This May be The Very Best of Times

By Marci Galinkin, Lawrence M. Katz, Jeffrey Lasday, Robert Lichtman and Rabbi Efrat Zarren-Zohar

The Jewish Federations of North America completed a survey – more of an environmental scan – of how Federations support Jewish engagement and education. The news seems to be encouraging, with a total investment of $380 million, or about 1/3 of the $1.2 billion provided through these Federations for all purposes.

You Say Potato

What also emerged from this exercise is that Jewish communal professionals are not aligned on the definitions of or distinctions for these terms – Outreach, Engagement, Education, and Empowerment. For some, they are inter-changeable. Others put them into separate siloes of arbitrary definition. A summary of the survey notes that “over half of respondents said they don’t employ any criteria in making decisions about what initiatives to support. Federation leaders focus on supporting good work, with a possible approach of ‘I know it when I see it.’”

There is another layer to this. Engagement with what? Education about what? Federation? The Jewish community? Jewish traditions and practices? Jewish history and destiny? The answer seems to be Yes. All valid, yet different. The imprecision of respondents referring to these activities is a persuasive invitation for us to take a closer look at this baseline data and to arrive at clearer definitions and distinctions for our practices.

The importance of this phase of learning about learning cannot be understated. Educators have been writing and teaching about these phases of outreach, engagement, and empowerment for generations. Equivalent stages have been studied and employed in other disciplines, like sales and social media. That work should be the basis for communal learning that leads to consistent understandings by Federation professional and volunteer leaders to make the best use of finite dollars for eternal purposes.

You Can’t Manage What You Can’t Measure

Further, respondents were asked about “Bright Spots” that provide promising options for further investment. In virtually every case the programs cited were those created by or implemented by the Federations themselves. Public space programs and Family Connectors were noted several times. The standing of these programs as Bright Spots was validated by floating data points, meaning numbers with no context. “1,000 kids” attended. The program involved “70 artists.” There is no hint of the Jewish engagement or educational impact that any of these Bright Spots shed on any of the participants.

A survey summary noted, “To understand whether investing more deeply in Bright Spots will sustain a vibrant Jewish future, Federations must assess the ability of these activities to help Jews preserve and transmit their Jewish identity as a result of their participation.” Notably absent as “Bright Spots” were initiatives that are known to do these things, such as Jewish day schools and Jewish summer camps; likely absent because these initiatives, while funded by the Federations, are not programs that are hands-on created by or operated by them. They live in a realm of professional peripheral vision, unseen, un-represented and un-reported in this part of the survey.

Also not cited, and perhaps for the same reason, are initiatives produced by other actors in the Jewish engagement/education sphere. Independent programs such as the March of the Living and Limmud. Conspicuous by their absence, also, are programs funded by any of a dozen or more thoughtful and influential family philanthropies, many of which partner financially and programmatically with Federations.

The latest draft of the survey shared with Federation leaders very clearly acknowledged the importance of achieving clarity on definitions of practice, and evaluation. These sentiments are more fully expressed in a JFNA document shared with the survey’s Advisory Committee, which states, “Federation professionals seem to be asking for a more defined field: for definitions, for metrics, and for proven practices. This suggests that we might create a collective learning agenda rooted in empirical research … and then JFNA and Federations together ensuring that all Federations can learn from [the] empirical work.”

And here is possibly the most salient sentence of all this work: “The opportunity in Federation working as a system is to identify new projects in Jewish education and engagement that should be new standards in a 21st-century Jewish community’s educational infrastructure.”

In an increasingly fragmented society where everyone is (literally) making Shabbos for themselves, the Federation network – rather than individual Federations – has the collective capacity to advance us along a disciplined, professional path of discovery, research, development and evaluation. JFNA, stating in a recent eJewish Philanthropy post, that Jewish education is the “Federations’ goal for a new century,” and “is no longer at the side, but at the forefront of what we do,” seems to have adopted the mantle of this historic opportunity. Good for them – good for us – because we can do this. This is the wealthiest, freest, most literate and creative Jewish community in the history of the world. This may be the very best of times.

But we may very well blow it.

Keep Our Eyes on the Prize

We care deeply about so many things, and that is what is so good about the Jewish community. But because we care, we can also get distracted by bright shiny objects that have no lasting substance, or by dark matters that suck our energy and resources into black holes of despair.

While the groundwork has been laid to probe more into the value and the promise of disciplined Jewish engagement and education efforts, our continental network is also embroiled in a perfect storm: rising anti-Semitism, Israel under political siege, and local threats to our physical safety.

While acknowledging these threats, we should prioritize our love for our community and our children by presenting them with a Judaism that is overflowing with meaning, relevance, holiness and joy. This is the thing that will elevate our souls and produce thriving communities that can overcome these threats. Federations should support Israel education and advocacy. Federations should support efforts to curb anti-Semitism. Federations should support the things that protect us from harm. But Federations cannot do everything.

God attempted to create a perfect world with Adam and Eve. He tried again in a new world with Noah and his family. Both experiments failed. Rather than focusing on the entire world, God’s new plan was to begin again with Abraham – one person, one family, one nation.

God needed to focus on one thing to build something of enduring value that would forever nurture the world; so might we.

The research world uses a Rule of Thumb that calls for 10% of a program’s budget for evaluation. Without that 10%, it is hard to justify the other 90%, not to mention untold future dollars spent on a program that may hold little to no value. On the other hand, an investment of 10% can ground future millions of dollars in solid and lasting – and effective – footing.

The JFNA survey indicates that Federation funding for engagement and education is growing, but certainly not at a rate of 10% annually. Taking 10% for evaluation, even for such a holy purpose as Jewish engagement/education, will smother growth. Let’s say 3%. Of the $380 million expended by Federations alone on Jewish engagement and education, 3% yields about $11.5 million, based on the survey year, to be used by a JFNA consortium of educators and other professionals to objectively evaluate current initiatives. To model and pilot new efforts. To publicly share peer-reviewed data about initiatives that meet stated objectives, and, just as importantly, to share findings about well-meaning expenditures of precious Tzedakah money that do not.

The learnings of this recent JFNA effort at cataloging how Federations promote Jewish engagement and education is an unmistakable and compelling call for us to learn more. And then – based on what we learn – to do more, and to do it smarter. To unleash the power of Jewish learning and Jewish community. To bring light and joy and gladness and honor. To bring Jewish learning to life.

The co-authors are expressing their opinions and not necessarily those of their organizations.

Marci Galinkin is Director, Community Coalition for Jewish Education, Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York.

Lawrence M. Katz is Director of Jewish Life and Learning, Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.

Jeffrey Lasday is Chief Operating Officer, Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit.

Robert Lichtman is Survey Advisory Committee, Chief Jewish Learning Officer, Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.

Rabbi Efrat Zarren-Zohar is Executive Director, Center for the Advancement of Jewish Education, Miami.