By Aaron Short
“May I have your name? Hold on, I don’t have you on our list. Did you RSVP?”
Three stylishly appointed women wearing different shades of black business attire shuffled through name tags in plastic sleeves at the Brownstone, a six-story brick building on East 12th Street that hosts Jewish events.
They work for the United Jewish Appeal Federation-New York—a venerable nonprofit with offices in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Long Island and Westchester—which commandeered the space for the evening.
A bedeviling characteristic of New York City is that Jewish youngsters have a lot of options when it comes to their faith and their time. Synagogues will always hold Shabbat services, but they’re not the primary place to meet people with similar interests.
Apps that can sort for religion have short-circuited the dating scene, but they may not be the best way to meet people with similar values.
But if you’re searching for a way to meet peers and give back to the community through fundraising or volunteering, there are few places better than a century-old charity that knows how to do both.
The UJA Federation-New York, which functions a little like the Red Cross and the Salvation Army without the militaristic overtones, has perpetually recruited donors from an ever-replenishing pool of millennial yuppies, thanks to an array of appealing social events that fill out the calendar. The group raised over $150 million in the 2016 fiscal year, according to its annual report. Its Emerging Leaders and Philanthropists (ELP) wing has been a particular draw for young Jewish professionals.
And so on a Friday evening in November, scores of budding philanthropists forked over $50 to attend an ELP Shabbat dinner where they would nosh on fish, turkey and kosher wine. UJA staffers led well-dressed attendees to the second floor of the Brownstone, where they huddled around two speakers for the evening—the head of a healthcare nonprofit that collects and ships unused medical supplies from New York hospitals to developing countries, and an FDNY officer who was helping families in Puerto Rico days after Hurricane Maria.
The nonprofit leader spoke about the challenges of setting up a supply chain to collect from operating rooms unopened, clean bandages and other items that would otherwise be incinerated, and then implored the audience to donate “any rain boots you have sitting in your closet” so she could give them to midwives in Malawi.
The FDNY official told a heartwarming story of hitching a private flight from San Juan with UJA leaders to make his son’s wedding, even though the territory was largely out of gas.
Once the speakers finished, half the group filled a long dining table on the second floor, while the other half returned downstairs for their meal on the main floor.
A committee leader asked if attendees needed to wash their hands before the HaMotzi prayer, copies of which were resting on the table. Other leaders passed around challahs the size of small torahs, which were torn into smaller shreds.
Caterers placed platters of baked salmon, stewed tomatoes and chickpeas, sautéed vegetables and roast turkey on the table, while young lawyers, investment bankers and recent MBA grads sitting elbow to elbow introduced themselves to each other.