Looking at Federations from the Outside (sort of…)

Screen shot (edited) JFNA website
Screen shot (edited) JFNA website

By Maxyne Finkelstein

Having worked both for and alongside Federations for most of my career, I have been following with interest the conversation going on about how to interpret the role and value, in 2015. With each article published on this topic, I celebrate the fact that we are able to question and consider the capacity of Federations and debate their relevance. How sad it would be if we, as a people who relish debate, would refrain from asking whether these critical organizations that were shaped over a century ago, are able meet current needs and interests. How sad it would be if we continued to invest in Federations as donors, without asking if they could do better.

Federations are certainly not what they were when I began working in the 1980s, they are much more and better in many ways. We may mourn the loss of great leaders and philanthropists who passed through the hall ways of Federations and left large foot prints, we may have great memories of those who helped to define our sacred relationship with Israel, we now can look back fondly at all the significant events that helped shaped us as Jews in the 20st and early 21st centuries, but that was then and this is now…

Federations continue to have the ability to look at the big picture and cross boundaries, in a way that is not easy nor systemic in agencies with narrow mandates. Federations were purpose built to have the ability to cross ideologies, movements, politics and social class – believing that every donation has value and every person has meaning in a community. In this context Federations have the ability to be meta strategist. While some Federations may have weakened with time and lost sight of their vision, others have strengthened as they have stuck to cherished beliefs, while changing the way their business strategies. Federations are the organizations we can count on to not just respond to crisis but to make sure resources are being used to deliver a hot meal to an elderly homebound survivor tomorrow or a child of intermarried parents is now attending a summer camp and is creating a relationship with his/her Jewish identity and Israel for the first time. Some of these recipients may require a subsidized service and others may not – they are all equal in the eyes of a healthy community and a well-functioning Federation.

When I engage with any organization today, I am not interested in receiving the quality of service or support that was offered in past decades. Technology, knowledge, relationships, access to information, expectations of transparency and our belief in our right to question authority, have all changed us significantly , and with these changes we have adapted in how we interact with organizations. Young or old, we have all benefited from a society that allows us to be active consumers in so many areas. We can choose our food, fashion, travel, entertainment, education, and reading material so much more easily than in the past. We have the ability to leave and join organizations quickly and make new “friends” instantaneously. We can be our own broadcaster of news to everyone on line, at any moment. At the same time this does not mean that our values are different than they have been in the past. These values are the essence of what is critical to thinking about the sustained relationships we have with Federations and they role they have had and will be given in our communities. At the same time not everyone will agree with every decision of Federations. Leaders sometimes make unpopular choices and as this happens donors may choose to walk away; this is inevitable in any philanthropic organization and the essential to the nature of charity and volunteerism.

Federations represent the greater good that we are all capable of offering ourselves and others. Federations are at their best when they serve as the expression of fundamental Jewish values. Judaism calls on us to sustain, elevate and enrich life, this is at the core of what Federations are capable of doing. As Jewish organizations charged with creating and sustaining community, Federations are obligated by donors trust to do this in a way that is meaningful for today and the future, learning from both the accomplishments and mistakes of the past. While today we live in a society framed in consumer choices and often a cynical view of institutions, we also have the capacity to look beyond those narrow views and create a greater and better world from the legacy we are privileged to have inherited. The great thing about this legacy is that it is truly ever- green, if that is what Federations choose to be.

Maxyne Finkelstein served as Executive Director, Federation CJA, Montreal; Executive Vice President (CEO) UIA Federations Canada (now Jewish Federations of Canada-UIA) and CEO at JAFINA (Jewish Agency for Israel North America). Maxyne is currently Chief of Staff at Genesis Prize Foundation.