Federations look to the future
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Federations look to the future

GA shows 'collective will' to build and rebuild

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. Robert Cumins/Jewish Federations of North America

A delegation from UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey joined some 3,000 Jewish professionals and lay leaders from around the world in Washington this week for the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, formerly the United Jewish Communities.

Traveling with UJA-NNJ executive vice president Howard Charish was a mix of seasoned and new leaders, 36 in all, looking for new ideas and to see how their colleagues were facing the recession that has hurt campaigns across the board.

“There’s no question times are difficult,” Charish said at the end of the confab, “but also I believe there is a collective will to get through it and focus on building and rebuilding.”

He noted that at one session he attended, Steve Shrager, head of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, reported that it is expecting an $8 million shortfall this year. The organization borrowed 10 percent from its endowment last year and is taking another 11 percent this year.

“The facts of the downturn are ever-present,” Charish said. “They of course condition yearly operations. However, there have been hard times before, and one of the things that we consistently have noted is the resilience of the Jewish people and the fact that we have a history of meeting challenges.”

Meeting challenges and looking toward the future was a theme the leadership of JFNA kept touching on. “We’re going to have to stop making Shabbat separately and start making Shabbat together,” said Jerry Silverman, JFNA’s new president and CEO, during a press conference on Sunday, the opening day of the meeting. “We need to think boldly,” he continued, “and generate an abundance of ideas and engage … new consumers and lapsed users to connect with new ideas.”

UJC’s rebranding and the appointment of its new CEO point to the need to update the federation system to maintain relevance in the changing world, said Alan Scharfstein, UJA-NNJ president.

“This was a very positive meeting in terms of understanding how all the federations are looking to change the nature of the federation system and focus on problems [whose solutions would] really make a difference,” Scharfstein continued. “There seems to be a realization across the federation system that these changes we’ve been talking about are essential to keep federation relevant and move it forward.”

This was the second GA for Alan Gallatin of Wyckoff, a member of the National Young Leadership Cabinet, and despite the faltering economy, he noted a sense of optimism among participants. “The programs themselves have been painted that way,” he said. “It’s clearly a message they’re trying to get out there, but it’s a theme that’s caught on.”

The conference also included panels led by members of the UJA-NNJ delegation. Rabbi Noam Marans of Teaneck gave a presentation on the Kehillah Partnership, a project of the YJCC of Bergen County, UJA-NNJ, and other community organizations. Leonard Cole of Ridgewood introduced a panel called “Birthright: Paradigm or party,” which explored the relationships forged between the Jewish communal world and the alumni of the popular free trip to Israel. With more than 200,000 participants since the program’s inception in 1999, it has directly or indirectly affected more than one million people, Cole said, adding, “I’ve met many people inspired to take trips because of the experiences of their kids.”

The panel’s moderator, Leah Stern, an alumna of the first trip who has since made aliyah, said the program “brought abut the rebirth of my life.”

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Leonard Cole of Ridgewood praised Birthright, the popular free trip to Israel offered to young Jewish adults. Josh Lipowsky

A recent Brandeis University study examined increased Jewish participation among Birthright alumni. They are 24 percent more likely to feel connected to the Jewish community, said panelist Leonard Saxe, the study’s author. Participants, he continued, are 23 percent more likely to feel connected to Israel, and non-Orthodox participants are 54 percent more likely to marry Jews.

“Birthright proves that a bold and creative and audacious plan can not only be successful but can transform behavioral patterns,” said panelist Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week and a Teaneck resident.

President Barack Obama had been scheduled to address the conference, but canceled in order to attend a memorial service at Fort Hood, Texas. After JFNA received word of the cancellation, a group of some 40 federation volunteers and executives were invited to a reception with the president Monday evening at the White House. There, Charish said, Obama apologized for not making it to the GA, but wished the leaders well in their mission. According to Charish, Obama said that he had been trained by the Chicago Jewish federation, knew the meaning of tzedakah, and that the federation system mirrored the American value of serving those in need.

“It was very important to receive the acknowledgment by the president of the role that Jewish federations play in communal life,” Charish said. “It was a geniuine display of friendship with the Jewish community.”

A “special moment” for Charish came when he shook hands with Obama while thanking him for his support of non-profit organizations. “I was very proud to be there,” Charish said.

GA attendees did hear from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as scheduled, about the challenges facing Israel and the peace process.

“He has never given a speech that I haven’t been impressed with,” said Gallatin. He laid out a nice vision. Better than most politicians, I think he’s not afraid to call it as he sees it, and he gives a good rationale for his plan. I hope that others are going to step up to the challenges he put out there.”

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The UJA-NNJ delegation relaxes at Eli’s Restaurant. Top right: Malcolm Hoehlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. JOSH LIPOWSKY

Harold Benus, executive director of the YJCC, said he thought Netanyahu was sincere in his calls for peace.

Federations, Benus noted, are beginning to look for new models to attract younger donors, and he said he was pleased with what he saw this week. “The Jewish Federations of North America are currently undergoing a transition to determine a new direction for the future,” he said. “Considering where they are, I was happily surprised about the ability for them to carry [the conference] off.”

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