Weaving a community

Weaving a community

Jewish Federation and Foundation of Rockland County works to form the mechanism, one strand at a time

Teenagers stand by empty chairs labeled with the Pittsburgh victims’ names.
Teenagers stand by empty chairs labeled with the Pittsburgh victims’ names.

Jewish federations are important institutions, often vital to the health of a community, but often they’re hard to define.

From the outside, they may seem to be about fund-raising; from a little bit farther inside, they might seem to be about allocations as well. Sometimes it’s hard to see the bigger picture.

But of course there is a bigger picture.

The Jewish Federation and Foundation of Rockland County, which covers the area just north of the state line with New Jersey, does fund-raising and allocations. That’s a necessary part of its work. But like all federations, it does much more.

In Rockland, the bigger job, the job that the fund-raising and allocation work supports, the reason it matters, is called “community weaving.”

Think of a piece of cloth, the federation’s CEO, Gary Siepser, said. Woven cloth, where you can see the warp and the weft. “You have the different strands, and every one of them can be only so strong,” Mr. Siepser said. “When you weave them together, you have something that is so much stronger than any one strand.”

He’s been the CEO for three years. “At my first board meeting, when we went around the group to get acquainted, I asked each person to say what they thought the purpose of federation was,” he said. Fund-raising and allocation, each answered. “I said that you might fire me tonight for saying this, but that is not the reason for federation.

“That’s the mechanism we need to build a community. That’s an important part — if we could do community weaving without raising any money, life would be so much easier for all of us.

“But we can’t. We have to pay for program costs. We have to have an office and a staff and professionals. We have to have a governance structure.

“But that’s not our purpose. Our purpose is to build a Jewish community.”

Gary Siepser

The phrase isn’t his, Mr. Siepser added; it’s what some federations around the country call the work they do, and it resonates.

After his first discussion with the board, “we came out with the focus that federation’s job was to convene the local Jewish community, to take collective action to build the local community, and to advocate and innovate on behalf of Israel, to fight anti-Semitism and bigotry, and to help those Jews who can’t help themselves and who need our help. That’s our purpose, not to raise and allocate funds.

“And so when we zero in on those points, then it becomes a question of how we can get everyone working together.

“Community weaving is the mechanism for that to happen.”

After the federation’s leaders decided to work on community weaving, Mr. Siepser said, “in the spring of 2016, we convened a meeting and invited the presidents of all the agencies, the JCC, Hillel, the Holocaust museum, and the day school — which since has gone out of business — as well as the rabbis and presidents of all the congregations that are members of the Rockland County Board of Rabbis” — that’s the organization to which all the local Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, traditional, and unaffiliated rabbis and their shuls belong. Out of the 15 organizations invited to the meeting, 11 sent representatives, Mr. Siepser said.

“We talked about the fact that we had to work together,” he said. “Of course, nobody was going to argue that we had to work separately. But then we found that really we could work together.”

The group continued to meet, “and we concluded that innovation was the thing that we all had to do. All the congregations and all the agencies had to focus on how to be more innovative.”

So in February 2017, 30 people from that group went to Israel for a five-day seminar. “It was a seminar, not a mission,” Mr. Siepser said. The group didn’t tour or travel; instead, “we parked ourselves in Jaffa, in a hotel that was sitting on top of biblical-era ruins. You would look through the plexiglass floor to the lobby to see the ruins underneath.

“It was the perfect metaphor for what we were doing,” he continued. “We were constantly looking at our roots,” and they were taking flight.

Why was the meeting in Israel? Surely it could have been held more conveniently, far closer to home. “It was in Israel because Israel is the wellspring of Jewish inspiration and of Jewish innovation, and it is the hub of innovation, the start-up nation,” Mr. Siepser said.

The group worked with an international business consulting firm, SIT — Systematic Inventive Thinking — and brought in such Israeli business superstars as the founders of SpaceIL, the firm that plans to launch a lunar rover in the next few months. “They talked to us about how three guys having a beer came up with this idea,” he said. “How hard can it be?

The community came together quickly to mourn the victims murdered in in Pittsburgh.

“It turned out to be very hard,” he added. “But hopefully they are going to do it.”

Back in Rockland, “people tell me that our demographics are wrong,” he said. “That we’re an aging community, that there is huge growth in the charedi community, and that the federation is shrinking. That everything is going against us.

“But I am an optimist. And the leadership of the federation — co-presidents Lisa Green and Stephen Cohen, and former president Bob Silverman — all are optimists.

“We all believe in our mission, and we believe that with innovation and good will and hard work, we can make a difference. We can build a vibrant Jewish community.”

So that’s theory. What about practice?

“When we came back, we started asking ourselves what we needed to do together — we talked about community leadership development, we talked about teens, and we talked about the life and legacy situation,” Mr. Siepser said. None of the shuls had more than a small endowment then; “we began to work on a program that everyone would be in,” he continued. “We applied to the Harold Grinspoon Foundation life and legacy program, and now we are in the program. Everyone is working together and it is a wonderful collaboration. It’s not that there are no disagreements and there is never any tension, but with the level of trust that exists now, I feel totally comfortable picking up the phone and talking to any of my colleagues.

“Community weaving has made a big difference.”

Community weaving made last spring’s Israel at 70 program a success. And it has even begun to draw in some Orthodox institutions. Ateres Bais Yaakov of New Hempstead is an ultra-Orthodox girls’ yeshiva that has started working with the federation; now another two schools are joining as well. “It started with their asking for help with security,” Mr. Siepser said. “And then we began having a cup of coffee together here and there.” He hopes that those relationships will continue to grow.

Mr. Siepser also points to “the most recent and painful” tragedy where the new community network has made a difference. “The shooting in Pittsburgh happened on Saturday morning,” he said. “On Saturday night, I sent out a message to everyone that federation is going to do a community gathering on Monday night, and please plan to participate in it.

“That Monday night, 1,500 people attended. And no congregation had a separate program.

“And that is community weaving.”

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