A Success Story – Institutional Life Adapts

By Emily Chaleff

Just like the silver-haired patriarch of a big family, a storied organization can grow older, often wider, and more set in its ways as time passes. However, as immutable as your grandfather might be, institutions can change. In response to Allan Finkelstein’s recent piece, “Isn’t It Time?,” I agree that we need to remove our “institutional hats,” but we do not need to strip Jewish life completely bare.

The Federation movement is not dead. Jewish institutional life is not dead. I thought it was for a time. I spent 15 years as a Jewish professional in organizations that often operated on the periphery of mainstream Jewish life – experimenting with pluralism, with blurred boundaries, with unorthodox partnerships, with new perspectives. At the time, I thought this kind of foresight was outside the ken of the Federation movement. But then, I did something I never expected – I became the executive director of a Jewish Federation.

Our Federation is not ordinary. In a small community of approximately 4,5000 households, it is one of approximately 12 entities nationwide that merged a JCC, a Federation, and Jewish Family Services – a product of struggle, combativeness, and finally, resolve. Like all Jewish communities, there was the building someone built, and the one they’d never step foot in. It was a monumental change for everyone involved.

The new organization wanted to grow, so in 2009 this merged entity, still licking its wounds, embarked on a strategic planning process, fully funded by a grant for small communities from Jewish Federations of North America. The plan, and the success it led to, would not have happened if not for JFNA.

In writing that plan, people lamented our community’s statistics from a 2007 demographic study: we had the highest intermarriage rate, per capita, in the country. Only 87% of respondents said that they practiced holiday observance or synagogue attendance during the year. (I, personally, was inspired by that number.) The judgment on how one needed to be Jewish was woven throughout the demographic study report. Synagogue attendance was too low, kashrut observance was too low, travel to Israel was too uncommon. These lamentations were echoed in the institutional Jewish communal response to the Pew Study on Jewish Life in America.

The study opens by saying how overwhelmingly proud American Jews are to be Jewish, but the voices within the organized community rose to lament synagogue attendance and intermarriage rates. Institutional Jewish life in America needs to stop telling people where they should put their Jewish mind and body, and start speaking to their Jewish soul.

Locally, as we developed a strategic plan, we stopped throwing up our hands at words like “intermarriage,” “assimilation,” “cultural Jew” and started supporting programs that allowed Jews to access Jewish life in the way they saw fit, not in a way that “we” saw fit. Programming embraced the relative diversity of our community – authentically welcoming interfaith families, secular Jews, a large population of non-Jews who value the quality of programs. We spoke to, to use a crass, but reality-based term – our market. Truly, our “market” is our community, and it was our duty to serve our community. Participation grew, fundraising grew.

A federation/JCC can afford to attempt to be a one-size fits most body – indeed I believe that to be the overarching mission of such an entity. Synagogues, and other denominational structures do not have this luxury. I do not pretend to have all the answers. I do know that often the market will answer the questions for us. If we have too many institutions, some will survive and some will not – no matter the spiritual or emotional tie to a certain building, chapel, office or rabbi. In our community we could not sustain, and did not need, separate Federations, JCC and Jewish Family Services. However, by focusing on what can be gained through contraction, rather than what is lost, we will flourish.

The community campaign is lower than it was before the merger, the reasons for which are debatable and lengthy. However, the organization’s total fundraising has increased over 30% in the last 8 years. With the right combination of optimism, lay and professional leadership, thoughtful planning, and practical risk-management, our community is doing something it didn’t think it could do. It is creating a new center for Jewish life. We have raised over $5 million in the last 10 months. Some might say it is edifice complex that allows this success – I suggest it is the endgame from a merger that started almost 20 years ago. It is not the JCC building a center, or the Federation building an office, or Jewish Family Services building a pantry – it is a Center for Jewish Life, that encompasses each.

It is our belief that when Jews of all stripes can come together in a place where they all feel comfortable, a place of which they can be proud, they can begin or continue the harder work – the discussions on Israel, the grappling with religious observance in an interfaith household, the need of Jews around the world, and the development of a personal, unique Jewish identity.

It would not have happened in our community without the history of Federation as convener and fundraiser, the JCC as programmer, JFS as counselor.

Federation is not dead. Institutional life is not dead. Jews like to come together, and I firmly believe they always will. We are commanded to pray in community, to mourn in community, to celebrate in community. But it comes as no surprise that we don’t like to be told what to do, and exactly how to do it. It is the adaptability that will allow Federations, and all Jewish institutions to grow and thrive. This is the great challenge to Jewish institutional life.

Emily (Rosenberg) Chaleff is principal consultant at Chaleff Consulting – a firm helping good organizations realize their full potential through planning, revenue development, and strategic communications. A Jewish communal veteran of 20 years – she recently completed a 7-year tenure as executive director of the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine. She lives in Portland, ME.