The upcoming General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) brings with it another, newer annual ritual: somber diagnoses of the health of the Federation system and provocative prescriptions of how to heal it.
To be sure, Federations face challenges galore, some unique and some common to all Jewish groups. These include fewer engaged Jews and more assimilation. Among the dwindling donor pool, more wanting to “do their own thing” by designating their gifts for specific, not general purposes. One corollary has some Federations themselves adopting designated allocations, i.e., pulling away from their historic partners – locally, nationally and internationally – and providing modest, short term grants to smaller, newer, niche organizations. That corollary has in turn spawned another: decreasing collaboration among Federations in national and global activities. How we got here is multi-faceted. How we get out isn’t clear.
Of course many Federations continue succeeding while remaining true to their founding principles: undesignated annual fundraising campaigns and large, reliable, planning-friendly allocations to historic partner agencies. The August rescue of Yemenite Jews by the Jewish Agency for Israel – years in the making and done clandestinely across three continents – demonstrates why a strong Federation system is still needed and what it alone can achieve. The value added of a local Federation is significant; the value added of a robust Federation system changes history.
Beyond the business value proposition, the values upon which Federations were created remain relevant. Those values were not discovered by Federations but drawn from our people’s history of tzedakkah in communities across the Jewish globe. Those values focus on serving the needs and the dreams of our community, and, secondarily, assisting donors with their own philanthropic needs and dreams.
In Chicago, like so many other American communities at the beginning of the 20th Century, a small group of Jewish philanthropists (in our case an even minyan) came to realize that each doing their own thing was ill-serving their philanthropy and those they sought to help. The ensuing anarchy resulted in competition for financial support and competition, not collaboration, in providing services. There was no communal fundraising, research, priority setting, or leveraging of human or financial resources. The philanthropists, the agencies, and those who needed assistance were largely on their own. Federations changed that paradigm, and further leveraged their impact by becoming the philanthropy of choice not just for major donors, but the masses that comprised amcha who also wanted their gifts leveraged to magnify their impact.
The ensuing century – the needs it presented and the solutions provided by Federations – came to validate the historic, kehilla-centric Federation business model.
Today, amidst dizzying societal and technological change, and with a number of Federations struggling to balance those changes with the Federation business model, JFNA’s General Assembly provides an annual opportunity to question that model. In various Jewish venues that model is sometimes derided as “archaic,” the “establishment,” and, in the most damning lingo of the day, “not innovative.”
Thus it is ironic that this year’s G.A., taking place in Israel, will focus on that country’s innovative characteristics and among the examples cited will be its most exciting philanthropic innovation: the recent creation of the Jewish State’s first Federation-like charity. That’s right, Israel, the epitome, the Mecca if you will, of innovation is now establishing its first community Federation. In the second decade of the 21st century, a community within the national embodiment of innovation – Israel – is looking to an early 20th century American Jewish innovation – the Federation – to better serve both those in need and donors. To those who view Federations and “innovation” as oxymora, this development is a powerful rejoinder.
In a dynamic stunningly similar to that which prompted the creation of Federations across North America a century ago, the most committed philanthropists in an affluent Israeli community came to realize the inefficiencies of doing philanthropy alone. They’ve chosen instead to unleash the collective power of their giving, and further leverage it with the participation of other community members.
Takdim – The Ramat Hasharon Community Foundation was established 30 months ago by community leaders who, informed by discussions with several Federations, embraced the core values of community-wide philanthropy and shared responsibilities. In true Federation-like fashion, they set aggressive fundraising goals. Takdim’s deliberative allocation process was informed by research and benefitted from a strong professional-volunteer partnership. They made, as all Federations must, informed but heart-wrenching decisions of what would and would not be funded. Like other community-based philanthropies, those decisions did not leave everyone 100% satisfied. But that too is what being a part of and leading a community entails.
Another defining trait of Federations that Takdim has adopted is leveraging other resources (public and private) to advance their objectives. Mirroring the Federation’s Partnership 2000 project (which paired American and Israeli communities), while also tending to their own needs in Ramat Hasharon, one of Takdim’s maiden endeavors is a social entrepreneurship program. Engaging youth in Ramat Hasharon and Lachish (just outside Kiryat Gat), the program draws upon research, connections and investments already made in the Lachish region the past two decades by the Jewish Federation of Chicago.
Beyond this one program, the Chicago Federation and Takdim have forged a broader partnership agreement adopted by their respective boards of directors. The agreement reflects a mutual desire to make lasting impacts for both their donors and the Jewish people at large. A special luncheon at the G.A., hosted by Takdim and Chicago, will feature Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar detailing the government’s enthusiasm for how replicating the Takdim model in other communities can help transform the landscape of Israeli philanthropy and social services.
With the G.A. fast approaching, that time-proven Federation formula – meeting the tzedakkah needs of donors and the human needs and dreams of Jews around the world – will invariably be called into question on these and other pages. That formula will be derided as not innovative. Try telling that to the donors and those helped by the Ramat Hasharon Community Foundation. They know that Takdim – which means “precedent” in Hebrew – is not a new concept for Jews; just a very innovative one for Israel. A concept that, like its American predecessor, offers much promise to those who need help fulfilling their needs and realizing their dreams, and to those who want to provide that help. That’s not the newest Jewish idea, but it remains the best formula to harness our people’s innovation.