As the father of a toddler and a newborn, Jonah Halper admits to sometimes being tired. But, says the new director of the Young Leadership and Community Divisions at UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, he is never, ever bored. And somehow, he has energy to spare for his studies for a master’s in public administration. Halper is finishing the last of his classes online for the degree from the University of Baltimore. Perhaps it’s because he’s only ‘5 years old, a fact that belies his sophisticated vision of leadership and his already impressive resume in Jewish communal service.
This month, Halper is gearing up to galvanize community support for Super Sunday, set for Jan. ‘8. Volunteers who gather at the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey, 666 Kinderkamack Road in River Edge, will work the phones in four shifts, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
The annual event is what he calls "the perfect storm a perfect marriage of community-building, volunteerism, and philanthropy." More than 600 people, representing all facets of the community, come out every year for UJA-NNJ’s phone-a-thon. Funds raised are allocated to multiple Jewish institutions and programs locally, in Israel, and worldwide.
"Men, women, and children of all ages, from every denomination and walk of life, from synagogues and Hebrew schools anyone and everyone is there. It’s a true snapshot of our community," Halper says.
And for any event or program to be successful, Halper believes, it must reflect a strong partnership between staff and volunteers. "The community needs to be involved in making it happen," he said, adding that this year’s Super Sunday volunteer leaders are on the same page. "They’re phenomenal, very passionate," he said of Alan Gallatin of Wyckoff and Lauri Bader of Demarest, the chair and vice chair, respectively.
That same approach animates Halper’s guidance of the Young Leadership Division. "There’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all," he contends. "You have to meet people where they are and connect with them through their interests. If we want UJA-NNJ to function as the central address in the Jewish community, then you ultimately have to approach [potential new] leadership on an individualized basis."
People with whom he works and others he hopes to attract to the Young Leadership Division singles, young marrieds, and marrieds with young children he understands, are as busy as he is. "You have to create something they would want to go to, that they would want to get a babysitter for," he said.
Reaching this crowd is another challenge, with many not connected through traditional channels. "You have to find creative ways to get the word out. A lot depends on word-of-mouth," he said.
Halper hosted his first Young Leadership Division event last month, putting his ideas to the test with a Chanukah party on a Saturday night at Blend, an upscale bar/restaurant in Ridgewood that features live music. (The event was kosher.) The evening drew about 75 people, at least half of them new to UJA-NNJ. Halper couldn’t be happier with the outcome.
One key, he noted, was that it was designed as "pure outreach," to introduce people to UJA-NNJ and its good works, rather than as a fund-raiser. "The return on investment is in engaging new people, building the base and engaging the next generation of leadership," he said. "You define success by the follow-up, by making sure to maintain the connections."
Halper sees Super Sunday as another such opportunity to educate the community, and young people in particular, about the work of the federation. "By asking them to make a case [on the phone] for federation, which raises money for the infrastructure of Jewish community, they learn by teaching," said Halper.
He’s optimistic that even those who initially become involved for selfish reasons to make new business contacts, for instance will ultimately be turned on by being able to make a difference. "They grow when they see the good work they are doing through federation," said Halper.
He joined UJA-NNJ in August, fresh from a year at the Jewish Federation of Western Connecticut in Southbury. That experience followed three years at The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, where he started his professional career.
Growing up in an Orthodox home and attending Jewish day school in Providence, R.I., Halper felt a strong connection to Jewish tradition. Still, he was unaware that his future would be in Jewish communal service until after he graduated high school. Thanks to financial assistance from his local federation, the Jewish Federation of Rhode Island, Halper was able to spend a year at a yeshiva in Israel. That’s when it all clicked, making him a believer in the transformative power of Israel experiences for young people.
Once he returned to the United States, he enrolled in a dual-degree bachelor’s program, pursuing Jewish studies in the morning at the New England Rabbinical College and organizational communications at Providence College in the afternoon. To fulfill an internship requirement for his degree from Providence, Halper took advantage of an opportunity to work in marketing at the Rhode Island federation. "The rest is history," he said.