It was a decade ago that this Buffalo, N.Y. transplant and newly minted Ohio State graduate moved to the big city. Living in Lincoln Park and knowing only a handful of people in Chicago, I felt it necessary to branch out to meet other young Jews.
When I started scoping out the Jewish scene in Chicago, JUF's Young Leadership Division's (YLD) LEADS program came highly recommended. It was explained that if you're new to Chicago and want to make friends, LEADS was the program to join.
Well, I did. I made some great friends, participating twice and then becoming a LEADS leader. This was my introduction to YLD.
After my LEADS experiences, I -- some may say -- fell off the YLD grid. Sure, I still attended YLD's Big Event Fundraiser (because what 20-something Chicago Jew doesn't?) but I had trouble finding my role in such a large Jewish community.
Fast forward a few years. Sitting alone on a Friday night, I decided to attend a Shabbat service and dinner at a local synagogue. During dinner, I sat at a table full of friendly faces. In our discussion about Jewish life in Chicago, I explained how I'd always been involved with my synagogue and Camp Ramah growing up and participated in Hillel as a college student. And yet, after living in Chicago for three years, I still hadn't found my Jewish Chicago "fit."
It just so happened that I was sitting next to a YLD Board member. We exchanged stories and she proceeded to tell me about all of the possibilities and opportunities that YLD had to offer.
It wasn't long after that Shabbat dinner that I was nominated and accepted into the Gesher program (JUF's leadership development and advocacy training program for young adults), where I learned all about JUF and the amazing services it provides dozens of agencies here in Chicago and abroad. After I completed Gesher, I was asked to sit on the inaugural Back from Birthright Israel Committee, where we began establishing more close-knit connections between JUF and Birthright Israel participants. And in 2014, I continued my YLD journey by being nominated and accepted to sit on the YLD Board.
Now, as the new president of the YLD Board, it's hard not to reflect on my personal journey and think about the thousands of young Jews in Chicago who are similarly looking to continue -- or in some instances, begin -- their Jewish journey. We have an opportunity to impact lives and engage young professionals in the community, inspiring them to give their time and financial resources to an organization that means so much to so many.
We live in a 140-character world, and the way that young adults communicate and spend their time and money differs from prior generations. This presents challenges for all non-profit organizations in educating the broader population on their missions.
There is a large portion of the young Jewish community that doesn't fully understand what JUF does. They haven't heard the stories of the people it serves. They haven't yet taken advantage of the opportunity to volunteer. They haven't been to social or professional networking events to meet other like-minded individuals in a similar life stage.
But I look around at my fellow YLD Board members and see 39 other passionate, devoted young leaders committed to spreading the mission of JUF and building upon the foundation that our predecessors have built for us.
Young adults have an opportunity to serve in a variety of roles within the Jewish community and JUF. They want to use their skills, give back, and make a difference. It's gratifying to watch them grow and develop as leaders.
I am excited to be leading and working with an exceptional group of young professionals as we continue to seek out creative, innovative ways to engage even more individuals.
As a transplant 10 years ago, I wasn't sure if Chicago would ever provide me with the same community I felt during other parts of my life.
Today, I'm honored to call Chicago my home and YLD and JUF my community. And I can't wait for more people to join me.
To learn more about the Young Leadership Division, visit juf.org/yld.
Mike Schwartz is the president of the Young Leadership Division Board of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago.