Who Makes Community Happen?

community / volunter

By Justin Hayet

I was raised in Baltimore under the wings of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation and its mission. In 2010, they forever changed my life by picking me to be a Diller Teen Fellow. This transformational program transpired into a deep abiding love for the State of Israel. I went to college, advocated for Israel and was invited to meet the Prime Minister of Israel a week after graduating, following a Pro-Israel commencement speech. I started my professional career working for Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations as an advisor for three intense and eye opening years. I then joined Genesis Philanthropy Group, one of the Jewish world’s leading foundations, to help craft its approach to Israel Diaspora engagement. I am now one of two millennials leading Bnai Zion, a 111 year old Zionist institution, as its COO.

I am young, but not naive to what the real world looks like and the challenges we face as a collective. I still have a lot more to learn. However, COVID aside, the challenges the Jewish community faces are vast and quickly growing beneath our feet. We have a generation of Jews to engage, inspire and empower in a complex world met with complex and conflicting identities.

As I left Baltimore in 2012, many of my peers I grew up with stayed; some decided to work in the Jewish community at the JCC and other impactful agencies funded by The Associated. These are young professionals who make enormous sacrifices to make a living with the hope of making a difference.

This past November, I ran into many of The Associateds’ key professional and lay leadership as they arrived at the Jewish Federations of North America’s FedLabs conference with their heads held high, boasting to their colleagues about reaching half of their two hundred million dollar centennial campaign goal. Tasteless? Yes. Impressive? No doubt.

So, you can imagine my shock- no; my disgust- when on April 30 the JCC, one of The Associated’s largest grantees and biggest fundraising clinches, furloughed 350 workers – many with days or hours notice. The Associated left its frontline communal workers jobless in the fog of COVID.

No one needs a lecture on the difficulties of the times we are living in nor the uncertainty of what it means for the long-term health of our communal organizations. We need action.

I worry, what happens -once a vaccine is found or the virus subsides- and operations return to a new normal? Do we think these workers, or any of us, will forget how The Associated allowed these JCC workers to be treated? As if we, millennial Jews, were already so enamored by big, powerful and centralized Jewish organizations to begin with; do you think treating JCC workers like this will help your long-term case for giving, much less existing in a crowded more caused-based Jewish marketplace of organizations?

Meanwhile, these furloughed professionals will have JewishJobs.com as their homepage. The building will still stand, but its foundation will have already crumbled.

We learned at the age of 17 through Associated funded programs to be a voice for the voiceless; we must be the voice for those JCC workers who (very rationally) would ever dare question The (almighty) Associated, and I don’t blame them.

Luckily, I can speak up and I am not afraid of angry out of touch professionals and the lay leaders they get paid to coddle.

The Associated claims to be a hallmark federation- and in many regards it is. And if it is, it should follow the leadership of UJA-Federation of NY and provide an interest free loan to the JCC to pay these workers severance with dignity. If you have, or know you will one day soon have over one hundred million dollars in fulfilled pledges, isn’t the risk minimal and the impact unparalleled to take out a million dollar loan to send one time relief to these workers? I am not asking for a weekly bailout. I am asking for an act of relief that will show a ripple of thoughtfulness, humanity and kindness to ensure the foundation of the JCC outlives the virus and shows our community the true face of The Associated. And, let me remind you: Rent for many of these workers is quickly approaching on June 1. The clock is ticking.

I don’t blame or envy those who made this decision in a virtual Associated Boardroom, though I would venture to say none of them have ever lived paycheck to paycheck, certainly not in the last decade. However, I cringe at the lack of action of this Jewish and secular communities’ alleged beating heart. How could The Associated, an organization tastelessly bragging about a $200 million centennial fundraising goal halfway to completion wipe its hand of the burden inflicted on these furloughed JCC workers?

Who makes community happen? Not fundraisers. Certainly not executives. It’s the community builders. The gym class teachers. The social workers. Teen professionals. Camp professionals. Coaches. Preschool teachers. Preschool directors. Facility workers. Special needs professionals. Receptionists. Social workers. Security Guards. Gordon Center Ushers. Bookkeepers. Membership Directors. Remember them? Anyone?

We have turned into a Jewish community driven by fundraising goals, crippled by artificial conversations and definitions of leadership in elite Board Rooms that look like country clubs and Board Members who are hyper-engaged and stewarded to an obsessive and unhealthy degree by professionals hyper-focused on squeezing out the highest pledge possible. Money surely makes the (Jewish) world go round, but it hardly makes true community happen.

Imagine if a quarter of the care and obsessive stewardship The Associated’s fundraising machine placed towards wealthy elites were instead refocused towards the true shepherds of the Jewish community; our JCC workers. Our unsung, underpaid and undervalued assets that aren’t restricted, don’t come with strings (or egos) and who are purely driven by community, a Jewish community, that has shown them the unemployment line.

This community invested in me to be a leader ten years ago and I’ve challenged myself daily to uphold that sacred investment and I am thankful for it everyday. Truly, I am thankful; yet The Associated’s core leadership has dismissed, belittled, and disregarded my basic plea for human dignity for our JCC Champions.

My plea and criticism won’t make me popular in the Trader Joes line in Pikesville, but the painful irony is that you taught me the value and sacred Jewish responsibility of speaking up. Now, we are tragically on opposing sides of a painful argument and that’s the beauty of a community that values, respects and dignifies true discourse (unless, of course, there is a minimum donation required for participation?)

I humbly call on the Executive Leadership Team of the Associated along with their Board of Directors to donate $1,800 each to a JCC Furloughed Workers Relief Fund managed by five JCC furloughed workers elected by their peers (and not by the Associated).

Accordingly, if the Associated agrees to this challenge- and nothing would bring me more joy than this- to establish a Furloughed Workers Relief Fund controlled by the workers themselves, I, a millennial who escaped New York City on a temporary hiatus due to the COVID crisis, will donate $1,800 to the fund. I will gladly rally other working Baltimore-born millennials whose childhood, Jewish values and Jewish identities were built on the shoulders of these furloughed workers to do the same. That is my pledge; not to a fundraising professional, but to the champions and unsung heroes of our community, the furloughed JCC professionals.

Yes, it is that simple. Sometimes complex problems have simple, short-term remedies.

Mistakes can be corrected and reputations restored. Time is ticking. Bank accounts are depleting. Rent is almost due. And action is needed.

History won’t be kind to those who raise a hundred million dollars the same year they furlough hourly workers; and nor should it. We demand more.

The opinions expressed above should not be regarded as statements of the views of eJewish Philanthropy, its advisors or funders.