Photo courtesy JFNA; eJP archives

By Leslie Dannin Rosenthal

What does it mean to be a Federation president in today’s Jewish communal world? It means that you encounter a landscape entirely changed from the one you entered as a young woman twenty-some years earlier. Almost nothing you were taught still holds. You’re told repeatedly, by pundits, surveys and polls, that you are leading a dying institution, one with no prospects for growth. Volunteers and donors have a myriad of choices for spending their time and treasure; the federation is no longer the only game in town. The Annual Campaign struggles; the share of services and programs provided directly by the federation continues to grow, as does your budget.

You can look backwards and see that you are standing in very big footsteps. The framed pictures of your predecessors in the main hallway are man, man, man, man, man, for thirty or forty faces, then woman, man, man, woman and, horror of horrors, another woman (you.) And you don’t command the largest gift in the community, not even one in six figures. And you know you don’t have the golf game, or the “rolodex,” the business relationships, that helped your predecessors to be such successes in their time.

And yet.

You wanted the job. Because the community has invested in you for years, sending you to National Young Leadership Cabinet, and on national campaign missions, where you met your peers crazy enough to leave their families night after night in their home communities to do this holy work. Because your federation has put you in positions of responsibility so that you learn the history of the community, see how the sausage gets made and still not flinch. Because you love Israel, and the best way to help Israel is through your federation and our overseas partners. Because you are grateful to live in a community with community centers and social service agencies you couldn’t have dreamed of in the little tiny Jewish community of your childhood. Because after years of involvement, you see what needs to be fixed, and what might be possible, even in this changing environment.

Yes, there are so many issues, problems, shandahs. People are not always kind. Change is hard, and you are the lightening rod. And that’s okay – you expected it. People complain because they care, and if they don’t complain, you can’t fix what’s wrong. And when you can actually fix something for them, well, that feeling makes it all worthwhile.

And there’s another reason you keep at it, despite the naysayers, despite the blame-casters: the people you get to work with every day. The people willing to solve the problems, the people willing to imagine the future, the people who dream big. The people who make you laugh, the people who climb up to the sixth floor apartment in Minsk with you, the people who you sit next to at yet another cell-a-thon. The young woman you encounter at a meeting with a spark in her eye, who might have been you a long time ago, who loves her Jewish community. Some of us draw a paycheck, some of us get paid in naches. But none of us are doing this for personal glory or enrichment equal to what we are worth in the for-profit world. We do it to build a stronger Jewish future, based on our eternal Jewish values.

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So a post like this one is on one hand, a slap in the face. I simply cannot let it go unremarked that a Jewish communal professional would be willing to decry the employment status or giving level of any lay leader willing to put in the kind of hours, brain power, and energy it takes to be the president of a federation. I find it puzzling that she is willing to assume the level of Jewish knowledge of today’s federation leadership or claim that we don’t understand or value Jewish learning; it was at a Cabinet Retreat where I first read Torah, and my leadership has been continuously informed by Jewish learning. I know I’m not alone, and I know that many of the men in the picture frames who preceded me did not have this level of knowledge to help them when they could have used it.

And yet. I see this post as a cry from the heart.

The challenges to individual federations – finding new donors, finding new lay leaders who inspire their communities – is real. The challenge to the concept of collective is real, and frightens me. I truly hope and believe that the conversation that the author seems to want to have about how to address this new and unfamiliar landscape can be had, and should be had. We should – and some of us do – have them in our Board meetings. We should have them at the GA.

I want to say to her that she is not alone. I want to say: your sadness is shared. The world we once had is gone. Making the case for why to give a bigger gift than last year, or any gift at all, for that matter, is way more difficult than twenty or even ten years ago. But look around you: you do more good every day, working with your lay leaders and your co-workers, as flawed as they are, than you ever could on your own. If we have to take apart our understanding of how federations should work in order to better serve our local agencies and our overseas partners, then let’s get to it. But let’s not tear each other down in the process. Because what it means to be a federation president today is hearing the cry of pain about what we used to have and what we used to be, recognizing the gifts from our past, and moving toward the future, together.

Leslie Dannin Rosenthal has just completed three years as the president of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.

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