From Strained Authority to Authentic Leadership: The Jewish Federation of the 21st Century

by David Chivo

For nearly 120 years, Jewish federations have advanced Jewish life throughout North America. But incontrovertible changes within and beyond the American Jewish community have forever impacted the scope and purpose of the Jewish federation model.

From its beginning in Boston in 1895 until about 20 years ago, the role of the Jewish federation movement was mostly unquestioned. Federations ensured the sacred survival of Israel; rescued millions of Jews from around the world; and took care of our local agencies. Moreover, the Jewish federations across North America shaped and guided their community’s priorities together with passionate and thoughtful lay leadership.

Starting in the 1990s however, changes in American society and the Jewish communal landscape started wearing on the Jewish federation system. Economic upheavals, changing notions of community and identity and a diminishing connection to Israel were among the major factors. Add to that the advent of Jewish organizations raising funds for themselves – and also becoming very good at inspiring such philanthropy, and suddenly the federated model was no longer what it once was to the Jewish community.

Jewish federations were challenged to respond to the changes. Yet, they proudly continued raising funds as they best knew how and they worked diligently on setting communal priorities, but they did so not always with the fullest awareness of the undeniable disruptions of what was once the status quo.

The Jewish Federation movement must recognize the trends that have occurred in both Jewish and in American life. Unparalleled levels of choice in terms of geography, community, affiliations, lifestyles, family composition and civic engagement all point to the need to operate, act and engage very differently with the Jewish population than we ever did before.

As such, Jewish Federations must commit themselves to entirely new approaches in undertaking their work. The need to seek out new covenants with the Jewish communities they serve based on shared responsibility and a sense of providing authentic leadership so that Jewish life in cities throughout North America can continue flourish.

What does “authentic leadership” mean?

Jewish federations must renew their sense of commitment to engaging the entire Jewish community and define a notion a communal strategic planning that is guided by the following principles:

  • To collaborate in full partnership with organizations from all spectrums of Jewish life to create a shared vision of the Jewish future in a given community.
  • To strengthen Jewish life by providing the best strategy and planning resources to the entire community.
  • To convene the total Jewish community on a regular basis so that the multivocality of Jewish voices are listened to and respected.
  • To provide unmatched ROI (return on investment) and ROO (return on objectives) to our donors and stakeholders who are entrusting us with their philanthropy.
  • To build new models of philanthropic engagement involving donor choice and donor accountability so that every contributor to the Jewish Federation is a partner in shaping the Jewish future.
  • To open the doors to Federation decision-making so that choices being made include the input of many stakeholders and also reflect the aspirations of our community
  • To live Jewish values to the fullest in all that the Jewish federation does, especially in upholding the concepts of Tzedakah (righteous giving); Kehillah (community building) and Gamilut Chasidim (being practitioners of compassionate acts).

There is no doubt a desire among Jewish thought leaders and philanthropists for an organization that will authentically lead our Jewish communities. Indeed, for Jewish life to be engaging to an increasingly diverse and discerning populace, our community must come together to answer what being Jewish in North America could look like in 5, 10 or 20 years. Jewish federations must earn the right to play that authentic leadership role in our community.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches us that, “our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ….get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

So it should be with us, we should be amazed by what is possible and be inspired to make it happen. The Jewish community deserves nothing less when it comes to shaping its future.

David Chivo is Executive Vice President, Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle.