This coming week, JFNA is hosting the annual General Assembly, the GA. As long as I can remember (and long before that) Jewish Federations held this gathering in different cities throughout North America and in Israel, bringing together lay and professional leaders to discuss issues that related to Israel, the Jewish world, and how the Jewish world and Israel relate to one another.
Before making Aliyah, I spent most of my career in the framework of what was then the national umbrella, UJA, and some of the largest and smallest local federations. Despite the bureaucracy and often inevitable inefficiencies of these organizations, I was well aware and appreciative of how the Federations served as an important and positive influence.
And despite the inefficiencies, as an American immigrant who spent years in the Federation system, I often felt that Israel could use a Jewish Federation. In many ways, this year Israel realized that.
A good Federation should be a strong community’s central fund raising and planning arm. A good Federation should have a big enough and wide enough table for all elements of the community to have a seat, and a voice. The voices don’t always agree much less harmonize, and often have their own agenda and perspective. That’s normal. But in a strong community, the voices should at least be listened to, considered, and learn from one another. The last Federation I worked in had a slogan: “Many Voices, One Community.” Unity doesn’t always mean complete agreement, but an agreement on common purposes.
At the Federations in which I worked, there were the representatives of specific agencies or synagogues who only saw communal issues through the prism of that agency or synagogue. They were not opposed to others, but would typically not be interested in something in the broader community’s interest, simply because there’s no evident direct role or benefit for themselves, at least in the short term.
There were always contrarians. They sat together in board meetings, whispering and exchanging notes. Some didn’t even really support the Federation model, but they knew they had to be at the table. Others rejected the Federation outright, were not at the table, and did their own thing, on their own terms, with no regard for the bigger community.
There were peacemakers who would bend over backwards to bring people and agencies together in word and sometimes in actions, by proactively working together. Some were territorial and looked at their piece of the pie as being the whole pie, not acknowledging that the perfect triangular piece that they had was part of a circle.
Professionals played a special role understanding, providing resources, building relations, and of course raising funds, in many ways as part of the community, but with a distinct neutral role. Of course, there are the influencers who are often the money people, the major donors. Sometimes they cared the most and their giving reflected that, and sometimes they gave to give the appearance of caring.
In short, there were many elements that always needed to be considered and reinforced to cobble together and strengthen the community.
The characteristics above could also be used to describe Israeli politics. Recently, particularly with four contentious elections in two years, Israel looked as divided as the most dysfunctional Jewish Federation, if not worse. The Biblical metaphor of “tribes” has been used to underscore that we are really one unit, with the mandate to act as such for the well being of us all. It sounds easier than it is. But this year Israel came as close as it ever has to creating its own Jewish Federation.
June’s outcome of several different political parties, the largest of which representing only 15% of the total seats of the Knesset, coming together to form Israel’s most diverse government was improbable at best. Is all of Israel represented? No. Does the government represent more than a slim majority, a piece of pie that’s just narrowly more than 50%? Not much. But it does represent the most diverse array of Israelis perhaps ever brought into a coalition together: the right and left, religious and secular, and of course for the first time Arabs and Jews with the inclusion of an Arab party. Can it do good, like how a good Federation operates? Yes.
Is it always smooth sailing? Most definitely not. Many never thought the coalition would last this long, much less on the verge of finding enough common ground and maturity to pass a state budget. Each party is advocating for its own interests and agendas, realizing that they cannot push or pull too far in any one direction for risk of the whole coalition collapsing. They are inter-reliant which a community should be.
In many ways, the dialogue that’s required to hold the government together is similar to the planning and allocations of a good Federation. Probably nobody is coming away with all the pie they want, but with a big picture vision, there’s a pie to be shared to begin with. After four divisive elections in two years, that’s no small thing. And by coming together, using the tribe metaphor, that’s a good thing in the long term for all of Israel.
As the GA convenes, Israel can look toward the Federation model for some positive examples as to how to work together for the greater communal good. There’s an opportunity – and a need – to build consensus and partnership. That can even include sectors of society not represented in the current coalition.
One of the best programs I ever organized brought together all elements of the community around the table, and even those who didn’t really think much of Federation to begin with, but saw that the program was good and important enough to support. Even from outside, they saw that only Federation could make it happen, so they joined us. Together.
Israel needs a little more together-by-choice, beyond fighting existential threats from Iran, and rockets and terrorism closer to home. Federations provide a model for people coming together, to dialogue and understand, if not agree. There will always be things that divide us and upon which we disagree. Yet, we can disagree politely, agree on communal priorities that are good for all of Israel, including the allocation of resources, and to elevate these above politics for the greater common good.
At the 2008 in Jerusalem, I met an Egyptian diplomat who was amazed by the whole idea of the GA, not just the sense of common good that was the goal, but how diaspora communities related to and supported Israel. From his perspective, there was no parallel in the world, and certainly not in the Arab world. He embraced the example and looked to that to find a way to create a similar sense of purpose.
Perhaps it’s time that Israel look beyond itself in this way and hold up the Federation model for the greater good of Israeli society. And from that, perhaps we can use it as a jumping off point upon which to find and build greater common purpose with the Federations and diaspora communities that they represent.