North American Jewry: An Opportunity to Transform Our Jewish Community

By Ruth Raskas

We live in transformational times. There is a new world of “consumers.” Our data rich world enables us to understand users in a new way. Artificial intelligence is impacting our lives through new channels. How do people embrace this change? Consider the taxi driver that refuses to use Waze because he or she “knows” the best route and does not “need” the data to inform a better path. We do not have to look too far back in corporate America, to Blackberry or to Kodak, to see the impact of not seeing and reacting to a changing environment.

The way in which people engage with the Jewish community is also changing. How should these changes impact how we engage, fundraise and organize as a Jewish community? What role should a national organization play in this transformation?

We live in a society focused on the individual. In contrast, the idea of the Jewish “collective” has been engrained in our Jewish identity over thousands of years. We “gathered” as we left Egypt. We came “together” when we received the Torah. And in more modern times, we “gathered” to celebrate the founding of the State of Israel. We “gather” to remember the Holocaust. Our Federated system was created to help our Jewish communities “gather” and thrive at the local, national and international levels. The Federations help us come together, to comfort us when we are hurting and to help us engage and grow.

Federations vary in size, leadership, geography, and scope of investment but are often similar in their areas of focus: engaging Jews, caring for people and supporting global Jewry and Israel. Some Federations are thriving while others are struggling to increase their donor base, their campaign and their engagement. I believe the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) can make a significant change in this landscape.

JFNA should be a thought leader for our community.

Never before have we lived in such a connected world but in such a fragmented way.

In our changing community, we need leadership to think end to end about pressing topics with a broader base of constituents and drive innovation and meaningful change through this leadership.

For example, we know there is opportunity to better engage the next generation in Jewish communal life. Using design thinking we should map out the current and future journey beginning with a Jewish teenager. We need consumer feedback from these different stages of life and to learn how people are and are not being served throughout the continuum as well as feedback from organizations including camps, youth groups, Jewish organizations on college campuses, and those serving young adults.

We need a way of connecting this mobile generation who are often not tied to one city (even if some of our organizational structures are tied to specific geographies). We could then bring together the many organizations and key leaders that touch Next Gen as well as entities that could fill gaps and create a communal plan to anticipate the needs of the next generations and evolve to better serve them. There are a variety of solutions that could emerge from this kind of effort such as a digital platform to serve the consumer that engages him/her with many different organizations. There are also other areas where a national thought leader could evolve our community including security and education.

JFNA has the opportunity to better serve local Federations.

Local Federations work tirelessly to serve their communities, and there are several ways that a national organization could help the local entities. For example, we need to share information about programs and outcome evaluations so local Federations will take advantage of them – the content should be digital, systematic, easy and relevant.

Do all the local Federations know how the St. Louis Federation after extensive strategic planning is reinventing itself for the future? The traditional planning and allocations process is being replaced with a “needs first assessment,” first understanding the needs of the community. And, beginning in 2015 St. Louis has seen a growth in its campaign and an increase in its donor base. (Thank you to Andrew Rehfeld and outstanding Board Chairs and Federation professionals for this innovative leadership). This is one example where local Federations should learn from the work of another Federation and see how it is relevant to their own communities.

In addition, there are countless examples of operational efficiencies that could save administrative dollars for local Federations including security, missions and performance management.

JFNA needs to continue to mobilize our community and to find ways for us to unify.

We live in a world of hyper segmentation, focusing on how we are different. We need to continue to identify ways to unify. Women’s philanthropy in the Federated community is a great example of effectively unifying. How else could we continue to grow these channels? How do we bring the people who don’t care about Federation to the table? There are many.

Consider a Giving Circle that would have representation from the Diaspora and Israel that would enable the two communities to better understand each other’s perspective on giving. Consider a national Jewish volunteer data base so people can access and easily volunteer anywhere in North America. Or a Start Up Center that would connect the Israeli start-ups with Jewish business leaders across the country.

I write this as someone deeply committed to the Federated system and with deep respect and appreciation for the many visionary professionals and volunteers that are leading our Jewish communities. However, the time is now. We are at a crossroads of change. Many national umbrella organizations are becoming irrelevant. The Federation community both locally and nationally can be the vehicle that can help us advance Jewish peoplehood in a rapidly changing world. The decisions we make now will determine whether our community looks back fondly on Federation like we remember Kodak and Blackberry or if it reimagines its identity to better serve the changing Jewish community.

Ruth Raskas has volunteered extensively in the Jewish community (including serving on the Board of the St. Louis Federation, the Executive Committee, Strategic Planning, and as Chair of Planning and Allocations). She received the Federation’s Young Leadership Award, completed the Wexner Heritage Program, and was selected as the first alumnae delegate from the St. Louis cohort. She received her AB from Harvard College and JD from Georgetown University Law Center.