Neither Centralized nor Decentralized: A Vision Driven Future

by Barry Shrage

Even at the beginning of the 21st century, at a time when “umbrella charities” seem to be losing influence, many Jews and Jewish institutions still look to federations for leadership, unity, vision, opportunity, and hope. To the extent that Jewish institutions fulfill these aspirations and position themselves at the leading edge of Jewish history, they will attract the best and brightest leadership, raise needed resources, and receive the blessing of future generations. The challenges Jewish communal leaders face – the development of a meaningful Jewish identity in a world of choice; the need for civil debate and discussion as we struggle to support Israel in an increasingly polarized, hostile, and dangerous world; and the need to strengthen the sense of common purpose that binds American Jews, Israelis, and Jews around the world – are all shared challenges that require a new, more organic way of working more broadly than within our own communities.

The hope that many continue to feel for a communal system such as the federation is not based on admiration for our process, or for the way we raise or allocate community money. It is certainly not, as it once might have been, based on the connections federations provide with Israel through cumbersome international bureaucracies. It is rather a yearning for leadership and vision at a time that seems to be filled with both danger and unprecedented opportunity.

In Boston, we have worked to create and strengthen communities of Torah, tzedek, and chesed, developing specific programs to carry out these goals. “Jewish education, social justice, and caring communities” is a rallying cry that has already raised significant new resources, attracted new leadership, and showcased the value added by the federation.

While this vision is neither wholly local nor global, neither wholly particular nor universal, its roots are local and particular. Community must be nurtured in local soil – in real time. We began by focusing locally on the ideals of Torah, tzedek, and chesed, and so we nurtured the goal of universal adult Jewish literacy within a community of caring Jews that reaches out to the world in the name of social justice.

We build Jewish connections from the ground up, and every project we fund in either Haifa or Dnepropetrovsk (our sister cities) serves the dual purpose of strengthening human services, economic wellbeing, and Jewish life in both places. This “people-to-people” partnership model is linked to a strategic giving process that has proven highly effective at delivering services (we have arguably the most carefully researched and effective project for resettling Ethiopian Jews in the country) while raising far more money from a vastly expanded giving base.

And we’ve ensured that the organic linkages among Boston and Haifa and Dnepropetrovsk will grow stronger in the years ahead. Issues of Jewish identity in the United States, in Israel, and around the world are growing increasingly similar. Helping our children and grandchildren to explore and experience meaningful Jewish life increasingly preoccupies us all. It is a task that we must pursue together if we are to succeed.

The struggle to define a Judaism of openess and beauty, of Torah, tzedek, and chesed, is a struggle that will require the combined talents of the best and brightest from all our communities working closely together. Even at a time of eroding influence, a global enterprise such as the federation is the only way we can build this dream. Even at our weakest, the federation system still has the power to mobilize enormous financial, intellectual, and human resources in the service of the Jewish people and Jewish meaning. To serve the Jewish people in a time of rapid change, great opportunity, and newly emerging danger requires a clear vision of the Jewish future, the capacity to quickly mobilize community energy and resources, and the ability to shift course as circumstances require without losing sight of the future we are trying to build.

In Boston, we are seeking to create a federation that is focused on change and on a compelling vision of a Jewish future characterized by purpose and spiritual grandeur. We have developed ideas, found partners, raised significantly more money, and seen some success flow from our efforts. Attitudes are changing. Jewish education and learning are viewed with greater seriousness, and more Jews are choosing to learn and study our traditions and our texts. More interfaith families are choosing to raise their children as Jews. Congregations are more vibrant. More money is being raised for new program initiatives at home and for our partner communities overseas. Change is happening. There is room for optimism and hope, here and in Israel. And both are required if we are to succeed.

Barry Shrage has served as president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Boston’s Jewish federation, since 1987. He has written and published widely on issues of Jewish identity and Jewish education, and he has worked in a variety of roles for the Jewish people for close to 45 years.

Reprinted with permission from Sh’ma June 2014, as part of a larger conversation about Jewish neighborhoods in flux.