Perhaps one of the most frequently heard refrains regarding any existing organization, initiative or program is that “if it didn’t exist, we would need to create it.” It is spoken in boardrooms and parking lots, by professionals and volunteers alike. It is often said in moments of frustration and defense, and rarely in times of admiration. It is a refrain that often is much more true than false, but is often used falsely in the defense of ideas that have grown stale in a tin breadbox of conviction.
We often say this about our local Federations, the Federation system and United Jewish Communities. We say, with firm conviction, “if they didn’t exist, we would need to create them.” We say that the current model of Federations may need to change, but that the need for Federations has not changed. We say that if we can only fix what is broken we can preserve what is of value.
But what if we are wrong?
What if our current model of the Federation system is of a nature that is fundamentally past its prime? What if the effort to adapt our Federation system and reengineer United Jewish Communities exhausts us from using those same energies and intellect to create anew?
We must have the strength to come to a fundamental realization about the state of the Federation Movement as embodied by our current Federation system –
it is dead.
But in its death, it presents an opportunity for it to be reborn.
While the basis of its need still exists, we have long ago outgrown the humble origins of the Federation system. The history of its birth, its growth, and its decline is a great chapter in American Jewry. But it is only a chapter… there must be another.
Now there are those reading this essay that will immediately start defensively listing all of the successes and the triumphs of the last century of federated Jewry. Make no mistake, all of those successes and triumphs are due recognition for their displays of strength and appreciation for their magnificent results. There is no question that this Movement has achieved more that we could have imagined…
but we need to imagine more.
We now, at this moment of unparalleled economic challenge, find ourselves looking at a Movement that has shed much of its “move” and is hand wringing too much about what it has “meant.” It is a Movement that has been transformed into an establishment that has lost its flexibility to adapt to the times in which it exists. Federation infrastructure has remained a tool that is highly responsive during times of crisis, but is adrift when the crisis abates. The Federation system, no matter how innovative and forward thinking some of its leadership is, nevertheless does not present itself as the vanguard of Jewish innovation.
So in retrospect, as the Movement matured, and in its effort to harness wealth and achieve outcomes, it failed to ignite imaginations. It turned from organizations created by need into organizations maintained by inertia. The Movement no longer was shaped by visionaries like Herb Friedman, but by committees and quorums. As the Movement matured, (notwithstanding its financial success), what was once communal became further professionalized and what was once dynamic slowly ossified.
And as the Movement matured, it could not help but begin to grow tired from carrying its own legacy on its back. Even in its age, it was resilient – the Israel Emergency campaigns proved that – but it nevertheless began to die. Our praise turned to platitudes, our exhortations turned to excuses. And like a modern day Council of the Four Lands, our Movement became more of a spectacle than a success, a gathering of individuals rather than a gathering of ideas. In the face of ever surmounting challenges, it became a Movement much more focused on reengineering than reimagining.
So now, with Federation after Federation retrenching, reformulating and reducing, the Movement is gasping its last breaths – smothered by a system gasping for air and dollars. Community institutions of philanthropic engagement are morphing into professional centers of philanthropic management. They have taken the 80/20 rule to its logical and most dangerous extreme and, as a result, engineered the narrowing, not the expansion of the Federation Movement. In many ways, the Federation Movement as we once knew it is dead.
So now we must face the question squarely – if it doesn’t exist, do we need to create it anew?
I think the answer is yes. And the time to do it is now.
Seth A. Cohen, Esq. is an activist and author on topics of Jewish communal life and innovation. Seth is an alumnus of the Wexner Heritage Program, a member of the Board of Directors of Joshua Venture (relaunching in Spring, 2009), a 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. Seth is an occassional contibutor to eJewish Philanthropy; he can be contacted directly at seth.cohen [at] agg.com.