In recent days, as I have shared with my communally-engaged friends that I would be in Jerusalem for this week’s Jewish Agency meetings, the response has been consistent and all too predictable. First the person expresses jealousy that I get to spend some time in Israel (even in the heat of the summer) and second, they express complete confusion and condolences regarding my involvement in, as they call it, the quicksand that is the modern Jewish Agency. Others also wonder why I (or they) should care about an organization that is purportedly a relic, an instrument of a Jewish time long past. They ask, tongue firmly planted in cheek – isn’t the Jewish Agency something that the leadership of big organizations like Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) should be addressing on behalf of all of us?
The truth of the matter is this: my friends are right to be jealous of my time in Jerusalem, underestimating the possibilities embodied by a reinvigorated Jewish Agency, and dangerously wrong regarding the abdication of their own personal involvement in the Agency’s future. In fact, I firmly believe many of my friends and many others make two false assumptions: (1) that we, as communities, individuals, local organizations, donors and foundations, don’t have a stake in the future, and (2) that organizations such as JFNA have the true ability to represent the overall Federation system (much less North American Jewry as a whole) in shaping the future of the Agency.
Having spent time in the leadership of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, including as chair of its Allocations Committee, I know this first hand. Several years ago Atlanta and St. Louis started engaging the Jewish Agency directly with respect to outcome based funding for respect to programs in Israel and Minsk, Belarus. In the intervening years, more and more communities like Atlanta are structuring independent relationships with the Jewish Agency, and based on the success of initiatives like Partnership 2000, local leaders have been able to interact with Jewish Agency professionals and programs on a more individualized basis. The more they disintermediate JFNA with respect to their overseas funding, the more these communities become direct (as opposed to indirect) funders, and accordingly their voices must be heard in direct, not just indirect, ways. In this spirit, the Jewish Agency’s future is not some theoretical issue to be debated in the halls of Jerusalem hotels by JFNA leadership, but is an issue of vital interest to individual Federations and throughout North America.
And that leads us to the myth of collective bargaining vis a vis the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Agency.
One of the first lessons taught to attorneys in contract law is the limits of agency and due authorization – the rule that a person representing an interest must have actual, or at least implied, authority to represent the interests of others. Many years ago, JFNA (then known as UJC) had the apparent authority to represent the interests of the Federation movement in the Jewish Agency, and in most cases had actual authority. Now, the nature of local Federations funding strategies has diminished the ability of JFNA to collectively bargain with the Jewish Agency on behalf of those local Federations – becoming more of a myth than a matter of fact. Make no mistake, JFNA is still a vital voice at the table, but the table isn’t the same shape it once was, and the guest list has changed. Yes, JFNA expresses the voice of the Federation movement in North America, but only so much as that voice is in harmony, which it is increasingly is not. So we must recognize this diminished ability of JFNA has left us not only with significant issues (whose voice to listen to) but also an opportunity: inspiring increasing numbers and types of people to invest their time and efforts in the Agency. Of course this can’t be done unless the Agency develops new ways of engaging those individuals in the future work of the Jewish people – this is, and must be, its imperative.
As we will see and undoubtedly read this week, the Jewish Agency is on the cusp of its most significant and necessary redefinition in decades. But the future of the Agency will not be changed if we all rely on the myth of collective bargaining, it will only be truly reimagined if we increase and inspire a mix of people who feel they have a vital interest in its possibilities – a mix that can transform the quicksand of the present into the concrete of the future.
Seth A. Cohen, Esq. is an Atlanta-based attorney, activist and author on topics of Jewish communal life and innovation. Seth is an alumnus of the Wexner Heritage Program, Vice Chair and past Allocations Chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, member of the board of Joshua Venture Group and First Vice President of Jewish Family & Career Services in Atlanta. Seth regularly shares his thoughts on where we are going as a Jewish community on his blog, Boundless Drama of Creation, and is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy. Seth can be contacted directly at seth.cohen [at] hklaw.com.