By Misha Galperin

As Professor Jonathan Sarna famously said about us: “Jews are an ever-dying people,” so does the federation movement seem to be an ever-dying enterprise. Every decade or so, someone declares that federations are done, finished, on their way out, irrelevant, outmoded, not up with the times, old-fashioned and just about to fade away. The most recent declaration that touched off a firestorm of responses and discussion even called them “ugly” or, at least, focused on what was referred to as their “ugly side.”

Well, whatever your opinion is of the beauty or lack thereof of the federations, I thought it important to ask authoritative leaders of federations – lay and professional, current and immediate past – to weigh in on this discussion that heretofore has been waged without such voices being heard.

In my over thirty five years in the Jewish communal field, including fourteen years at the helm of two major federations, and both before and after that managing and leading federation-affiliated agencies, all after being a beneficiary of the federation system as a Jew struggling to get out of the Soviet Union and then being resettled in the U.S., I have seen all fifty and more shades of that remarkable system. It can be glorious and frustrating, effective and obstinate, swift and efficient but also slow and painfully bogged down in process.

Now, from my new perch of a philanthropic advisor, I thought that the people who have invested enormous personal resources of time, energy and – yes, money – in the enterprise deserve to and must be heard.

So, I have asked a number of them – all of whom I have known and worked with and have a great deal of respect for – to answer a series of questions about federations:

  1. How does Jewish Federation differ from its many philanthropic competitors, foundations, donor advised vehicles, private philanthropic consortiums and individual direct service agencies? What is it that only Federations represent, only Federations do and only Federations can provide? What is or should be the unique added value of today’s Federation?
  2. Looking at the role of Jewish Federation a generation ago, what is it that Federations can no longer do or be? What need they become and how might they get there? What changes must occur to continue to make Federations as critical to the life of Jewish people as they were in times of upheaval and crisis? What must remain unchanged?
  3. To whom are Federations ultimately accountable and how must that accountability be expressed? Specifically, how can Federations be answerable to the grass roots of the community and how can it reconnect with a changing Jewish public that often demands participation and a changing global Jewish reality where consensus is often elusive? And how can Federations do that while depending so much on the contributions of relatively few large donors?

Here are the first of the answers (unedited and printed in full):

Richard Sandler, past Chair of The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles and Chair-elect of Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA):

  1. In today’s society the Jewish Federation should be the community partner/convener. It is the only organization that has the ability to touch and work with all other organizations. The responsibility of the Federation is to strengthen the Jewish community based upon Jewish values – those same values that have sustained us as a people for thousands of years and have allowed us to make such a positive difference in this world, in spite of our small numbers. It is in effect a think tank that should be identifying the most important issues that face the Jewish community, identify what other organizations are best addressing those issues and allocate resources to those organizations that are best addressing said issues, or if they are not being properly addressed, allocate resources to address them. In doing this work, Federation professionals must be in the community listening to others, whether rabbis, other professionals or active lay people.
  2. Federations can no longer be looked at as fundraising organizations. Federations raise funds for a purpose and that purpose needs to be clearly defined, consistent with the mission and goals of the organization consistent with the comments made in 1 above. In order to be effective Federations must be looked upon by the community as a partner with other organizations, not as dominant or more important than other organizations. Every organization has a role and the Federation is in the unique position of working with all the community and truly being the convener and the ‘adult in the room.’ Also to be effective Federations must be run by professionals. Lay leaders have a role to set the mission, make sure the organization has the right CEO and that CEO is supported and has the resources to do his or her job. Federations can no longer be looked upon as just fundraising organizations and lay leaders can no longer get involved in making day to day decisions. The concept of partnership must also apply to the relationship between the professional staff and the lay leaders but the staff answers to the CEO, not to the lay volunteers. The organization must be accountable to the community. The role of the Federations as a convener, especially in time of crisis must not change.
  3. Federations are accountable to the community. Everything that Federations due must be based upon Jewish values as set forth in the Torah – the value of using our time on this earth to make the world a better place for all and using all of our talents to do so consistent with the Torah. Federation leaders, lay and professional must listen to others in the community in order to understand the community and the issues that are important. Federations are accountable when they are professionally run and transparent as to their activities and resources. Donors must be communicated with and treated as investors of philanthropic dollars. Investors only invest if they are getting a rate of return. Federations must listen to donors so they can understand the return that they are getting and why it is important. Donors must also be respected and appreciated. Leadership is communicating to your constituents what you believe is important and why they should care, but first you have to listen to your constituents or community to understand what is important to them so you can show them why what you are doing meets your mutual goals and interests.

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Susie Gelman, past president of Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, past Chair of Birthright Israel Foundation, current Co-Chair of JFNA’s iRep Initiative:

  1. Federation is the only communal Jewish organization that serves the entire Jewish community, without focusing on particular needs (agencies, schools), particular affiliations (synagogues) or particular political viewpoints (Aipac, J Street, IPF). One could argue that JCC’s fulfill a similar role, but only Federations strive to support the entire community. In addition, only Federations assume the responsibility of assessing the entire community’s needs and addressing those needs through prioritization and communal support.
  2. Federations can no longer claim that they are the largest Jewish philanthropy in a given community, as there are a number of private foundations that exceed the annual Federation allocation budget. They need to become more nimble and more responsive to donor interests, without losing the ability to represent the entire community and respond to communal needs. They still serve the role of the collective, which no private foundation or Jewish organization can claim. Representing the entire community regardless of affiliation or political viewpoint is essential. Relevancy is key, especially to the next generation, and federations need to take this seriously.
  3. Ultimately, federations are accountable to their donors and to the community at large (not one and the same). While federations do depend in large part upon a number of major donors, for the most part those donors do not require that Federations respond to their particular needs and interests. Federations need to become more nimble as stated above, need to listen carefully to the voices and interests of the 20-30 somethings who are the Jewish future, need to figure out how to both represent individual and communal/collective interests, and need to constantly prove why giving to Federation (as opposed to singular Jewish agencies in a given community) is value added.

Moreover – only a Federation can represent a collective Jewish response, especially in times of adversity (war, terror attacks, natural disasters, etc.)

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Lori Klinghoffer, past Chair of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey and a national leader:

  1. First and foremost, we benefit from the power of our collective. Perhaps one way in which we differ from other philanthropic organizations is the fact that we are intrinsically tied to each other through our shared mission based on our Jewish values and traditions. So, although we may vary significantly through our cultures and geographies, we share the same basic Jewish identity. There’s an inherent unity of purpose that no other collective of organizations seems to enable. The fact that federations ARE Jewish organizations, distinguishes us from the non-sectarian organizations out there. ONLY Jewish Federations represent the broad diversity of our individual Jewish communities and bring us together under the larger national umbrella which is the convening table for Jewish communities across North America. So, it’s federations alone that have the depth and breadth of support, outreach, education and engagement we experience. Perhaps one of the most challenging exercise is to define the work of federation in a simple sentence. This is both good and bad. It speaks to the magnitude of our work, and yet it can be confusing for “outsiders” since there are so many pieces to the puzzle. I tend to believe that the unique value added federation offers is the opportunity to be part of something bigger than ourselves as Jews, together with other Jews and creating a sense of our global Jewish family.
  2. Federation can no longer be the paternal figure who “takes care” of all with input from few. We are successfully (albeit slowly), moving into a much greater collaborative mode. Convening individuals and organizations who have much to offer and are in alignment with our mission and initiatives. It is critical that our tent be wide open and that we actually listen to those who work with us and those who depend upon us. In order to make us a critical part of Jewish life today, we need to understand what that means. What are the key motivators of young Jewish minds? How do they envision their Jewish future? How can we, organizationally, adjust to be responsive and relevant? We must continue to ask ourselves those questions as we maintain a willingness to take risks to effect change that will inspire more to join us. Even so, at our core, we MUST remain clear that we are a JEWISH organization charged with being a light unto the nations/an example to all who are part of us and those around us.
  3. At the end of the day, federations are accountable to our constituents/stakeholders – our donors. And we need to maintain those relationships on as personal a level as possible. We need to do our best to cultivate them and to maintain open lines of transparency and communication. It’s our job to provide a plethora of opportunities for engagement, and we can only make that work if we are responsive to the community personality. There is no singular answer since we are an extraordinarily diverse population. So each individual federation needs to examine its community and come to an understanding of what the needs are, how best to meet them and how to first “recruit” an extraordinary lay and professional team of leadership – those who inspire while educating and raising dollars. Passion is key. And meanwhile, we surely can’t lose sight of those large donors on whom we depend so critically. They should be respected not only for their philanthropy, but for their leadership, creativity and intellect. And they should have the opportunity to help define direction.

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To be continued …