It is hard for me to put into words what being a Jewish professional means to me. At 25, I never imagined the impact I would have on the Jewish community. It is by no coincidence that the work I, and so many of my colleagues, am doing is changing lives — it is because of the Jewish Federation movement that we are able to literally change the global Jewish community for the better.
At 20, a junior in college, I was trying to decide what to do with my life and was going through what I called a “quarter-life crisis.” I knew I wanted to make an impact and do meaningful work, but I didn’t know how and where.
One night during that summer, I went to a Federation-sponsored program. I have no idea why I went or even how I heard about the event, but I went, an unusual decision for me, someone who is naturally shy and nervous. The program was a dinner, hosted by The Birmingham Jewish Federation’s You Belong In Birmingham group, an initiative designed to engage young Jews in their 20s and early 30s. Even though there was no financial requirement, I was scared about going, but decided to take a chance. As dramatic as it may sound, the decision to go that night changed my life.
The group was warm and welcoming and it was clear to me after the event that it was easy to be involved in our Federation. There was no solicitation, no gimmick, no catch — just a pure desire to bring young Jews together for companionship and camaraderie.
I quickly became involved with the Federation on a number of levels. I traveled to Washington, DC with our Federation representatives to the American Israel Political Affairs Committee’s annual Policy Conference thanks to support from a fund in the Birmingham Jewish Foundation. I became a fixture at Federation events, especially the You Belong In Birmingham programs where I had made new friends, who are now some of my best friends. And I began to develop relationships with our Federation staff who have impacted my life in more ways than I could have imagined.
The Birmingham Jewish Federation embraced me and I embraced it wholeheartedly. I wanted to give back to the Federation in a way that was as meaningful as what it had given to me. I volunteered to be an intern during my senior year of college and immersed myself in the Federation culture. I haven’t looked back on that decision since.
It is hard to believe that just five years ago, I was searching for a way to make an impact in the world and I found it. How do I know I’ve found it? I have seen clearly the impact Federations across the US are making locally, nationally and globally.
Without my Federation, our local Jewish Community Center, Jewish Day School and Jewish Family Services would be amiss and programs on our local college campuses would be under-funded. Sure, they would be without certain allocated funds, but they would also be without a partner — a solid organization that has the ability and willingness to advocate for them, elevate them and make our Jewish community stronger. These local efforts make a national and global impact.
Without our Federation, young Jews in Birmingham would not have an organized way of coming together without any requirement for membership, a donation or a commitment. Our You Belong In Birmingham program is accessible to any young Jew wanting to be connected to the community. If these young people have an idea that fits within the mission of our Federation, we help them make it happen. And, as a result, It is amazing to see what this group has accomplished and the relationships to the Jewish community and Judaism this program has created.
Nationally, our Federation is working to combat the anti-Semitism that is running rampant on some US college campuses, provide support for Israel and care for Jews in our own community who need help. Jewish Federations have revolutionized the American Jewish community in more ways than one. We have rallied together to free Jews from the Former Soviet Union in the 80s. We have helped the people of Israel respond to crises. We have formed a united Jewish community. And in Birmingham, as I have seen first-hand, we have done it with transparency, a welcoming and open culture, and consensus-based decision making.
This year, I have especially seen the global impact that the Federation movement has on Jews in every region of the world. By being on a trip to Ukraine, I have witnessed Joint Distribution Committee employees, provided thanks to Federation funds, risking their lives to rescue Jews from the conflict areas of Ukraine. Through a Federation trip to France, I have seen the Jewish Agency, also funded by Federations, give the gift of aliyah to young French Jews who want to escape the anti-Semitism plaguing their country.
I have handed a bag of fresh produce and canned food to a Jewish family in Ukraine who, without that food, may not have had a meal at dinner time. I have had dinner in Paris with young Jews — my contemporaries — who have been anguished over the question of whether to stay or leave.
All of this, and much more, has been made possible by the strong network of Jewish Federations throughout the US.
Sometimes, when our Federation Executive Director Richard Friedman and I talk about the anti-Semitism that is plaguing our global Jewish community, we often talk about the Holocaust, the conditions of the 1930s and 40s, and the difference in current times. Today, we have a strong national Jewish organization that can mobilize at a moment’s notice to help Jews in need, like we did last summer when Israel was engaged in a military operation against Hamas. We didn’t have this organizational strength during the Holocaust. The security of knowing that we can help save a Jew anywhere at anytime is so valuable. However, I think our success is defined by more than that.
As fate would have it, one of my professional responsibilities is to run our You Belong In Birmingham program, which served as my entrée into the Federation world. Just yesterday in my role as the “You Belong” coordinator, I had coffee with a 21-year-old college student, home for the summer. We talked about what she wanted to do with her life, her college experience and being back in Birmingham. But, without any prompting from me, what we talked about most was her desire to be a part of the Birmingham Jewish community. When she graduates and moves back to Birmingham, we will provide her with the tools to connect with our community, to build a Jewish life for herself and to make an impact in the Jewish world.
Only because of the Federation system are we able to do that.
Our success is in empowering the young, shy Jewish individuals, just like me five years ago, to make a difference. Our success is giving them the tools to give back and live a meaningful Jewish life in a world that is becoming increasingly difficult to do that in. Today, I am more thankful than ever for our Federation system and all that it has given me. And only because of our Federation network are millions of Jewish lives, whether in Birmingham, Alabama or Paris France, or Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine being changed and enriched so dramatically.