From the Annual Campaign to National Community Engagement

With community as its main theme, I would like to see our federation system and JFNA at its center as the central platform for debate around critical existential questions.

By Michael J. Weil

As a federation exec I am probably pretty unique being the only British born Israeli to serve as the lead professional in a Jewish Federation in North America. This also gives me much perspective to compare my current experiences in this position for the last eight years in New Orleans with early experiences working in Jewish communal life both in Britain and Israel.

Previously, during my years working as a research fellow at the Jewish People Planning Institute in Jerusalem and researching Jewish communal organizations around the world, I noted how Jewish communal organizational structures tended to mirror the host societies. Such that the structure of British and French Jewry, for example, were highly centralized and hierarchical as compared to say the USA and Brazil where the structures were more decentralized and federated. This resulted in strong communal organizations nationally in some countries and weak ones in others, especially America.

I learnt to also appreciate how at the local level in North America (and unlike Europe and elsewhere), Federations in most cities hold the unique position of being the central umbrella organization of the local Jewish community. Nevertheless, some of my friends in federation leadership fail to appreciate the significance of that and some opportunities are lost. Being the communal leader, advocate and facilitator is a tremendous organizational and political asset that many in the system fail to build upon.

I am a big fan of the federation system and support its current leadership, but we can do so much more. Nationally, JFNA has not used this significant cultural asset. Instead of the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts, JFNA has become less than its constituents in stature and impact. Representing 154 plus communities and many more in network communities, JFNA and the federation system have a constituency of many millions and far more than any of the other national organizations, yet it features no more prominently.

Many in the federation system as well as outside of it talk of federation as being primarily a fundraising organization and the annual campaign as being the highest priority. This to my mind is a mistaken view. It may have been true fifty years ago that federations were the prime fundraisers in America, but that’s clearly not true today and [as a result] the annual campaign has lost considerable ground in substance, size and prominence over the years. As generic umbrella fundraising is in decline both in the Jewish community and beyond, philanthropy overall is still increasing and the trends these days are more towards designated giving, directed giving and endowments. Similarly, the major potential for growth is in corporate philanthropy through sponsorships, partnerships and grants. This is indeed a direction that we in New Orleans have taken. Unfortunately, JFNA has not led the pack here and introduced cutting edge best practices and resources to encourage federations to be ahead of the fundraising game.

But more important, it is a mistake to my mind to think that federations are all about the money. The money is simply a means and not an end. Our predecessors a hundred years ago understood that when philanthropists in New York, Boston and Chicago as well as in Cincinnati and New Orleans banded together to found one unified local charity to serve all the myriad of needs in those days they developed the central theme of collective responsibility. Indeed, they created a successful organism that was flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances and critical needs whether immigrants from Eastern Europe, refugees from Nazi ravaged Europe, or disasters like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.

Their understanding of collective responsibility was that while money was essential, the communal responsibility was foremost. Indeed then and even more so today, the prime goal is to build and sustain Jewish community and to facilitate and advocate for it. That is what we are about. Clearly in New Orleans right after Katrina, that was the issue. But even today nine years after it remains the goal. We in New Orleans work hard to widen the net and engage young Jews as well as building future leadership; and we actively embrace Jewish newcomers to move to this special city. With such goals in mind fundraising as a means to the community end becomes relatively easy.

Nationally too, the ultimate goal of building and sustaining community is equally if not more important. With over 150 incorporated Jewish Federations representing most of American Jewry, the Federation System is in a unique position to facilitate that goal. In many ways the federation system and JFNA as its organizational embodiment can speak more on behalf of the American Jewish community than any other national Jewish organization. It has more chapters and more members and more activity in the field than the American Jewish Committee, ADL, AIPAC, Hadassah, NCJW and the Conference of Presidents together. Yet, the federation system has ignored its own prime resource of community numbers and is missing the opportunity to build and sustain the American Jewish community nationally.

With community as its main theme, I would like to see our federation system and JFNA at its center as the central platform for debate around such critical existential questions:

  • How do we ensure Jewish continuity for many generations to come?
  • How do we conduct our commitment to Israel while recognizing that younger Jews have less historical attachment?
  • How can we make living a Jewish life more affordable and money not a barrier?
  • What can we contribute to wider American society to make this country a more equitable, tolerant and supportive society?
  • How can we with our massive resources leverage our funding and those of others to solving some of our major Jewish problem areas?

I believe that if the JFNA somewhat downplayed its fundraising role and up played its community building role, it would have a far wider reach and great relevance.

A few decades ago, the system led the battle whether to free Soviet Jewry or to support Israel after independence and the Six Day War. The system knows how to refashion itself but has failed to do so in recent times or to rally American Jewry around a single community cause.

The General Assembly as the annual meeting of Jewish Federations can similarly be framed as the annual meeting of all Jewish communities in North America and where debates and discussion about Jewish continuity and its challenges such as those mentioned above take place. Some progress towards that objective was made in the GA just outside Washington this year. But so much more can be done such that the GA becomes the national Jewish convention in the continent, attracting at least ten thousand participants.

Today as an insider and formerly as an outsider I can see the unique strength and assets of the federation system. It is very strong at the base and weak at the top. By focusing more on community it can become a more meaningful system. And by mobilizing additional resources and partners, whether other Jewish organizations or major philanthropists and foundations, it can make the Jewish world a much better place.

Michael J. Weil is Executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans.