ARTICLEPaying It Forward: The Kings Bay Y Invests in the Next Generation of Jewish Leaders

Sometimes, a small amount of seed funding drives education forward. Sometimes, small funds lead to iterations that signal big changes in recruitment efforts. And sometimes, just a nugget of support changes cultural practices, community relations, and lives.

For an institution that had long since focused its efforts on catering to a population of senior citizens in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, a community known for its high concentration of immigrants, changing lives wasn’t always on the menu of goals. In fact, less than 10 years ago, the Kings Bay Y was really just focused on one thing: keeping its lights on.

“Around 2006, we found ourselves undergoing major transitions,” explains Daniel Zeltser, Assistant Executive Director at the Y. Leonard Petlakh had just become Executive Director, and the agency was, in Petlakh’s words, “on the verge of extinction.” In addition to the inherent financial strains the Y was facing, the issue of stale programming that didn’t meet the needs of a rapidly changing community caused the administration, under the guidance and with the support of the UJA Federation, to make major strategic changes. “We really needed to refocus our efforts,” Zeltser says.

Yozma Mentor engaging KBY Youth

And so, a robust new vision had the Kings Bay Y double down and commit to the growth and engagement of those Jewish communities in its catchment area that had previously been underserved, including a major push to connect with the sizable Russian-Jewish teen population.

“We came up with this idea of combing the American and Russian Jewish community to try and find role models for the Russian teens in our area,” Zeltser explains, “and then, to create a program around mentorship.”

Many evolutions of this idea eventually resulted in YOZMA: Initiative and Leadership for the Next Generation of Russian-Jewish Teens, a program funded by a Covenant Foundation Ignition grant in 2010, that offered Russian-Jewish teens an opportunity for mentorship and professional development through internships.

“We quickly became very successful in the teen market,” Zeltser recalls. But, as he explains, while Y staff found that Russian-Jewish teens and adults in the community had some cultural identification with Judaism, and they were highly committed to education, they weren’t necessarily invested in the idea of philanthropy and volunteerism.

To this end, in addition to the goal of providing quality programming for the teen population, YOZMA (which means “initiative” in Hebrew) focused on creating a cultural change in the community, and staff worked hard to make successful matches between teens and mentors, and to identify philanthropic projects the pairs could work on together. The teens selected for the program also had the opportunity to travel to work and board meetings with their mentors.

“We needed to create an experience they would value,” Zeltser says. “And we did.”

“Showing off Family Trees”

In an interview conducted at the end of his grant period, Zeltser expanded on the ingredients that led to the “systemic change” amongst the target population; namely, cultivating the ideals of volunteerism and community. “The experience with this grant…really impressed upon us the enormous opportunity we have to serve as an incubator for leadership for mentors and teens,” he said at the time. “We see tremendous potential for the program to be expanded and replicated in any large, urban environment with a critical mass of teens and potential mentors.”

And at the Kings Bay Y, expand it has. Today, the Y has one of the largest—if not the single largest—teen departments of all of the Federation agencies. And what’s more, alumni from that first cohort of teens who participated in YOZMA are now coming back to give back and remain involved.

Alla Leventhul is one such alum. Leventhul, now in her early 20’s, directs the Y’s Young Peace Builders Program, launched five years ago with the intention of building positive relationships between Jewish and Muslim teens in Y neighborhood by bringing them together to work on social action projects. “We are the sole partner of the Turkish community in our area,” Zeltser proudly shares. “And the idea for this program evolved directly from YOZMA and all that we learned.”

“For us, YOZMA’s success signaled a very big development,” he continues. “We learned so much. That first mentorship program provided just the spark we needed to set off so many other positive developments that have already had truly long-lasting effects.”

By Adina Kay-Gross, for The Covenant Foundation

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