Jewish Charity Gambles
on Young Donors in Vegas
By Jacob Berkman
“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.
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.
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
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
But the effort has grown
stale, and the cabinet was seen
by many young Jews as too elit-
ist for a new generation. As a re-
sult, 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 cab-
inet’s co-chair, Steven Scheck,
an executive of a wireless In-
ternet company in Miami. “We
have to change the strategy if
we will be successful with this
The result is TribeFest, which
marks a sharp departure from
the cabinet’s recruiting confer-
ence, an insider’s affair that had
been held in Washington every
other year since the early 1980s.
The Washington event often fo-
cused on politics and federa-
tion policy and featured speak-
ers 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,”
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
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
ALL IMAGES COURTES Y OF JEWISH FEDERATION OF NORTH AMERICA
Young donors celebrate in Las Vegas this month (top) at a gathering sponsored
by Jewish Federations of North America; ads for the event focused on fun.
year and homes valued at more
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
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 organi-
zations in an attempt to show
that the federations are conve-
ners and not stodgy gatekeep-
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.”