By Stacey Dresner
WESTERN MASS. – On Feb. 8, a group of young Jews from around the Pioneer Valley showed up at Revolutions Bowling & Lounge in Enfield, Conn. for a night of bowling and bonding. The more than 70 bowlers were members of NextGen, formerly known as the Young Adult Division (or YAD) of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts.
According to its mission statement, NextGen offers a “broad range of social, educational and philanthropic opportunities for young Jewish singles, couples and new area residents ages 21-45… and opportunities to enhance leadership development and the commitment and connection to the Federation and the Jewish community.”
“We just think it’s a great way to network with people who are in a similar life place and to form relationships. What we have found is that because of this group, a lot of friendships have formed. It has just been a great way for people to get to know each other, who otherwise may not have connected,” said Rachel Berezin, director of NextGen. “Since the group has started we have really seen the effect of the group outside of formal activities. There are a lot of get-togethers that happen informally because they are now friends. Shabbat dinners happen. It has just been a great point of connection.”
“NextGen is important to the social dynamics of younger Jews in Western Massachusetts because it almost creates a small minyan of young Jews who like to get together to talk about Judaism, talk about politics, talk about family,” said Jeremy Powers, 38, who lives in Longmeadow with his wife and two children.
The Young Adult Division was originally started in 2009 when Meredith Dragon arrived to become executive director of the Jewish Federation.
“It was important to me when I arrived in the community nearly five years ago that we engage with all generations to ensure connection with our Jewish community,” Dragon explained. “We did not have a traditional ‘young leadership’ program and I knew this was something we needed for now and for our future. We began a program and it just took off. We have worked hard engaging with people in their 20s, 30s and 40s to make sure our community meets their needs today and for the future.”
While the group’s mission has remained the same, last year it got a new name – NextGen – a moniker adopted by many Young Leadership groups across North America in the past few years, and one which better reflects the Western Massachusetts’ group’s demographics.
“Typically what we found was that people thought of the Young Adult Division as a teen group and didn’t really identify with it,” Berezin said.
While the group’s original demographics were thought to be people just out of college up to 45, those interested in such a group “in this area are in their 30s and 40s and even up to 50. So the name ‘Young Adult’ did not resonate,” Berezin explained. “We thought it would make people feel more connected to the group by changing the name.”
In fact, NextGen no longer markets itself as a group for the 21-45 crowd.
“We don’t really specify an age anymore. It is more of a ‘life place.’ I think it is the younger adults anywhere from after college to families with young kids. People self-select. We don’t check ID at the door.”
Besides this month’s bowling night, NextGen offered a “Sushi in the Sukkah” event in the fall and will hold a Shabbat dinner in May. The group plans to co-sponsor volunteer sessions at a local soup kitchen as well as a pre-Passover spaghetti dinner in April with the Springfield JCC.
“I think it is another point of connection,” said Laura Jackson of Longmeadow, a member of the NextGen steering committee. Jackson moved to the area from New York City two years ago with her husband and two small children. Four weeks ago she gave birth to child number three. As a relatively new member of the community, her involvement with NextGen has been one way she has forged new friendships.
“It is definitely connecting the Jewish community here,” Jackson said. “Some people aren’t really synagogue people and some people aren’t religious. The great thing about NextGen is that it brings together people from all different parts of the Jewish community. It is a relaxed environment for people to get together and make connections.”
One of NextGen’s goals is to hold more community-wide programs for larger groups of people, including more events for families, Berezin said.
But getting people involved has not always been easy. “It is very difficult because people really care, but logistically they don’t necessarily have the time to invest and it is a huge challenge,” Berezin said. “That is why we try to have programs that are for families as well because one of the things we hear people say is, ‘If I have free time, I don’t want to spend it away from my kids, I am so busy.’ But we try to have a mix because there are also the singles and we don’t want them to feel like every program they are going to is just for families. So you try to balance it, but it is tough.”
To try to provide some of that balance, NextGen has begun to partner with Emek Halutzim, a young singles group in the Upper Valley, on some of its programming.
Strengthening leadership skills
One of the most important outgrowths of NextGen has been the Institute for Leadership Excellence and Development, or I-Lead, a community leadership program that 20 young members of the Western Mass. Jewish community participated in over the past year.
I-Lead came about when Berezin and a group of other YAD members – including Dave Steinberg and Jeremy Powers – went to TribeFest, the National Young Leadership Conference in Las Vegas two years ago. While there, they met with representatives of other small to mid-sized Jewish communities.
“We wanted to learn about any of their efforts that had been successful. One of the things we picked up on was this leadership program separate from the broader NextGen, which is more about networking and connecting. We were more interested in what kinds of things people were doing in other communities to strengthen leadership skills.”
The group was impressed by a model from Lehigh Valley, Pa. which had been successful in that Jewish community.
“When we got back from Las Vegas it was very clear to us that one of the best things we got from the conference was that we wanted to create a program like that in our community,” Berezin said.
Steinberg, 43, a founder of I-Lead, lives in Longmeadow with his wife and children.
“We wanted to encourage people to step up and take on leadership roles,” he said. “I think that is not just a problem in our Jewish community, but in all of society, that people can be insular and worried about their own little world instead of volunteering.”
While under the auspices of the Federation, the founders decided that this new leadership program should be community-wide and open to every Federation beneficiary and agency.
All of the Jewish organizations in Western Massachusetts – synagogues, day schools and other institutions – had the opportunity to nominate someone to be a part of I-Lead. The criteria was that they had to be a “current or up-and-coming potential leader at their agency.”
“We really believe that if the Jewish community is going to flourish we want to have strong leaders at each agency,” Berezin said.
Twenty participants took part in the I-Lead program, which featured sessions on topics like Jewish identity with A.J. Jacobs, Israel with Georgetown Professor Ralph Nurnberger, and “Emotional Intelligence” with Daniel Goleman.
“It was also a nice opportunity for people from across the Pioneer Valley to meet other leaders like themselves, because oftentimes leaders in the Northampton area don’t know the leaders in the Lower Valley,” Berezin said. “It kind of helped to get rid of those barriers and to make everyone feel like they are part of one community.”
“I really enjoyed it. I met some new individuals that I didn’t know previously, because it was people from all over the Valley,” Steinberg agreed. “Bringing in people from all of these other organizations, was really what prompted the success of the program.”
Jeremy Powers was nominated for I-Lead by the Federation and Temple Beth El where he is on the board. He is also on the board of Heritage Academy in Longmeadow.
“I got some important leadership lessons from the speakers and the exchanges with other young Jewish professionals, in terms of developing a greater appreciation of our community and we how we can work together to strengthen our young leadership and the local Jewish community.”
Rachel Vigderman, 45, of Amherst was nominated by Lander-Grinspoon Academy to be a part of I-Lead. Co-chair and treasurer of LGA’s PTO, she is also a member of the LGA board and finance committee. She has three sons who attend LGA. An active volunteer in the Upper Valley Jewish community, she has created Jewish programming, including a Torah yoga program, video club, and pre-school programming, and is also a member of the Amherst-Northampton chapter of Hadassah and serves as its social secretary.
“I felt sort of isolated in the Upper Valley. I came to know some of the people involved in the Lower Valley and a lot of energy was there, so I was excited to meet other young leaders and find out what they were doing, and to get to know them so that we could work together.”
Vigderman said she most appreciated an I-Lead session with Deborah Grayson Riegel on goal setting and running efficient and effective meetings.
“She even taught us how to write a proper agenda, how to run a meeting, what to discuss,” Vigderman said. “I think that was so useful. I used that right away in my volunteer work.”
Laura Jackson, who was an I-Lead participant, enjoyed the stimulating speakers and the fact that there was always a Jewish take on the presentations.
“My Jewish background is very important to me and I do think there is a great Jewish community here. I would like to stay active and connected to it.”
The first year of I-Lead ended in December. Everyone who was involved in I-Lead is now eligible for a heavily subsidized trip to Israel and they are being encouraged to go on the National Young Leadership Mission this summer.
“It is so important that this demographic has a place in our Federation to shape who we are and what we do,” Dragon said. “Our community is enriched by the perspectives of all generations. It is our responsibility to engage with people in meaningful ways and NextGen does this for us now. I am proud of how far we have come and how far we can still go.”