(Not) Waiting for Godot: Five Steps Toward Federation 2.0
“ESTRAGON: (giving up again). Nothing to be done.
VLADIMIR: (advancing with short, stiff strides, legs wide apart). I’m beginning to come round to that opinion. All my life I’ve tried to put it from me, saying Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven’t yet tried everything. And I resumed the struggle.”
Any fan of Samuel Beckett (or individuals with a passing knowledge of theater) will know those lines as the opening lines of “Waiting for Godot,” one of the most intriguing (and debated) plays of the modern era. Notwithstanding its acclaim and endurance, questions continue to be asked about the message Beckett was trying to convey. Who was Gadot? And in the event he arrived (which he never does), what would happen?
Over the past few weeks the “Godot” question has plagued me, but for a different reason. As the conventional Jewish communal calendar comes to its summer recess, there is still a substantial question raised by many (including me in my previous posts): what is the future of the Federation movement? For much of the Jewish world, this is a marginal question (at best) and increasingly an irrelevant question (at its most dangerous); but for those who have busied themselves with wondering about this future aloud, there tends to be a recurring and Godot-esque response: “let’s wait and see what the next leadership does when she/he arrives.”
Here is my suggestion: let’s not wait for Godot.
If we are truly in the window of opportunity to reframe and renew one of our most central, enduring, and impactful modern Jewish movements, then we can’t rely merely on the arrival of a professional CEO or the engagement of new volunteer leadership. We need to take significant, broad-ranging and constructive actions (not just budget cuts) to bring Federation 2.0 into being. And we need lots of participants in this endeavor, participants that are not satisfied waiting for change, but participants who want to create change.
We have not been at such a fundamental inflection point in the Federation movement for decades. Not to slight the many years of merging, restructuring and strategizing, but those were inflection points tied to reorganizing the Federation system. What I am writing of is reimagining the Federation movement. Once the movement is reimagined, we can then begin the process of converting our system to meet the vision of a renewed movement.
However, to look forward, we can use wisdom by looking to our past. At one of our movement’s great moment of inflection, at the 1969 General Assembly, Rabbi Hillel Levine, then a student, spoke of being part of the “children of timelessness” who nevertheless want to “participate in building the vision of a great Jewish community.” In what could easily pass as something being heard in 2009, Levine said in 1969 “we don’t want commissions to ‘explore the problems of youth.’” Rather, he stated, “we do want to convert alienation into participation, acrimony into joy – the joy of being possessors of a great legacy – a legacy which has meaning for today.”
In similar spirit, it is time again to bring forward the great legacy of the Federation movement in America to have relevance today. And we don’t have time to wait. We need to act, and act swiftly.
In personal hindsight, eighteen months ago when I first started circulating the white paper titled Federation 2.0: Reimagining the Federation of Greater Atlanta, I made (at least) two mistakes. One, I relied on thoroughness over brevity, making the action plan too lengthy and detailed to make it actionable. And second, I encouraged talk rather than action. Learning from my experiences I now propose, in brief form, specific action steps for bringing Federation 2.0 into reality and helping us all take possession of the great legacy that awaits us.
1. Refrain from placing blame about the status of Federation 1.0. There are many who would be quick to compose a laundry list (privately and publicly) of all those who are to blame for the current state of the Federation system and constituent Federations. Where does that get us? It is an empty endeavor that does not hasten the development of Federation 2.0, and traffics more in institutional memory than impassioned creativity. The blame game is destructive and dividing, and our endeavor to move forward is weakened by both. Regardless of how our opinions may differ, our endeavors should be based on kavod and the language we should use with one another should be language worthy of our endeavor. Let’s leave the ‘I and thou’ to Buber and focus on the “we and us” While actions matter, language does as well.
2. Engage our legacy. How many smart women and men have been engaged in the Federation movement only to eventually find their passion and engagement waning for one reason or another? Locally and nationally we need to reach out to the disaffected and disenchanted, we need to harness their memory to help create a different future. And not only people, we need to remember some of our texts. Not just religious texts, but communal texts. Levine’s speech, Rabbi Herb Friedman’s book, Heschel’s essays on radical amazement – the history of our movement and the ideas of our people should inspire us to recall our mission even as we reimagine our approach.
3. Open source our ideas. In the few short years I have been engaged in Jewish communal leadership I have been amazed at the insight and creativity inside of both career social workers and emerging social entrepreneurs. In reimaginging the Federation movement, we cannot engage only those that meet certain experience levels and donor status, we need to engage passionate Jews at in all stages and interests. We need to open up the discussion broadly, energetically, imaginatively, and audaciously. We need to use social media tools, virtual town halls and in-person listening tours we need to move swiftly, but not by being exclusive in our discussions. Yes, there is always a place for focused discussions of our most generous supporters, but as I discussed in the Federation 2.0 white paper, we need to make sure that we do not forget that the base is broader than the pinnacle and our movement is one of many, not few.
4. Create a national Federation 2.0 working group. This is not just a New York City project, and with apologies, it is not just Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, and Los Angeles’ project either. It is not just a “Big City” project and it is not jut an executive committee project. It is a national project. It will require input from Seattle and Savannah, Providence and Pittsburgh. We will need engaged leaders from all over the nation to commit to a discussion where we frame a national agenda for the Federation movement. This working group is not inside out or outside in, but a true partnership between those inside the system and those outside of it. An agenda should be set for discourse, but with a goal towards answers. This working group should be self identified immediately, and begin its work immediately, with substantial discussion having occurred by November.
5. Utilize the 2009 General Assembly as a forum for the debate and adoption of a renewed agenda and approach for the national Federation movement. Forty years have passed since that 1969 GA, and it is time that we engage in a discussion and debate of the magnitude we had then. UJC should reframe the GA in the context of a great national debate, and rather than recognizing ribbons we should look to rigorously debate a national agenda for our movement. Call it “GA 2009: Reframing, Reimagining, and Renewing our Movement.” Cut the attendance cost and bring people of all backgrounds and ages to be part of the discussion. Create nationwide conversations during the same days for those that can’t come to Washington (and nationwide plenaries via national teleconferences and webcasts). Then, at the conclusion of the GA, adopt an agenda and national approach that is bold and imaginative. Create working groups for that agenda to continue the national dialogue and to keep us accountable regarding our approach. And let our movement once again spread across the country energetically from the bottom up, not the top down.
So there you have it, five actionable steps for the development of Federation 2.0. Yes, we still need leadership to arrive and yes, we should have high expectations of her/him. But we cannot wait for Godot. As that play ends…
“VLADIMIR: Well, shall we go?
ESTRAGON: Yes, Let’s Go.”
We too must go – go forward. Who’s ready?
Seth A. Cohen, Esq. is an Atlanta-based attorney, activist and author on topics of Jewish communal life and innovation. Seth is an alumnus of the Wexner Heritage Program, Vice Chair and past Allocations Chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, and First Vice President of Jewish Family & Career Services in Atlanta. Seth regularly shares his thoughts on where we are going as a Jewish community on his blog, Boundless Drama of Creation, and is an occasional contributor to eJewish Philanthropy. Seth can be contacted directly at seth.cohen [at] agg.com.