The Continued Decay of Jewish Federations

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By A. Federation Pro

It is not that you missed it, it was never written.

At about this time of year, the overwhelming majority of Jewish Federations end their UJA Annual Campaigns. If the conglomerate grew, even a bit, you would have read an article here – among other places – by someone from JFNA (the Jewish Federations of North America) crowing from the rooftops. Just one more collective donor, one more total dollar and we all would know.

The absence of a victory lap is not the Federations’ fault; at least not entirely. Having just completed my 21st year working for my third Federation I’d like to submit my observations why.

The Jewish Federation, by its own core mission, is largely a reflection of the community it purports to represent. When the non-Orthodox segment of the Jewish community is strong, a Federation can thrive. However if this same segment is not strong, Federations slowly dissolve irrespective of how welcoming, or how low the “barriers of entry” are made.

The signs of decay begin with leadership. Federations, like many communal institutions, were led through decades by businessmen who were leaders in their industry. They became the Federation President, they were held in esteem, and their giving to UJA were precisely the “lead gifts” which set the pace and expectations of others. That profile, slowly but surely, changed.

While opportunities for women to serve as President have been welcomed, other changes in the position have not been as advantageous. No longer does the President lead in philanthropy. No longer does the President necessarily have a paid-job, as full-time volunteers are not unusual. And no longer does the position of President necessarily go to the most desirable candidate, but the one who will say “yes” to being nominated. Sadly, while the challenges today may be more complex, the position is not necessarily occupied by the most qualified.

Another reason for Federations’ slow decay is that philanthropy – like the rest of life – has long changed. We live in a Keurig and a Pandora world, where services are measured in customization. Community, which Jewish Federations appropriately claim to “build,” simply matters to less and less. Put differently, if the person I walk down the aisle with isn’t Jewish, how much am I really going to care about the folks down the block?

The result has been, essentially, a reverse mortgage of sorts. The purpose of Jewish Federations were to build community through the centralization of fundraising. The YMHA (later JCC or “J”), the Family Service, the Home for the Aged, and everything Israel and overseas were to concentrate on providing vital services or programs to those in need, while Federation were to raise the necessary support.

Today, Federations have often become the largest recipient of its own fundraising.

Federations argue that we are now providing more services than ever, but the result has been a large portion of donations staying within our office while every supported agency, here and overseas, have hired its own fundraising staff.

Finally, and perhaps most corrosive is the lack of commitment to a serious Jewish lifestyle and literacy among leadership. Pro-Israel? Yes. Tikkun Olam? Yes. Feed the hungry, send kids to camp, offer counseling to a person in distress? Yes, Yes Yes. But the lack of commitment to a binding Jewish lifestyle has led to the erosion of all but the most popular ritual practices and a paltry level of Jewish knowledge. The Pew study stat of 72% of non-Orthodox intermarrying is not so much about matrimony, but about Jewish apathy. That a Federation President (whom we refer to as a “leader”) may or may not be able to read a simple Hebrew sentence is not why I am sad; I am sad because few care or see its relevance.

I realize this essay will anger some in Federation… which isn’t a bad thing, actually. We work hard, we mean well, and we do good, often referring to our work as “sacred.” How dare one of our own question our mission! Our defense usually form around three arguments: (a) We are big; bigger than anyone else. (b) We save lives … again, more than anyone else. (c) We are uniquely positioned.

Jim Collins, in “Good to Great” wrote about “brutal honesty” as requisite for any company to improve. In this regard Federation is big, but shrinking every year. (I have a colleague who told me recently that they were happy simply because the campaign was not as far down as they originally forecast. Some even call “flat” the new “up.”)

Federation does save lives, but they are dependent upon the Jewish Agency, JDC, ORT etc. Put differently, if Federations disappeared, these important institutions would not only continue, but if smart – which they are – pick up some of the philanthropic dollars.

Federations are uniquely positioned to promote “community” like no other. This is absolutely true. The question, however, is outside of the very small ranks of Federation senior staff and Boards, who cares? What have we learned from Pandora and Keurig?

To be fair, and to acknowledge great institutions, there are Federations which buck the trend and continue to grow. The Jewish Federations in Birmingham, Chicago, Boston, Toronto and of course Cleveland to name a few. However, like with decay, the vibrancy of these Federations are a reflection of strong, multi-generational communities who still care deeply and identify as Jews, with a central urban city as a geographic hub.

Federations are not going anywhere; we are here … at least for a while. As we shrink, we will continue to merge while advertising new entities to be more efficient, greater and bold. That is one thing I envy about my colleagues: they are creative. But while the “sizzle” seems flashier, the steak is smaller … less cows.