The Middle of the Accordion

by Maxyne Finkelstein

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the General Assembly and the International Lion of Judah Conference in New Orleans with some 4000 participants. The general mood was characterized of “cautious optimism” with a drum beat of “the need to change” underlying most every discussion. Having attended some 25 GAs I would say it brought a new glimmer of diversity of thought and honest discussion which is one of the elements that is critical to broadening the base of involvement of Jewry in the Federation movement and Jewish life in general.

Having had the privilege of working in a local beneficiary agency, a Federation (for 14 years), a national organization serving Federations, an overseas beneficiary and now for the Birthright Israel Foundation which operates as a beneficiary and partner to Federations and JFNA, I have seen the evolution of the GA and the role of JFNA from a variety of optics.

Recently I began to think of Federations and the Federation movement as the “middle of the accordion”. Rather than seeing this as a top down enterprise, one can visualize the Federations (individually and collectively) as breathing air into the agencies that benefit from their resources (both financial and intellectual) and these agencies continuing to drive the Federations to produce based on community need – locally, nationally and globally. To me, Israel as central to Jewish life has always been a critical in breathing air into this accordion and providing the pressure to engage and produce. If it all works well, a great collective voice emerges but as with an accordion you can often identify the many notes being played. While I chose an old school instrument to create this analogy it seems appropriate, as we are rethinking institutions that planted their feet in North America over a century ago and of course the accordion has a great history in Jewish music. The challenge of thinking of our enterprise as an accordion is that it requires one to learn to function successfully in a linear model.

JFNA (and its predecessor organizations) along with Federations were modeled at a time when top down activity and uniformity of function were attractive options to North Americans. This was at a time when societies operated generally in a top down model, which began to weaken in the 1960s and 70s and basically collapsed in the late 1990s with the full emergence of the baby boomers as opinion leaders in society. In the 1980s and 1990s we came to the GA to hear what we should be doing; in 2010 we came to the GA wondering what ideas could be shared and shaped to our own interests.

Today as we choose our products off the shelf we all want to sing our own tune, while occasionally coming together with a common refrain. We have all learned that the genius of iPOD is we don’t have to be directed by someone else’s vision of entertainment or buy an entire CD to enjoy one tune. In this context Federations cannot depend on JFNA or any one entity to create their identity but must consider what works locally and take the best of what the national and international Jewish world can offer. JFNA and Federations are in many ways magnificent organizations with incredible assets. While some may be tired, others are thriving. Time will allow those to thrive who understand that they must spend their days thinking about redesign and creative ingenuity in order to remain relevant.

If we approach this task by thinking that 2010 is a time when we can have the best of what our world offers rather than being restricted by what was or what we cannot do, or what others are not doing we will drive the accordion to perform magnificent music with tunes that we can all relate to and recall with joy and pride.

Maxyne Finkelstein is Chief Operating Officer of Birthright Israel Foundation.