enjoys settling in with a good book, adores her grandmother and her two sisters and is slightly obsessed with Oprah. 

Sharing regular snapshots of her life comes easily to Katz who, at 36, is a millennial and digital native. It felt natural for her to create a sense of personal connection with followers by posting on Instagram a picture from a women’s bathroom on her first day in her role, captioned, “This is what a CEO looks like.”

Her approach is very different from that of older colleagues heading up Jewish organizations. The Conference of President’s new CEO, William Daroff, 51, has one of the biggest Twitter followings (45,400 followers) of any communal Jewish leader on the platform. Only ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, at 187,000 followers, has more. Both prolific Twitter users share organizational, political and Israel-related posts, but little of their personal lives.

“I don’t know many other CEOs of large organizations who post on Instagram every day,” Katz told JI. “It’s an important part of my storytelling of my work and NCJW. When I speak with teenagers and folks younger than I am, this is actually where they’re learning about me and the work.”

Millennials have a reputation, mocked by late-night shows and viral videos, of being narcissistic and entitled. The growing number of millennials employed at Jewish nonprofit organizations, however, is demonstrating that the perspective they bring can make a powerful impact and successfully move even legacy organizations toward forward-looking strategies.

It starts with having grown up surrounded by the Internet, which gives millennials a native understanding of how the web and social media can be used to further organizational mission.

National Council of Jewish Women CEO Sheila Katz.

Avi Mayer, 35, is the managing director of global communications at the American Jewish Committee. He manages a team of 16 people — more than half of whom are millennials or Generation Z, individuals born in the late 1990s and 2000s. Mayer is one of two millennials on AJC’s senior management team of 14; Seffi Kogen, 28, AJC’s global director of young leadership, is the other. 

After the murder of 11 Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue in October 2018, “we, like many American Jews, found ourselves at a loss as we saw the horrific images coming out of Pittsburgh that day,” Mayer said. “Very quickly we started an internal conversation about how we might respond. It was Seffi who threw out the idea of encouraging Jews to go to synagogue the next weekend, and I said, ‘Let’s call on our interfaith partners, celebrities, and world leaders… A member of my team, also a millennial, came up with the hashtag #ShowUpForShabbat,” Mayer told JI. “Our team drove it out on social media and we saw it become a viral phenomenon, which none of us could have predicted. Two hundred and fifty million people were reached on Instagram and Twitter alone.”

Synagogues overflowed with attendees that Shabbat and world leaders including London Mayor Sadiq Khan tweeted the hashtag and went to synagogue that weekend. Mayer subsequently tweeted that it was “the largest expression of solidarity with the Jewish community in history.”

The charge to engage in “disruptive thinking” came straight from AJC CEO David Harris, Mayer said. Harris told JI that employing millennials at senior levels is good for his legacy organization. “They bring new ideas, energy and inspiration. They bring a deeper understanding of the impact of the culture of change in America and how it affects organizations like AJC,” he said. “They also create a larger sense of optimism and buoyancy about the Jewish future, which allows them to connect with both millennials and their parents, who want to believe in the Jewish communal future and see them as proof positive.”

The generational shift is coming fast, notes Gali Cooks, CEO of Leading Edge, which researches and advises on Jewish non-profit professional development issues. Millennials — individuals between the ages of 24 and 39 years old — will comprise 75% of the American workforce in five years, Cooks told JI. 

About 80% of Jewish non-profit CEOs will retire in the coming decade, Cooks co-wrote in a January article published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Today, millennials are increasingly being hired for senior management positions at Jewish organizations and shifting how things are done. But that doesn’t mean they don’t still encounter generational resistance.

Elisheva Goldberg, 31, has been pushing the leadership of the New Israel Fund to use social media more effectively, she told JI. “It’s not as though they don’t know we need an organizational Twitter, but I had to write a memo about why they need to have personal Twitter accounts – why being alive on social media would be beneficial to the organization,” said Goldberg, who is the progressive organization’s media director. “I’ve been pushing that with our principals from early on.”

The Tulsa, Oklahoma-based Charles & Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation has invested for years in professional development programs for millennials through initiatives including its Schusterman Fellowships and ROI Community. “Every generation brings opportunities and challenges into the workforce,” said Lisa Eisen, in an email to JI. Eisen is one of three co-presidents of the $2.1 billion foundation. “With the millennial generation we see enormous potential in their ability to lead initiatives and organizations that capitalize on their traits as digital natives and global citizens who embrace diversity, value equity, seek work-life balance, and strive for community, connection and purpose.”

Millennials are shifting how Jewish non-profits operate when the work involves Israel. Most millennials were children during the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords; the youngest in the cohort were not yet born during the second intifada. That gives them a significantly different perspective on Israel than those who are older and came of age in a world before Israel was a strong state, they say.

A Wider Bridge executive director Tyler Gregory.

“People have been offered only a binary way to engage with Israel and feel like they have to choose between national security or peace-making frameworks. It’s two-dimensional,” said Tyler Gregory, 31, the executive director of A Wider Bridge, a nonprofit focusing on connecting the LGBTQ community to Israel. “We can reframe young Jews’ connection to Israel around shared values. We have to get beyond the binary,” said Gregory, who in June will become executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of San Francisco.

His organization brings American LGBTQ leaders to Israel and Israeli LGBTQ leaders to the U.S., and funds projects working on various aspects of the LGBTQ experience in Israel. At a time when the two-state solution is moribund, “while we can keep arguing” about it, Gregory said, “people need something current to keep attached to.”

In addition to the trips, A Wider Bridge focuses on storytelling through social media, he told JI. “It moves us from a political place to a personal place,” he said. “When we tell stories of queer Jews feeling excluded, it’s also a way to depoliticize social media.”

Intersectionality and identity politics are current frames for how many millennials, and those younger, engage with central issues like Judaism, gender, politics and their relationship to Israel.

Millennials “face a litmus test of being a progressive or a Zionist. We say it is a false choice and the imposition of that is inherently antisemitic,” Amanda Berman, founder and executive director of Zioness, told JI, adding that Jewish women who are both feminist and Zionist have “felt politically homeless.” In under three years, Zioness has grown to 34 chapters around the country, she said, from South Florida to Raleigh, N.C., Washington, New York and L.A.

Like many of her peers, Berman, 34, has a connection to Judaism different from older generations. “My connection is much more about values and activism,” said Berman, who noted that millennials are not joining synagogues and looking for alternative ways to connect to Judaism.  

The category of people who identify as Jewish but say they have no religion — which is the fastest-growing category of religious identity in America — is significantly larger among millennials than among Jews overall, according to the 2013 Pew study of American Jewry. 

About one in five American Jews described themselves as Jewish but did not identify with Judaism — or any other faith group — as a religion in the 2013 Pew study. Among Jewish millennials it was one in three. 

Alan Cooperman, director of religion research at the Pew Center for Research Center, noted that “Jews by no religion” are “much less tightly connected with Jewish institutions and feel less of a bond to other Jews around the world.” That mindset, he said, is a significant challenge to legacy Jewish groups, many of which are founded on the notion of Jewish communal responsibility. 

Millennials are able to respond nimbly to unique generational issues in a way that long-established organizations cannot, Berman told JI. “Jewish institutions are so large and institutionalized that it’s hard to change the language they’ve built into the system over years,” she said. Berman also noted that social media is Zioness’s main vehicle for outreach and growth. “We need creative messaging that really responds to this complicated political moment.”

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