By David Zenlea
Watching Rihanna rock the Super Bowl Halftime show last weekend, I noted to a living room full of fellow millennials how validating it is to see the NFL catering to our generation’s musical tastes, rather than those of our parents.
“That’s because now we are the parents,” someone quipped.
It’s true. Millennials—those kids who would never settle down—are now adults who are, by and large, settling down. And as Rihanna’s maternity wardrobe attested, many are balancing busy careers with young families.
In a roundabout way, all that explains Danielle DePriest’s opportunity and challenge as board President of NEXTGen Detroit.
“I think it’s hard for millennials because our attention is so divided; people are starting careers and starting families,” DePriest said.
For more than a decade, NEXTGen Detroit has been a gateway for young Jewish adults to engage with our community. Some 4,000 people attended its lively events in 2022 alone. Safe to say that if you’re in its target age group (21 to 39) and reading this, you’ve had a drink, made a friend, and maybe even climbed a rock wall with the organization.
Those activities will continue to happen (in fact, EPIC is coming up on March 4th). Yet DePriest and NEXTGen Detroit are also looking further ahead, thinking not just about how to engage those who need to hire a babysitter before RSVPing to an event but also about how to get them to commit their precious time and resources toward supporting Jewish institutions. Although millennials are generally generous in giving to causes they connect with, they can, according to multiple studies, be a tough sell when it comes to blanket support for organizations and institutions. Along similar lines, Pew’s 2020 survey of Jewish Americans revealed the younger set is less likely to feel connected with the broader community.
“Our generation is ready to make financial contributions to the community, but they’re more motivated by seeing the impact firsthand,” said DePriest. “NEXTGen Detroit’s role is to bring that impact to the forefront.”
It’s no accident that DePriest, of West Bloomfield, is the one steering NEXTGen Detroit at this moment. She understands the pressures of competing priorities firsthand: in addition to her duties at NEXTGen, she’s a wife, mother to a one-year-old, and a shareholder at a law practice (Zausmer PC). She also sits on the Executive Committee for Jewish Family Service. Those who work with DePriest say her talent for multitasking extends to being able to see how details build toward organizational goals.
“It’s an amazing experience to have a partner and friend who understands the bigger picture and who never misses diving down to the smallest details,” said Tomer Moked, Federation’s Director of NEXTGen Detroit.
DePriest, a lifelong Tamarack Camper and product of Frankel Jewish Academy, is also a walking, talking embodiment of why community institutions matter and how they can be sustained over multiple generations. She benefited from a rich Jewish communal life growing up and saw her family, particularly her mother and grandfather, take the time to give back. “I was raised in a family that really valued taking action consistent with your personal values,” she said. “Now,” she added, “it’s our generation’s turn to plant seeds for those to come.”
“That’s really what motivates me to do what I’m doing: it’s acting as the next generation for the generation that is going to come after,” DePriest said.
I met DePriest at Chroma—a fittingly hip coworking and event space in Detroit’s Milwaukee Junction where her board had recently met—to learn how she and NEXTGen Detroit will ready today’s twenty- and thirty-somethings to invest in the future of our community.
A new time, new needs
NEXTGen Detroit was born out of a need to retain and attract young adults to Detroit, at a time of a significant economic crisis . NEXTGen Detroit evolved to keep people here, to make sure that they have programming and to make sure that they had access to community leadership and involvement opportunities.
But now we’re in a totally different time. This is really the next generation for NEXTGen Detroit. We know people are here. We know people want to keep their families here and are having amazing career opportunities here. So, how can we build up an infrastructure that meets those people where they’re at?
There are two big challenges that I see. The first is, peoples’ time is at a premium. How do we make our programs meaningful so that people want to spend their time there? The other major challenge is communicating to young people the value in having a traditional community infrastructure. Why does it make sense that we have a Federation? Why does it make sense that we have a convening body for our community?
We’ve been able to shift our focus a little bit away from attracting young people to Detroit and really focus on building and retaining the community we have here, which has been exciting for me, because it’s very reflective of my experience. I grew up in the metro Detroit area and was very involved in the traditional Jewish community. I was a Tamarack camper for my whole life. I went to Jewish Academy. I had Hillel at undergrad [at University of Michigan]. I had all those experiences, which was why it was so meaningful for me to come back and make sure that I had a place in leadership and ensuring access for others.
A board that works
This space, Chroma, is where the board kicked off our year together. In the past, I think we would have taken our board retreat as an opportunity to socialize—maybe we would have done an activity. This year, we said, “We’re going to work.”
I feel very fortunate that the Executive Committee that I work with at NEXTGen is largely people who are working full-time or have families of their own. I feel like everyone’s kind of on the same page. [They] are truly, significantly invested both with their time and their resources in our community and are leading at the highest levels.
I think that [professionalism] has created an environment where we’re looking at things through a different lens and sometimes seeking a more sophisticated approach to a question, dialing in on something that [others] might not. I think that is largely because of the working nature of our board.
Something that I’m very proud of is that our Executive Committee has a really significant number of women—women on our executive committee, at this point, outnumber men. There’s definitely attention to gender parity on the NEXTGen Detroit Board. We also focus heavily on ensuring that our chairs for events come from different backgrounds because we want to meet different segments of the community. It’s not just “nice.” It’s what we’re responsible for doing and it also ensures best outcomes. I think that’s the case across the board with Federation—there’s definitely been attention paid to making sure that we have people from all different segments of the community because best outcomes come from that.
An appetite for details
Particularly as a woman leading this organization, I think one of my strengths is attention to detail. I think a lot of women would tell you the same thing, just because we have to keep a lot of balls up in the air at the same time. We’re asking different and exciting questions to ensure that everyone feels comfortable at our events.
A question I heard myself asking repeatedly for events this year was, “Do we have an exciting non-alcoholic beverage option?” That matters. There are tons of people who don’t drink; there’s also a large group of women in the community who are expecting or immediately postpartum and are not drinking. So, I want to make sure we’re catering to that group of the community.
Meeting young people where they are…
Young Jewish adults are everywhere: we’re downtown, we’re in Oak Park, we’re in the Woodward corridor suburbs, but we’re also out in Bloomfield Hills and West Bloomfield.
We have people on the young, 21-year-old end of the spectrum. Then for the people on the older range of our spectrum, we’re providing more significant opportunities…that would meet our “babysitter worthy” criteria.
In any given week, NEXTGen Detroit can be hosting a bar night, we can be hosting a conversation about Israel or we can be hosting a Ninjew Warrior program where people are doing something physical.
Through these programs, people have the chance to learn more about what Federation does and what opportunities for impact are available to them. That’s the big way that we’re catching that split attention of millennials.
…from all Jewish perspectives
The beauty of NEXTGen Detroit is that we’re prepared to meet people wherever their interests lie. There may be a time in the future where there’s a huge interest in very traditional Jewish learning opportunities, and we have amazing partner organizations within the community that are well established to work with us on that. But on the day-to-day side of things, we’re thinking about leadership through a Jewish lens instead of providing traditional Jewish educational programming.
The way that we bring our Judaism into everything we do is through our values, the way that our board operates, and the way that we empower people to think through what’s meaningful.
The Israel piece of things is an area of opportunity. NEXTGen Detroit convenes conversations that make clear to people that whatever perspective you come from, you are welcomed into the room. We recently had a program where there was an Israeli settler and a Palestinian who came and talked about their experience living together in the West Bank. That’s at the core of what we hope to do—to convene honest conversations where people feel that they have a seat at the table.
That stretches across the board, whether it’s Israel or different streams of Judaism and different levels of observance, we want to make sure that we have a place for everyone. That’s why we’ve put so much time and effort into thinking about our programs, to make sure everyone has access, that there’s an appropriate kosher food option, that we start long enough after Shabbat for people to make it down.
Fundraising among young people—a matter of transparency and timeliness
Past generations really had a generational example of what it meant to support and give to the Jewish community in a very traditional institutional kind of way. Our generation is ready to make financial contributions to the community, but they’re more motivated by seeing the impact firsthand. So, NEXTGen Detroit’s role is to bring that impact to the forefront. For instance, “There’s a really significant crisis happening in Ukraine. Here is how Federation is immediately on the ground to address that.” And that’s where our young donors are motivated to give.
It’s about transparency and timeliness. Making an annual ask to a millennial doesn’t make as much sense as making an ask when something is personally motivating them.
I think people are initially quick to say that young adults are not tied to this institutional, big Jewish community. But I think when you break things down into their smaller component parts and get people to understand the role that our community infrastructure plays in all of the little aspects of your life—sending your kids to Tamarack or to the JCC for summer camp, supporting Jews across the world and here in Detroit—that’s more meaningful to young adults. I’ve been really excited about how NEXTGen Detroit has broken that down in a way that’s digestible for people.
The time is now
It’s very apparent to me that the time is now for our generation to take up the reins of leadership within the community to ensure continuity between the generation before us and the next that’s to come.
Making time for meaning
As President of the organization, it’s a significant time investment. I’m on multiple calls and multiple meetings a week. But because it’s something that I so deeply love, it doesn’t feel like a huge time investment. It feels like I’m doing something really meaningful with my time, and it’s very easy for me to tuck my son into bed or hand him to dad [husband Matt Newman] for the rest of the evening and know that I’m doing something that is of value.
I think in having my son, that’s been the biggest driving factor for me. I really strongly want to give back to this community so that it continues to be that strong infrastructure I had when I was growing up.