The Jewish Federation System: A Conversation for the Future

By Denis Braham and Lee Wunsch

For more than 100 years, the Jewish Federations have been at the epicenter of the most significant events in the modern history of the Jewish people. From the birth and nascent years of the State of Israel through the liberation of Soviet and Ethiopian Jewry, the Jewish Federations represented and embodied the spirit of K’lal Yisrael and Am Echad. Through the force of their leadership and philanthropic prowess, this national collective of North American Jewish communities propelled American Jews forward. The golden years of the Jewish Federation system were an inspirational and visionary era led by individuals whose lives were shaped by the Six Day War and many transformational Jewish events of the last fifty years. Jewish Federations embodied the very spirit of “Kol Yisrael Aravim Ze La Ze – All Jews are responsible one for the other.” Jewish Federations were built on the ideal of collective responsibility and that Jews and Jewish communities are strengthened by one another.

Fast forward to 2014-2015. Though still facing major geo-political hurdles, the State of Israel is flourishing and leading the planet in ways unheard of at its founding. The Soviet Union has collapsed with large numbers of Jews having emigrated to Israel or the United States. The emerging generations of American Jews have choices their parents and grandparents never dreamed of and are living in a mature Jewish organizational world filled with legacy organizations trying to find new footing in a society that is the antithesis of the one in which they were established.

The era of the collective has become threatened by the era of the individual. The united has become the fragmented. While multiple generations of American Jews had but a single identity which was Jewish, American Jewish millennials have multiple identities only one of which is Jewish. And, the glorious and proud history of the Jewish Federation is, for some, but a footnote to those finding their place in a new American Jewish society.

Jewish Federations and their national organization are “trapped” by virtue of historic precedent. They came of age in a bygone era and are now trying to find resonance in a new age. They are being held captive by local and global “partner organizations” that were also part of that bygone era and yet still live on, some perhaps past their prime. An entrenched system allows them to have a monopoly on funds being raised by individual Jewish Federations. The age of “collective responsibility” has become the age of “individual responsibility” with strong, competing institutions operating in solid silos, locally and nationally. And our relationship with our beloved Jewish state requires a new definition that will capture the imagination of a new generation just as victory in the Six Day War captured ours.

All of these facts and observations are well known; what is not as clear is how to move forward. For too long, the Federations’ national organization, by any name, has been focused on unyielding organizational politics focused on its mission and purpose, which includes the intractable debate on how funds should be distributed to a monopoly of overseas organizations. Too much time and resources have been spent on processes that are, often times, irrelevant to the Jewish future. Over time (and it has long begun), individual Federations have made and will make their own decisions on how to allocate funds in a manner that resonates with their donors and their communities. For too long, there has been a lot of noise on an array of issues that take up time but are inconsequential to the meaningful engagement of young Jews in a society vastly different from the one in which we were born and matured. For too long, the national Federation system has forgotten that Jews connect where they live – in their homes, in their communities, in their synagogues and in many new places. For too long, the national system has forgotten that it is not about what happens in New York; it is all about what happens in local neighborhoods.

The national Federation organization should have one visionary and strategic goal. If they believe, as we do, that there is still merit and value in a Jewish Federation, then a national conversation about the future of our Jewish organizational enterprise should begin in earnest. Launching such a conversation requires bold and courageous leadership willing to acknowledge the decline of the Federation system while challenging community leaders to rise to the occasion. Cheerleading is great but will fail if it’s only rhetoric. Grand ideas are important but will never materialize if the organization has no capacity to implement. Annual showcase gatherings (i.e., the Jewish Federations General Assembly) are essential but not if a relative few show up.

We believe that the current over-embellished agenda of the Jewish Federations of North America should be set aside – whatever it is and whatever its component parts. For the next twelve months or more, the leadership should have one focus. They should deploy their collective resources, inside and outside of the organization, to hold a national conversation on the future of the system. It should not be a sales show. It should not be a public relations extravaganza. It should not be a salute to its past. It should be a robust, “all ideas welcome” discussion about “what’s next”. A far-sighted and actionable plan should be the goal and we should recognize the value of a changed, refocused collective for the American Jewish community. With ample time to plan and transform a traditional agenda, the 2015 General Assembly would be an excellent platform to launch this national conversation.

The national conversation should focus on three elements

  1. What is the future of the Jewish Federations and its collective system?
  2. How do we redefine the relationship between the State of Israel and the Diaspora so that we move beyond viewing Israel through a 1960s lens?
  3. What are the key requirements of a national Jewish Federation organization and how should it serve its constituent members?

Some would argue that this conversation occurred some fifteen years ago leading to the merger of the Council of Jewish Federations and the United Jewish Appeal. We would argue otherwise. That merger was predicated on saving money. Our idea is predicated on saving the precious legacy of the Jewish Federation – if we all believe it should be saved. We believe it should and must.

Denis Braham is the Chairman of the Board and Lee Wunsch is the President & Chief Executive Officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston.

This essay is the fifth in an on-going conversation focused on JFNA and the federation world. Previous articles can be found here. We welcome additional submissions – details are here.