In Defense of Federation

By Amanda Glincher

When Michael Pollan penned The New York Times Bestseller “In Defense of Food,” my internal alarm bells went off. Why were we feeling the need to defend food, such a basic concept in life? I had a very similar visceral reaction to the publishing of “The Ugly Side of Federations.” This article, written by someone unwilling or unable to own zir words, is a direct attack on the very system that has provided support for Jewish life in the United Stated, Israel and throughout the world for over 100 years. It is neither strong nor heroic to use a pseudonym as a shield. Yes, there are faults in the system and many of Gibor’s points are founded, but ze is an example of why we struggle to grow as an entity.

Criticism and introspection are necessities for growth, but without guidance and strategic thinking this criticism only furthers the stereotypes and lack of tolerance for a well-grounded system. In 1895, the Federation system began to emerge out of an effort to systemize philanthropy and provide global support for Jewish life. Over the last 12 decades, this system has experienced the ups and downs that any historical organization could expect to face. Some partnerships were stronger than others, donors varied depending on economic states and even the relevancy of the system has been questioned.

As a whole, the issue I take most with “The Ugly Side” is the generalization of over 150 communities. Yes, we are all part of a national partnership with the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA). We are each our own unique community. Each community deals with their own struggles of redefining the future and combatting the negative perceptions Gibor highlights. As Federation employees, we should be collaborators, forward-thinking, and willing to build on the success we have had rather than focusing on the negative.

I would propose that we look at the points Gibor makes with a more strategic approach. Here’s how we’ve managed to move forward in Silicon Valley.

We heavily self-critique and welcome criticism

Without statistics and regular analysis of both where we have been and where we are headed, our abilities our extremely limited. As a community, we analyze this data. We look at what we once provided to Jewish community, what we continue to provide today and whether this is as impactful as it need be, and what the coming years should look like.

On a personal note, since this was addressed in the original article, I feel very comfortable voicing concern and criticism in our community, especially when the fault is mine or ours as an organization. As our CEO often touts, “we cannot grow without failure.” When the times come that we fail, and we do, it is essential that we own these mistakes. It is also necessary to foster a culture in which failure is allowed and the ownership of it is embraced.

We collaborate with community and we use buzz words

Collaboration. Community. Innovation. Transparency. We live in an area where buzzwords have more personality than many individuals. We use these words because we do want to live by them, but at the same time there is a recognition that “process” is faulty by the very nature of how many collaborative activities come to fruition. As a community, we have struggled with who the decision makers are and often the struggle is that those who are involved, lay leaders and donors, are the ones who are willing to come to the table to make the decision. So, as we move forward, we are tasked with finding new ways to engage individuals outside the fold so they too can be a part of our “process.”

Who knows one?

Echad mi yodeah. I know one. Yes, not all Federation professionals are rabbis, scholars of Jewish thought and literature or even Jewish. There are however, plenty who are Jewish-ly educated, synagogue members, regular learners and strong supporters of providing this education to the next generation. One of the many platforms of Federation is providing for the next generation, inclusive of day school and Jewish camp experiences. Rather than belittle the knowledge of today’s leaders, lets create opportunities for continued education within the office. Weekly parsha reviews, Hebrew words and Jewish ethics are easily integrated into office décor, staff meetings and interoffice memos.

We work together

No, Federation leaders are not touted with making grand gestures regarding equality, environmentalism or politics. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that many Federations house a Community Relations Council (JCRC) as part of the organization. This section of the Federation is the one responsible for lobbying activities and speaking out against civil inequalities. Our JCRC takes tremendous strides to bring consensus to the table on challenging issues. Recently, we have taken public positions on marriage equality, food injustice, human trafficking, and BDS and Israel’s right to exist.

The second reason is that while Federations take the responsibility of convening the community, we choose to be as encompassing as possible. We work with our local executives and rabbis to make sure that Jews of all walks of life are accepted and embraced in our community.

Without us there is no us

We have improved Jewish community, hands down. This is not up for debate. If Gibor had sufficiently studied the history of Jewish community in the United States, ze would have found that Federations were the very bricks by which much of the Jewish world was built.

Do we fund organizations like we once did? No, but many of these organizations employ their own development teams, and the chicken and egg debate that can ensue over this phenomenon is best saved for another article.

We do, however, partner in ways like never before. Locally, we work together to ensure that our community has the space needed for Jewish life, that our organizations have the means to create endowments and that they have a partner.

Yes, we have mountains to move ahead and who we once were as an organization might not be who we are tomorrow. We are only as strong as our weakest leader and we will move forward when all of our leaders, both loud and quiet, take responsibility for our future. I can’t speak for all the communities in North America, but I can confidently say that our “ugly side” is slowly fading away and we embrace any criticism that moves us forward here in Silicon Valley.

Amanda Glincher is the Director of Marketing for the Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley. With a degree in psychology and nearly fourteen years as a Jewish professional, Amanda is a social media guru who enjoys creating targeted campaigns to reach the Silicon Valley Jewish population. Prior to her work with the Federation, Amanda served in numerous roles within the Jewish community including most recently her work as the CFO at the Jewish Study Network and as Interim Director of The Friendship Circle.