We should remind ourselves why the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds, the precursor of the JFNA, was created three generations ago, and we should recognize that the GPT may not be the answer but rather be part of the problem.

by Stephen G. Donshik

After two years of planning, the Global Planning Table (GPT), which was developed by the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) with the participation of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, The Jewish Agency for Israel, and World ORT, recently held a series of meetings with the JFNA board. According to the GPT Executive Summary on First Year of Work, the GPT “is designed to provide a structure for examining the challenges and opportunities of today and igniting action to address them.” After reading the full report of the GPT’s first year and consulting with people involved in the planning process, I would like to make a few comments and raise a number of issues about the GPT.

First, reading through the report and its executive summary I was struck by the fact that it took the federation system and its partners more than two years to develop the Global Planning Table. Obviously the most important part of the process was reaching a consensus among the member federations so there would be both buy-in among the constituent members and an investment in making the system work. Building such a consensus takes time.

One of the critical questions is whether the concept of collective responsibility is still viable in federated Jewish communities. The strength of the North American Jewish community has always been the combination of strong local Jewish communities and an overarching umbrella organization that has functioned as both a convener of the local federations and an advocate for the system itself and the needs of Jewish communities in the United States and overseas. By bringing the federations together, this umbrella organization – today the JFNA – enabled the system to speak with one voice, when necessary, and to explore the need and viability of responding as the overall representative of the Jewish community. However, given the significant changes in both the JFNA and in the way local communities function today, one must question whether a process such as the GPT is at all relevant and whether the last two years of “process” have made the case for the relevance of the JFNA, in its present form.

For example, for many years a local community’s dues for the Council of Jewish Federations, one of the precursors to the JFNA, were based on the amount of money the community raised in its annual campaign and the number of Jews living in the community. At the present time, there is one dues structure for all communities: 10% of the funds raised by the local community for its overseas allocation through the JFNA system. There are quite a number of federations that have decided not to meet this requirement.

What does this present formula imply about the status of the JFNA in both domestic and international Jewish philanthropy? What is the message given to federations that allocate 30-40% of their funds raised on an annual basis for overseas allocations? Thus, when representatives from communities that vary greatly in the amount of funds they raise and allocate to overseas programs come together to make decisions, is this really an example of collective responsibility?

An effective GPT cannot be built on the weaknesses of the present system. For the federation system to speak meaningfully of collective responsibility, the communities must make a commitment to provide the resources needed to enable a meaningful implementation of the strategic plan. If the resources are not available because there is not sufficient buy-in, then even beginning to implement the first three of the strategic initiatives will not have an impact. Included in the six major signature initiatives are:

  1. Cross-Border Immersive Experiences
  2. Breaking the Cycle of Poverty for Children and Families 3. Civil Society and Religious Diversity in Israel
  3. Global Jewish Leadership Development
  4. Global Emergency Preparedness, Security, and Advocacy 6. Global Jewish Platform

Perhaps this is a wakeup call that there is something very wrong with the system. If these first efforts are not successful then the years invested in planning and developing these ideas will just be another example of the federated system’s demise.

During the last twenty years we have seen all too many reorganizations and launchings of new initiatives. It appears as if the reorganization of the United Jewish Appeal and the Council of Jewish Federations into the United Jewish Communities and now the Jewish Federations of North America has not strengthened our communities nor enhanced the umbrella organization’s ability to speak in one voice on behalf of the system. Campaign revenues in many communities continue to fall, having a deleterious impact on both the local communities and on the resources available to meet overseas needs. Thus, we return to the central concept of collective responsibility.

We should remind ourselves why the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds, the precursor of the JFNA, was created three generations ago, and we should recognize that the GPT may not be the answer but rather be part of the problem. It has taken two years to come up with the GPT’s first initiative, and it has evoked less than an enthusiastic response. There was a great deal of urgency several years ago when the GPT was first proposed, but the development process should have been designed to bring other partners to the table and to produce a series of progress reports to invite feedback from players and members in the system. Given the rise of independent Jewish family foundations and philanthropic funds, it is striking that the GPT process did not invite them to the table nor expand the concept of collective responsibility to include these entities.

I am a proponent of collective responsibility. Based on more than 40 years of working and studying the organized Jewish community, I believe it is the only way for us to continue to build and strengthen Jewish communities around the world while working together with them. Today’s Jewish world has more independent Jewish communities than ever before. However, we have not found a way to maintain the unique organization of the North American Jewish community that was a hallmark of success from the 1930s to the 1990s and to reach out to work together with communities around the world. If we do not find a way to reimagine our structure and function to meet the demands and the needs of the 21st century, the community will devolve into being a conglomerate of independent functioning communities and not be able to retain its historic role that it fulfilled in the 20th century.

The members and affiliates of JFNA have to recognize the dilemma they are living through and make a decision to be less concerned with the preservation of JFNA and more focused on meeting the needs of the continental and international Jewish communities. We have met other challenges in the future, and I hope our system can retool to meet this one. Something has to change, and it isn’t just the acronym used to signify the loose connection between the communities.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program. Stephen was Director of the Israel office of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), 1986-94, and Director of the Israel office of UJA Federation of New York, 1994-2008.

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