Jewish Federation staffer networks to attract young adults

Becca Near is coordinator of young adult engagement at Jewish Federation of St. Louis.

By Eric Berger, Associate Editor

Becca Near sees her work as coordinator of young adult engagement for Jewish Federation of St. Louis as a critical part of the local Jewish community’s future.

“I think it’s important for young professionals and young adults to know the different types of organizations that they can get involved with,” said Near, 28, who has spent almost four years with the nonprofit, which serves as an umbrella organization for a number of different Jewish causes. 

“By engaging them now and investing in them now, they will see that the St. Louis Jewish community is the place to be and that they want to stay.”

Bringing young adults into the American Jewish community is a more difficult task now than it was generations ago. Ninety-three percent of American Jews in the Greatest Generation now identify as Jews on the basis of religion, compared with only 68 percent of Jewish millennials, according to the 2013 Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews. Locally, the number of donors to Federation has also decreased over the past two decades. 

Near, who runs Federations’s Young Professionals Division (YPD), will get additional assistance in her effort to bring 20- and 30-somethings into the Jewish fold. She has been selected as a participant in Jewish Federations of North America’s Next Gen fellowship, a 20-month program through which Near will connect with Federation staff doing similar work in other parts of the country. 

The Jewish Light asked Near, who belongs to Young Israel of St. Louis, to discuss her participation in the fellowship and what her goals are for Jewish young adults in St. Louis.


Could you tell me a little bit more about what the fellowship entails?

We are 20 next-gen professionals from Federations all over the country, and it’s a cohort to bounce ideas off of, learn best practices, things like giving levels, different engagement opportunities, niche programming, leadership development.


To start the fellowship, participants met for an orientation Shabbat at the American Hebrew Academy in North Carolina. What was that like?

It was like being back at camp. I spent 10 years at Camp Sabra, and they were such transformative summers. When we got to the American Hebrew Academy, an international Jewish college prep boarding school, I was blown away. It was so interesting to see all the teenagers from Mexico and Israel and Brazil and America and really seeing them so dedicated to their studies, but also they are their own community. It was so fascinating to watch them do Shabbat services, Havdalah. And it was really just great to see Jewish teens come together and be this family. 


What were some of the interesting things you heard from people doing similar work in other parts of the country?

We’re not alone. Each city is dealing with different challenges on how to not only engage our young adults but also inspire them to want to make to an impact and inspire them to volunteer. 


What are challenges that you have had that are common to other cities as well?

I think a common one is that entry point. You get young adults to come to a happy hour or an event, and that’s sort of that lower barrier entry, but then what we all realized is that we need better follow-up. We need better ambassadors who want to be part of this change. We all got to talk about how maybe we could create a spreadsheet to put people’s interests down and their names down and having other young adults that are invested in being inclusive and welcoming meet with these people for coffee.


What other ideas did you gather for better engaging young adults?

I think we all know that transplants to St. Louis have a harder time breaking in sometimes. We could easily just change our body language and our mindsets and open up, so instead of crossing your arms, you’re uncrossing your arms and you’re asking open-ended questions instead of just saying, “Oh, are you from St. Louis?” And it’s a yes or no. You can ask a question that leads to another question and then your conversation is just really flowing. 


What are the next steps in the fellowship and at YPD?

We are meeting with coaches now over the next three months and really focusing on what our leadership styles are. At YPD, we have been in a year and a half restructuring. I hope that with a new board coming together this summer, with training and with orientations and a relaunch Aug. 22, I find a way to make our environment, our concept, a lot more open, a lot more diverse. 

I think what you will see that we will be focusing on over the next year and a half is really training our ambassadors, really finding the right people and putting them in place. The goal is retention. The goal is keeping them here, keeping people involved and invested. And I think if we are able to find the right ambassadors, then we will be able to keep young adults here.


“36 and Under” highlights interesting Jews age 36 and under who either currently live in St. Louis or have spent a significant amount of time here. If you want to recommend someone for this intermittent feature, email [email protected].