The Ugly Side of Jewish Federations

PrintBy Uzi ben Gibor

There is an “ugly” side to life. There is an ugly side to banking, hospitals, insurance companies, mortgage lenders, nursing homes, politics and even sports. And there is also an ugly side to Jewish Federations.

As with the other examples, the ugly side of Jewish Federations does not mean that they are worthless or evil. Nor is the point of this article to embarrass Federations. Federations know about the ugly side of their work as surely as do the bankers bundling questionable mortgages, manufacturers producing exploding airbags and quarterbacks deflating footballs. And one thing that we have learned from these examples is that only by bringing transparency to these problems do we have any hope of correcting them.

I want to make it clear that I recognize how many good people work at Federation and serve as lay leaders. I have worked with and served side by side with such people for many years. Unfortunately, it seems that these good people just don’t last long in Federations. Virtually everyone I ever respected in the Federation world has left Jewish communal work because he or she got “fed up.” And here’s why.

Federations Fail to Self-critique or Tolerate Criticism: The very fact that I must write this article anonymously – and that few, if any, eJP readers will feel safe adding their comments to this article – speaks volumes. What kind of system makes its most enthusiastic supporters fearful to critique it? This is not a rhetorical question and it does have an answer. Systems that fail to self-critique have a zero tolerance policy for any criticism. So, here’s the question to ask yourself, “When was the last time you heard your Jewish Federation leaders say, ‘We made a mistake?’”

I have never heard it. Over the years, I have witnessed Federations committing millions of dollars to pet projects and programs that, by all measures, failed – without once hearing a Federation leader say, “Oops.” It is not even clear if they understand the degree of their failure. Federations obfuscate their responsibility by pointing to changing social factors outside of their control or simply by placing blame on others.

Federations Turn Community Process into a Sham: The term “community process” is a complete misnomer as it applies to the way Federations work. Most of us understand the term to mean a process which encourages and enables community agencies to have a voice in decision making – especially decisions affecting these agencies. In reality, however, all major decisions are made by Federations long before “community process” is even started – before community surveys, focus groups, committee and board meetings or final votes. Community process starts and ends with Federation leaders (often in concert with major donors) deciding from the outset what is going to happen, what the “final” decision will be.

Once the “Decision” is made, Federation and community lay leaders conduct a series of meetings over breakfast or lunch in hotel restaurants or local delis under the pretext of “considering” the Decision. In fact, all parties arrive at these meetings knowing the Decision has already been made. The ultimate purpose of their meetings is to work out details regarding how to best implement the Decision. Lay leaders are accompanied by professional staff responsible for doing the leg-work necessary for implementation: producing documents and data that demonstrate the wisdom of the Decision; ensuring appropriate board/committee meetings take place “on time” (there is always a rushed, Federation-dictated timeline); and arranging meetings with those who might oppose the Decision. The purpose of these latter meetings is to convince those who object that “that their input is invaluable” as a way to dissuade them from raising a public “stink.” Federations view an uncontested axing of a program, cutting of a position or shutting of an agency’s doors to be the real goal of “community process.”

Federation Staff and Lay Leaders Have Little Understanding of Judaism or Its Values: Very few Federation professionals or lay leaders are literate Jews. 90% of them have only a 7th grade religious school understanding of Judaism. I am talking about a profound level of ignorance: inability to list the five books of Torah; inability to name the Jewish holidays; lack of Hebrew understanding; ignorance of the greatest Jewish thinkers. And, they are alienated from the spiritual part of Jewish life. These are not the people who should be determining the future of Jewish families, congregations or schools through their control of funding.

Federation Leaders are Not Leaders: Federation leaders are anything but leaders. At best, they are sheep and at worst, cowards afraid to make a mistake or “upset the apple cart.” Federations have been absent from the movements that have tackled every major social problem facing our country over the past 75 years. Consider the following:

  • Congregation rabbis were in the forefront of the Civil Rights movement. It was Jewish students who were the Freedom Riders. It was rabbis and Jewish educators who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., not Federation leaders.
  • Jewish college students were the leaders of the anti-Vietnam War movement. It was Jewish students leading the Students for a Democratic Society and Jewish students who marched on the Capitol. Federations remained silent.
  • Jewish students (Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry) were the ones who demanded freedom for oppressed Soviet Jews in the 1970s. It was Jewish students who were arrested protesting at the Russian embassy, Jewish students who organized rallies in their communities. Federations were silent. Not until the late 1980s would Federations support Soviet Jewry.
  • It was Jewish educators who opened the eyes of their communities to their environmental responsibilities as Jews in the 1990s. To this day, few Federations identify environmentalism as a core value or employ sound environmental practices in their offices.
  • It was congregations and Jewish individuals who opened the eyes of their Jewish communities to gender discrimination – not Federations.
  • To date, I do not know of any Federation that has opposed the Israeli government’s changes in marriage practices that disenfranchises the overwhelming majority of American Jews and Jewish religious leaders.

It has been a long, long time since I worked with a Federation that was eager or willing to be the voice of opposition when such a voice was needed or willing to be on the front line of social change rather than waiting to see which way the wind blows. These are things that real leaders do.

Our Federations Have Not Made Their Jewish Communities Better: One of the greatest hypocrisies Federations commit is requiring their agencies to identify benchmarks by which to measure their success while failing to require the same of themselves. (The upside of this for Federations is that they do not have to see that they are failing.) I say what’s good for one is good for the other. Without measureable goals, how can we determine if our Federations are succeeding? Isn’t it time to hold Federations accountable for demonstrating whether what they are doing is working or not?

Whether you wholehearted agree with my observations about the ugly side of Jewish Federations, or completely disagree, there is one question that all of us must ask ourselves. It is same question that is asked every Presidential election, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” So I ask myself – “Is my Jewish community better off than it was 4 years ago; are my community agencies receiving better funding than they were 10 years ago; are my congregations, schools and social service agencies stronger today than they were 15 years ago?” My answer is no. What’s yours?

Uzi ben Gibor, a nom de plume, is a long-time Federation professional.