As the Jewish Federations of North America are meeting for their annual general meeting from Sunday, Nov. 8 to Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015, it is relevant to look at how these Jewish communal organizations operate. Unfortunately, transparency is not the Canadian Jewish communal organizations’ strong suit, neither do they want to be asked about the distribution of funds or questioned or criticized about the organization’s structure. That is the topic of a little known, but important documentary called “Sha Shtil: Inside Canada’s Jewish Establishment” produced by Canadian documentary filmmaker Ben Feferman. The educational documentary primarily focuses on the situation in Toronto taking to task UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and UIA Federations Canada and the federation system in general, but the message applies to other Federations in major Jewish centers across the country.
Canadian filmmaker and activist Ben Feferman’s documentary Sha Shtil: Inside Canada’s Jewish Establishment pushes the Canadian Jewish Federation system’s taboo on criticizing their operations
The 45-minute documentary was released in spring 2012, but received little attention. Filmmaker Ben Feferman questions the lack of democracy in these organizations, questions how they operate and where they distribute their funds, while finding better solutions to the mega Jewish organizations monopoly. Feferman was discouraged throughout filming because he was told you “can’t talk about these things,” and he “shouldn’t air our dirty laundry in public.” The documentary shows despite the organizations’ opposition to criticism, there are voices in the community that are dissenting, questioning and speaking out against their practices. Feferman argues the community organizations should be democratic where decisions are made in “townhalls” rather than “boardrooms,” and the need for an “open accountable transparent community.”
Feferman was not new to documentaries when he produced Sha Shtil, but the fallout seemed to put an end to his promising filmmaking career. Feferman, who has a degree in law from Carleton University, in Ottawa focused on human rights issues. His filmmaking began while at university where he filmed his activist activities. Feferman went on to create his own production company Forbidden Fruit Media, and production list includes a number of short documentaries on the Jewish community and organizations. His first major effort was “The Wandering Jew” looked at the attraction eastern religions have on young Jews. The documentary was a success it “aired on “Faith Journal” on CTS, July 2010″ and was an “official selection” at the 2011 Athens Jewish Film Festival.
For his next project Feferman was inspired by the raising costs of Jewish education in Toronto and it becoming increasing unaffordable. He found a problem with Canadian Federations collecting a combined $170 million in 2012 alone, but that there were “gaping holes in the quality of Jewish life,” and questions about how that massive amount of donations were allocated. The film took 10 months to make, and saw him travelling to the United States to interview organizational success stories. Feferman did his homework well, including rock solid sources to back up his argument and statements including government tax data and charity watchdog group statistics, and the data the organization itself releases in term of annual reports, and census data.
Feferman chose to highlight different organizations he found the most problems with their centralized, non-transparent operations. Among those organizations Feferman singled out, where the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, Hillel, Jewish day schools, the social services system, and UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. The 45-minute documentary is divided into six parts, with parts two through five looking at the organizations and issues where there are the most problems. In each part and for each issue and organization Feferman tries to highlight grassroots organizations that have made a difference and creatively solved the problem faced.
Part one looked at Canadian Jewish history, the first Sha Shtil movement with rise of anti-Semitism and World War II, and the creation of the Jewish communal organization structure and the Federation system. Part two examined the non-democratic amalgamation of five agencies into the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs in 2011. That same part also looked Hillel ignoring the rising problem of anti-Israel activities and Israel Apartheid week on university campuses. Part three emphasized the rising cost Jewish education and the committee’s hold on subsidizing tuition that has become out of reach for the middle class.
Part four analyzed the Jewish poverty problem and the social services system not trying to solve it, and the Federations exploitation of the Jewish poor for fundraising. Part five delved into UJA Federation of Toronto, their lack of transparency and how much of the donation dollars are actually going to programs versus administrative, fundraising, and executive salary expenditures. While part five concluded the Federations need to be open to “retrospection” and a difference of view because the community is not “monolithic.”
The documentary’s title “Sha Shtil: Inside Canada’s Jewish Establishment” comes from the Yiddish Sha Shtil meaning be quiet, “be silent.” The words had a historical significance in Canadian Jewish History stemming from the 1920s and 1930s as anti-Semitism rose in Canada in official Canadian policy and among the public especially in regards to immigration. Feferman noted the Canadian Jewish Congress and community leaders “would tell the community to not speak out, to not protest or fight back.” The Jewish community was “told” to “shut your mouth and the leaders would take care of things behind closed doors.”
That same Sha Shtil philosophy is now the motto of Jewish communal leaders not about outside matters, but internal Federation operations, and that is the link Feferman makes in his documentary. Feferman brings that historical context to his film relating policy then and now. Feferman indicated in both his interview and the film that this policy is self-serving for the leaders, who benefit from keeping the community in the dark, “one step removed from its policy.”
Professor Frederick Krantz noted in the documentary, “The kind of a variant of the Sha Shtil tradition in the organized Jewish world, be quiet, don’t make waves, don’t be aggressive, and I don’t really think that works.” The organization’s leaders do not want the community to know where their donation dollars are actually going, requiring a blind faith that the documentary shows does not benefit the community, but the Federations and their affiliated agencies. According to the Federations knowing is not welcome, while asking questions and criticizing is taboo.
The documentary includes an all-star cast of well-known Canadian academics and professors who have written on the Jewish community commenting on the problems with Jewish communal organizations. Speaking to the Jewish Independent Feferman chose to interview academics because, “they are free to speak their mind and don’t have to toe any party line.”
The academics and experts that commentated included:
Jim Torczyner, Professor of Social Work at McGill University
Michael Brown, History Professor at York University
David H. Goldberg, a political scientist
Max Beer, Researcher, Concordia Centre for Oral History
Harold Waller, Professor of Political Science at McGill University
Ron Csillag a freelance journalist
Andrew Cohen, Professor of Journalism at Carleton University
Norma Baumel Joseph, Professor of Religion at Concordia University
Frederick Krantz, Director of the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research and Professor at the Liberal Arts College at Concordia University
Allan Moscovitch, Professor of Social Work at Carleton University
Morton Weinfeld, Professor of Sociology at McGill University
Geoffrey Clarfield, Anthropologist and Writer, Director of Research and Development at The Association for Cultural Equity (ACE)
The filmmaker looked to create a balance in his commentators or “talking heads” “based on geography, gender, affiliation.” Among the other commented and those interviewed included organization heads that have had success breaking out of the mold, parents, and college students.
Among the organization heads and activists that commented included:
Frank Dimant, CEO B’nai Brith Canada
Keith Landy, Past President of the Canadian Jewish Congress
Gail Baker, Principal at Toronto Heschel School
Paul Shaviv, Former Principal of Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto
Wayne J. Levin a community activist
Howard Haas, Principal Hymand Bland JDS, Overland Park, Kansas
Avrum Rosensweig, Director Ve’ahavta, Jewish Humanitarian and relief
Lea Yuger, Executive Director of Yad Ezra
Even in creating the film, Feferman was constantly stoned walled, personally feeling the Sha Shtil he was trying to educate the public with in his film. In asking advocacy organization Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs Chief Executive Officer Shimon Fogel about the allocations of its $8.1 million dollar budget, he was sent an email, “There are no allocations per se…. I ask you not to continue this correspondence further.” When Feferman wanted to interview a teacher about Jewish day schools he received an email telling him “UJA is calling Jewish day schools warning them not to speak to you.” The teacher was told by Federation not to speak to him for his film; it was the same for affiliated agencies under Federation’s umbrella. Feferman recounted the Jewish Independent, “I know a lot of people would have wanted to be interviewed for the film but didn’t want to risk the consequences from speaking out against the Federation [of Greater Toronto].”
The documentary is very data and statistic oriented. Feferman later commented to the Jewish Independent that the most troubling community statistic is the poverty rates of the Canadian Jewish Community. Canadian Jewish poverty rates include ‘over 50,000 Jews living below the poverty line” “16 percent of the community” and that “doesn’t account for the cost of living of a Jewish life.” Professor Jim Torczyner explained in the documentary, “There are 10 times as many Jewish poor people than the number of Jewish poor that get help from our agencies.” Increasing poverty rates are a problem for the Canadian Jewish population.
The problem with the way the Federations are operated, as Feferman points out that he “quickly learned that issues we face in our community are not about left vs. right, religious vs. secular, it’s about class. There are the haves and the have nots.” The Jewish social services “system” is suppose to help the community’s poor, but there is resentment towards the very group they are suppose to help, leading to a lack of headway solving the poverty issue. Avrum Rosensweig analyzed, “The system generally takes on a life of their own, a voice of their own, they have rules of their own, and extremely often hard to change those rules, and the people that are running them sometimes do it a little bit too long, and they forget that they are dealing with human beings.”
Professor Jim Torcyzner indicated in the documentary the Federations need the poor to raise money, but do very little to solve their problems. “The Jewish poor people are a group that Federations have to have in order to raise money and provide service, but helping them and dialoguing with them or including them in decisions that affect their lives are very different things.” The poor in the community are used as propaganda tools, for their annual campaign, as Feferman notes “Federations campaign on the backs of the Jewish poor.” While Professor Torcyzyner observes, “Every annual appeal of any federation in North America will show some poor Jew, and therefore we need money.” They almost trick donors into believing that their donations donors are going to solve poverty problem, but the money usually goes to programs and services.
Instead of helping the poor, the Federations, pointing particularly to UJA Toronto use fundraising donations to, “build Jewish institutions that will benefit them. We have state-of-the-art JCCs. We have state-of-the-art science wings, we have state-of-the-art everything.” The example of the problem is UJA Federation of Toronto’s Tomorrow Campaign where they built three new community centres that cost $400 million to build. Feferman points out that UJA should have spent the $400 million on endowment funds for programs that would actually benefit the community.
The problem is that Canadian Jewish communal organizations’ lack of transparency is verging on a dictatorship run by a “group of privileged board members” with a monopoly on donations to all their all affiliated agencies. Professor Torczyner noted the governmental role Federations play, “Over time it has become the Federations’ structures that dominated the political and social reality of Jews. More so than synagogues, or any other institution, they are the key big player in each city.” Politicians are accountable, but not the Federation system or their leadership. The major problems with these centralized organizations Feferman explains, are lack “public consultation” on decision-making, “not being able to air different views,” not dealing with the important issues, while “dictating” programs.
The main running theme of the documentary is lack of transparency about the allocation of funds. Feferman has a problem with the Federations methods of determining allocations, which is not based on an agency’s need, but politics. A significant part of the documentary is trying to fill in the blank in the data. Most of the annual reports published by the Federations seem more like glossy propaganda pieces that barely give much data or insight into their operations. Feferman takes much of his data from publicly posted Canadian government tax returns, charity watchdog group like Charity Intelligence Canada, and MoneySense magazine’s charity grades. CIJA, Hillel refused to provide a breakdown of allocations for their programs. When Feferman called and asked about Hillel’s programs and allocations, they responded, “it’s nothing really public.”
UJA Federation of Greater Toronto also does not have that transparency and even when confronted former CEO Ted Sokolsky would not give the numbers, Feferman was looking for about donation allocations to their affiliated organizations, charities and agencies. Like the $400 million building project, donations heavily go to non-program related expenditures; administrative and fundraising costs, and huge executive salaries. Feferman goes as far as accusing UJA of playing with the funding so that the high executive salaries come from the United Jewish Welfare Fund, but UJA only marks a 10 percent overhead. In the end, less than 72 cents of any dollar donated goes to program and affiliated agencies, and even then there are more administrative costs eating away from each donation dollar that it is truly impossible to know where the money actually goes.
Federation and their affiliated organization’s lack of transparency, does not help as it makes it appear that their hiding something from the community at large. Journalist and Professor Andrew Cohen believed there was a reason for an organization not providing a breakdown of their allocations, “If a public organization will not talk to a filmmaker addressing salient, important issues in the community, I think they are hiding something.” The Jewish day school teacher Feferman also contacted also thought UJA something was amiss commentating in the email, “it makes me wonder what they’re trying to hide so badly.”
The organization relies primarily on donors for their funding, but as Professor Harold Waller pointed out, “The community organizations are defacto government of the voluntary Jewish community. Members of the Jewish polity in Canada are entitled to know how their money is spent.” Feferman went a step further in his calls for Federation’s transparency and created a petition on ipetitions.com entitled “A call for an open, transparent and accountable UJA Federation.” The petition read, “We, members of Canada’s Jewish community, insist on an open, transparent and accountable UJA Federation, with regular community forums to raise and discuss issues of importance.” Unfortunately, the petition only garnered 38 signatures when the goal was only 100. The petition failed for the same reason Feferman could not get interviews, Federation would not allow it.
Feferman concludes that there are solutions and alternatives to the Federation system, he gives a handful of examples that serve as models of how community money could be better served, stretched and reach those that need it the most. Feferman looks to grassroots as a solution, and “outside the box,” and even the radical suggestion of removing the Federation “middleman,” advocating that Canadian Jews should decide where their funds go, not Federation. He believes members of the community would do better to just donate to their organization or charity of choice, then they know for certain where the money is going and that it will be well spent. Feferman speaking to the Jewish Independent said, “More and more people are realizing that, in the era of the Internet, they don’t need a middleman to take a large commission and decide for people.”
The problem is most of the model solutions be it towards Jewish education or alleviate poverty that Feferman refers and highlights in the film are mostly in the U.S., Feferman explained to the Jewish Independent. “If you want to see how to take care of the poor, we have to look to the U.S.” The centralized federation system in Canada run by a ruling elite has made Canada’s Jewish charities backwards lacking the innovation of the US, who despite the Federation system are being more creative thinking out of the box and solving problems. The concept is heartfelt, but little is explained about what to do to the Federation monopoly and force them to change, or maybe the problem is they are too far-gone. Feferman sees “The Jewish community is plagued with a lot of ego” and he does not “really see very much changing.”
The filmmaker sees better results in “a free market system where everyone competes for your philanthropic dollar.” If there is more competition for donation dollars it would force organizations including the Federations to be more accountable, because it would “keep organizations lean and ensures they spend money efficiently.” Feferman advocates Grassroots charities some small operations that care and make a difference and he spotlights some of them in the documentary. He wants members of the community to “fight” for the causes they champion and donate directly if one wants to actually make a difference and most importantly to “fight” for their “voice to be heard.”
Despite an attempt at a public relations campaign to promote the documentary Feferman faced roadblocks most probably at the hands of the same organizational heads that stopped him from important interviews during the filming process. The film’s promotional website exists only in the archives, and there are ghosts of the filmmaker’s high hopes. Feferman’s former Twitter account for his production company ForbiddenFM used to promote the film has also been abandoned.
Ben Feferman’s documentary was a brave effort to force a community and its donors to rethink and reconsider where their money goes each campaign season. Possibly allow the Jewish community to consider alternatives that might go against the majority, but might also bring about change that will improve the plight of the whole community. Feferman admitted to the problems he faced for producing and creating the documentary, saying he has been “very much blacklisted by a certain part of the community,” called a “self-hating Jew,” and experienced “some nasty feedback on my blog as well, and from a couple of Federation [of Greater Toronto] employees.”
Constructive criticism like this documentary should be welcomed not chastised. Sha Shtil provides an education in the unknown background and operations of the Federation system, pinpointing what is wrong, and suggesting solutions that would improve the lives of the Canadian Jewish community, especially those at the very core of the Federations’ mission. The documentary aims at educating not only the public and the Jewish community at large, but also Federation leadership. Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine said “Constructive criticism is not only to be expected but sought,” Sha Shtil is constructive criticism at its best backed up with proof.
The Jewish Federations of Canada, UIA have forgotten what it means to be a democracy, an essential right in democracy that is so prized and referred by those who lack it is freedom of speech, or in Canada freedom of opinion and of expression. The US just celebrated on Oct. 19 to 25, 2015 Free Speech Week aimed to “raise public awareness of the importance of free speech in our democracy- and to celebrate that freedom.” These inherent rights make the US and Canada so special.
That is what makes elections like the recent one in Canada on Oct. 19 where Canadians saw a peaceful change of power from Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party’s 10-year long tenure to Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party majority government. Those freedoms are the reasons college and university student newspapers criticize the administrators, and fight within their microcosm community. It is the reason that people living in oppressive regimes risk their lives because constructive critical speech can bring about change for the better, and it is a right that needs to be cherished, like Feferman quoted Gandhi, “be the change you want to see in the world.”
The Federations needs to start listening to those they serve, but also have to be open to honest criticism. Journalist Ron Csillag believes that is only possible when there is “Open and, independent, and fearless Jewish media, which can report in a way that reflects the belief that the community is mature enough and strong enough to handle complete candor in every aspect of reporting, the way regular, normal media do it every day.” The problem now is the Canadian Jewish media is funded by the Federations, there only some outside voices like Feferman who are willing to go against the grain and tell the truth and criticize in order for there to be improvements. The Jewish community is not “monolithic” and the Federations need to know that there are different voices and opinions, and that is the way ideas and innovations are born. Sha Shtil is example of free speech and the type open journalistic expose Ron Csillag says the Jewish community needs.
It takes courage to speak out against the status quo, especially in a community like the Canadian Jewish one that prefers a stranglehold with one voice and requires everyone to Sha Shtil or face the consequences. Ben Feferman’s documentary was a brave effort to force a community and its donors to rethink and reconsider where their money goes each campaign season. Possibly allow the Jewish community to consider alternatives that might go against the majority, but might bring about change that will improve the plight of the community at large.
There needs to be more voices like Feferman and those who spoke out as talking heads in his documentary. The Jewish Federations of Canada, UIA should take Sha Shtil: Inside Canada’s Jewish Establishment seriously and other critical voices. As Feferman even said while promoting his film, “I’m not interested in making the Jewish community look good. I’m interested in making it do good.” The Canadian Jewish Federations need to reflect deeply on what they are doing wrong, stop living in the past and look to do what is best to ensure that everyone in the Canadian Jewish community has a vibrant future and not just a select privileged few.
Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS is a journalist, librarian, editor, & historian. She writes regularly about news, politics, education, and Judaism for Examiner.com. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program.