Returning to Basics

By Maxyne FinkelsteinWhile most of us are experiencing the least flexibility of our lifetimes regarding personal freedom, many are learning the value of flexibility in our work. Whether as a Foundation, Federation, or private donor, we are being encouraged to set aside strategies, stop focusing on measurable outcomes and instead return to the most basic values on which many of our communal and private entities were established; without much diligence we are helping the most vulnerable and making the community accessible to the greatest number possible.

We have ceased to ask the existential questions of who we are and how we are connected. We are not focusing on why an organization exists, rather what can it do. We have seen sleepers rise and do wonderful work as they improve the quality of life of others. This crisis has demonstrated the essence and passion of leadership that continues to exist in our communities.

We have learned a lot from this experience as certain needs have dominated the agenda. We are remembering what we may have been neglecting, that we must be more sensitive to the issues of food security, domestic violence, special needs of the less able and loneliness. We have learned that being lonely can be as detrimental to health as smoking 10 cigarettes a day and continuous worry about food security is as harmful to health as many inflammatory diseases. We now must ask what the organizational responsibility is in addressing these problems.

As this is happening, we have realized that living without household debt is a privilege that many will never achieve. The number of people in our communities living close to the edge financially and those who are isolated and in need of high touch services on a continuous basis is significant. These trends that are now being highlighted are part of the enduring poverty in our communities that were easier to ignore or consider as a minor challenge when the economy was strong. Those funders who have always continued to see the neediest as a priority are to be congratulated and for those who are just stepping up, they must be encouraged to continue to support the most disadvantaged amongst us.

This current situation leads to asking what essential services are for an organized Jewish community? Is there such a thing as Jewish “entitlements” – services Jews can expect from their Federations and other legacy and newer organizations? How does this guarantee factor into our willingness to donate?

While the organized Jewish community does not have the capacity to replace resources provided through our tax dollars it does have the ability to leverage those assets to improve quality of life and bring the community closer to many. Entering a period of giving more support to those living with modest means requires hard choices. Is it more important to support access to Jewish education (both formal and experiential) for young people or to ensure a higher level of food security? How does Israel travel rank against paying better wages to social and health care workers? What is our obligation to the isolated elderly? Do sophisticated community institutions have a responsibility to use their financial acumen to find new ways to provide financial support to the most vulnerable?

It is not easy to engage in conversation about these issues as we ultimately must live with the decisions, we make. This crisis has brought us to a tipping point where we must have the difficult discussions. It is the time to draw up a universal list of questions we should be asking and engage community members at all levels in finding the answers. These responses can guide us for the next two years. It will take at least twenty -four months until we see light in the economy and during this time, we can build a community of more caring and compassion with less competition.

Maxyne Finkelstein is President, Morris and Rosalind Goodman Family Foundation.