Jewish Federations – Jewish Peoplehood in Action

This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 7 – Reinvigorating Jewish Peoplehood: The Philanthropic Perspective; published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.

by Rebecca Caspi and Lisa Friedman

Throughout the generations, the great strength of the Jewish community has been its distinct ability to organize itself. In North America this found expression through securing the rights of minorities; gaining a significant political foothold; setting up a comprehensive system of Jewish charitable, defense and educational institutions; and, providing substantial support to the State of Israel and to Jews around the world.

As we witness the current shifting social, demographic and economic trends that impact our long standing communal efforts, we note that the fundamentals of Jewish communal life nevertheless remain very much the same. There is still an enduring sense of responsibility, one for the other, across social and geographic boundaries. We are beholden to past generations for enabling our vibrant communal existence, and we are determined to bequeath to the next generation nothing less.

And yet, with today’s challenges, along with the great diversity and heightened self expression among younger Jews, our sense of shared Peoplehood cannot be taken for granted. Rather it is the premier task of Jewish leadership to work hard to keep us connected and engaged as a community, willing and able to undertake responsibilities at home and abroad. In the 21st century, this requires sensitivity to the changes in our culture, the need to be relevant for this generation, to be inclusive and to provide a big tent so that the imperative notion of Jewish family, of Peoplehood, will indeed hold firm.

In many ways, this is the role of the Jewish Federations of North America. JFNA is a natural continuation of the Jewish organizational life that has accompanied our people throughout the ages. The 157 federations of our movement provide historical continuity of position and purpose. While looking inward at the changes affecting Jewish life in North America – the economic downturn, the aging of our population, the rising cost of Jewish education, among them – the federations also provide an essential link to Israel and Jews the world over. This is Peoplehood – the design of a system committed to raising philanthropic dollars to respond to global Jewish needs and emerging opportunities with collective best efforts.

This most essential Jewish activity of raising charitable funds is at the very heart of the federation movement. Reflecting the spectrum of modern Jewish living, the federations represent the values and priorities of a dynamic Jewish agenda. Spearheaded by JFNA through effective strategies and coordinated efforts, and informed by the long-standing and trusted partnerships with the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, federations stand ready with local responses to urgent global and domestic challenges.

This is Jewish Peoplehood in action – rallying Jews and Jewish communities within North America and around the world to be connected, responsible, identified and inspired. To this end, JFNA recently put into place a new, innovative system for community assessment and allocation of North American Jewish philanthropy for Israel and overseas: The Global Planning table.

The Global Planning Table is designed to be the platform where Federation leaders and professionals, Historic Partners, donors and experts generate collective action through high quality research and planning to determine priorities and response. GPT will shape a new consensus around our historic responsibility, will energize collective action for maximum impact and will provide the opportunity and capacity to tackle the principal challenges of the Jewish people worldwide.

Successful philanthropic intervention depends to a great deal on partnership. Historically, JFNA has relied extensively on JAFI and JDC. Both have enabled decades of effective and sustained activity, including working with JAFI to facilitate aliyah, to encourage a deeper relationship between Israel and younger Jews through Israel-based educational initiatives, and to confront the challenges in Israel’s social and geographic periphery. With JDC, our philanthropic dollars rescue Jews in danger, provide relief to those in distress, support the renewal of self-sustaining Jewish community life, and help Israel overcome the social challenges of its most vulnerable citizens.

A joint initiative between JFNA and the Jewish Agency for Israel, P2G (formerly P2K, Partnership 2000) launched this year the International School Twinning Network, a program that connects hundreds of Jewish schools around the world with ‘twin’ schools in Israel. The goal is to create real connections between students and teachers across the globe, allowing global Jewry to experience Israel in a relevant and meaningful way, while creating a similar experience for Israeli youth towards their global contemporaries.

Federations also provide key funding and support for Taglit-Birthright Israel trips, MASA long-term Israel programs, and other key investments in the future of Judaism through our young people. In 2009, a Brandeis University study concluded that participants of Taglit-Birthright Israel were 16 percent more likely than nonparticipants to report feeling “very much” connected to the worldwide Jewish community. Participants were 24 percent more likely than nonparticipants to “strongly agree” with the statement, “I have a strong sense of connection to the Jewish people.”(1)

We respond to Jewish needs wherever and whenever they emerge by facilitating Tikkun Olam, a fundamental Jewish value, linking Jewish communities around the world in significant, meaningful exchanges. In recent years, Federations have raised millions of dollars for victims of natural disasters, including $30 million for Hurricane Katrina relief, $10 million to support JDC’s response to the Southeast Asia tsunami in 2004 and more than $1 million for relief work in Japan. Federations also contributed to JDC’s Haiti earthquake relief, which topped $8 million, and raised $2.7 million to help Israel recover from the Carmel Forest Fire, the worst such disaster in the country’s history.

At JFNA, we believe that in order to further develop and strengthen the idea of Jewish Peoplehood around the world, we must invest not only in North American Jewry, but in global Jewish life. By solidifying our commitment to Jewish Peoplehood, we take one more step forward in ensuring that future generations will be willing and able to carry on the fundamental values of the Jewish people.

Rebecca Caspi, is SVP of Israel & Overseas/Director General, JFNA Israel and Lisa Friedman is an Intern at JFNA Israel.

1. Generation Birthright Israel: The Impact of an Israel Experience on Jewish Identity and Choices, October 2009, Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, Brandeis University