By Richard Friedman
Not too long ago, my phone rang. It was Jerry Silverman, President & CEO of Jewish Federations of North America. The end of the calendar year was approaching and he was urging our Federation to send more cash to JFNA. Jerry also told me something I hadn’t realized: On July 1, 2019, I would become the country’s longest-serving Federation director.
When that date rolls around, I will be in my 37th year as executive director of our small southern Jewish Federation. It has been – and continues to be – a privilege to serve Birmingham’s small but mighty Jewish community.
Jerry’s comment got me thinking. There have been countless highs, a few lows, and, of course, some things I would have done differently.
But I really have only one piece of advice to pass on to my younger Federation colleagues: Don’t let yourself become jaded.
Fight through the sometimes seemingly endless stretches of “put me down for what I gave last year” solicitations and come up with new ways to raise funds; don’t allow yourself to be numbed by the time-consuming meetings and remember that every lay person who participates cares deeply or they wouldn’t be there; recognize that the frustrations that can emanate from a tough allocations process are often driven by good people who are passionate about good causes; and don’t recoil from the challenge of melding discordant views for the greater good, even when influential stakeholders are in opposition to one another. Instead be honest, diplomatically forthright and principled.
Remember that Federation work is not for the faint of heart. More importantly, remember it is for those full of heart.
The Federation movement is still the most effective collective consensus-based system of action that the Jewish world and, arguably, the entire philanthropic world has ever known when it comes to addressing needs, initiating new ideas, transforming communities and – yes – saving lives. It is the heart of the Jewish community and I say this to my younger colleagues: As long as your heart beats Federation and you never lose sight of the power of our system to do good, your days will be blessed and you will prevail.
Yes, tweak your Federations, evolve them, get rid of the things and approaches that aren’t working; try new models and structures, and take intelligent risks. But don’t ever get discouraged. Our enduring impact will come not only from what Federations have achieved in the past, but also from what we will achieve in the future.
I will conclude my Federation career as 2019 comes to a close – “To everything there is a season” – and then will embark on some new professional ventures. So in reality I will be the nation’s “longest serving Federation director” for just a very short time – only six months. Though I’ll still be living in Birmingham, I already know I will miss seeing my Federation family day to day.
I began working for the Birmingham Jewish Federation in 1981, loving it. I’ll leave Federation work in 2019, still loving it. How lucky I have been.
Richard Friedman is Executive Director of Birmingham Jewish Federation.