Richard Friedman
Jewish Federation director, Journalist

In our little corner of the world: Jewish life thriving in Birmingham, AL

In our little corner of the world — Birmingham, Alabama — Jewish life and a love for Israel continue to flourish. We are only 5500 Jews here — about one half of one percent of our metro area population — yet we are remarkably strong, have great impact, comfortably and proudly advance our Jewish and pro-Israel agendas and enjoy excellent relationships with our non-Jewish neighbors.

Another example of the vitality of our community, and in particular our Jewish Federation, occurred recently.

We had a heckuva Birmingham Jewish Federation board meeting. The board room at our sprawling Levite Jewish Community Center, where we held the meeting, was packed. Every chair was full, both around the long table and ringing the walls. It would’ve been standing room only had some board members not been out of town.

What impressed me most was the energy and passion in the room along with a wonderful balance of veteran community volunteer leaders and dynamic young adults in their 20s and 30s. It is clear to me that people want to be involved in our Federation. We get very few turndowns when we ask people to serve on our board and/or play leadership roles and more and more people are becoming involved in our efforts.

In addition to raising money, which remains our top priority, we are becoming an idea bank — a venue where accomplished and caring people can come together to develop ways to advance the interests of our Jewish community and explore new strategies. We are experimental — some things work, some things don’t — but we always believe that good ideas are worth trying, even if we always don’t succeed.

The meeting began with a great report on our Federation’s Young Leadership trip to Israel this November. It was followed by the approval of grants for a network of agencies in Israel and elsewhere in the world that assist Jews. A 2013 campaign report followed, announcing that we had attained our goal once again.

Additional items focused on new collaborative ventures in our community, including the creation of a central youth group coordinator which will strengthen youth programming.

Other topics included a preliminary discussion about our Federation’s forthcoming allocations process and some revisions we are considering, and then a discussion about when our Federation should take public positions on issues — and if so, how — especially if those issues, such as immigration or voting rights, don’t have an explicitly Jewish component.

One of the things we do after every board meeting is survey our board members for feedback. They are immediately emailed a short questionnaire and are asked to provide feedback on the just-completed board meeting. The responses tell us a lot, as they did after this recent meeting.

The first question we asked was, “Did you feel tonight’s board meeting was a good use of your time?” The answers were a resounding “yes.” Using time well, especially the time of our volunteers, is important to us, so these answers were especially gratifying.

“I thought it was a very informative meeting with interesting topics. I do appreciate you looking at ways to cut expenses,” one veteran community volunteer leader wrote, referring to a financial item that reflected how hard our Federation works to keep our management costs down.

Another board member, a longtime generous Federation donor, who is new to our board, responded to the questionnaire by saying, “I found the meeting well organized, informative and well run. The opportunity to be there continues to be an honor! I found the enthusiasm of the team contagious and potential for new approaches to be very informative. I remain impressed with everyone’s efforts.”

“Good meeting, interesting, all reports were relevant and presenters were well prepared. The balance between volunteers and staff as presenters was particularly effective. Potentially controversial topics were well handled,” wrote another veteran community leader.

“Great agenda, meaningful topics and informative reports,” wrote one of our younger board members in her survey answer. The survey asked, “Did you feel sufficiently informed regarding the items we covered?” She answered, “Yes.” We also asked, “What suggestions could you give us for future board meetings?” Her answer: “None.”

While we appreciate the last comment, we’ll continue trying to improve our board meetings and already have some additional ideas for the coming year.

One board member especially liked the meeting. “I felt like my opinion and input were solicited and therefore my participation felt meaningful,” she wrote, testimony to our continued efforts to engage board members. Like many of the respondents, she said she found the discussions concerning allocations and taking public positions to be the most interesting. She said the meeting was one of the best ones she attended and participants “seemed engaged and asked real questions.”

The last comment made us feel especially good. Engaging board members — in fact, engaging our entire community in the work of The BJF — is a top priority and something we continue to strive for everyday in so many ways.

Here in Birmingham, a small Jewish community in the deep South — a place where still even today people living elsewhere are sometimes surprised there are Jews — we can report that Jewish life is strong and thriving. And we intend for it to stay that way as our community continues to move forward from generation to generation.

About the Author
Richard Friedman is Executive Director of the Birmingham Jewish Federation in Alabama. He also is a well-known Alabama journalist.