Brainstorming on the state of the Jewish community’s federation system, 45 local leaders agreed on at least one thing — the need to better convey just how much the system accomplishes.
Staff and lay leaders of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey and its partner agencies and local synagogues gathered on the Wilf campus in Scotch Plains on Jan. 19 for a leadership retreat hosted by the federation.
The keynote speaker was Jerry Silverman, the newly appointed president and chief executive officer of the Jewish Federations of North America (formerly United Jewish Communities). The organization’s director of philanthropy, Eric Levine, facilitated the group discussions that followed.
The goal was to “initiate a process that will shape the agenda for how the federation performs communal planning and allocations,” said Marcy Lazar, a vice president of the federation who cochaired the event with Pam Zaifman, a member of the board of directors and its executive committee.
Lazar said she was gratified to have “nearly all our communal partners and organizations represented” at the gathering. She said she hoped that the retreat would “inspire this diverse group to recognize the power of the collective as a means of working together and unifying our efforts to serve the needs of the community.”
In his opening address, Silverman spoke of the challenges facing the country’s federations, which collect and allocate philanthropy for local Jewish schools and agencies, projects in Israel, and Jewish communities around the world. In recent years, the federations have faced flat fund-raising campaigns and, among young people, a lack of awareness of the organizations’ work and accomplishments.
“What has brought us here won’t get us there,” Silverman said. “We can’t continue to be the same — to be all things to all 157 federations and 400 networked communities. That is a thing of the past.”
Jewish federations should be perceived as among the preeminent nonprofit organizations in North America, Silverman said. “We have all the ingredients,” he continued, listing them as “the ability to think differently, the best minds, and a gift — Torah — and a miracle — the Jewish State.”
Warren Eisenberg of Short Hills, a major donor to the Central federation campaign, said he was present “just to be a critic.”
“We’re losing a lot of the younger generation and we’re also losing the big givers — and it’s our own fault,” said Eisenberg. “How do you cut overheads?”
Central federation president Gerry Cantor challenged Silverman. He wanted to know why the name United Jewish Appeal, “the best-known trademark in charities,” was dropped years ago in the merger of Jewish philanthropy groups that formed what became United Jewish Communities and then Jewish Federations of North America.
Silverman answered that while UJA was recognized by a certain age category, it wasn’t well known beyond that. On the other hand, “federation” was associated with “trusting,” he said.
With the participants grouped around six tables, Levine led a consideration of a series of questions. They dealt with funding priorities, vision and allocations, and outreach and promotion.
One suggestion that drew broad support was to develop internships as a way to help with the workload during a time of tight budgets while at the same time providing young people with an introduction to federation’s mission.
Lazar and Zaifman said they expect to form a task force to work on the ideas that were put forward, and to present a more formalized plan to the community at the federation’s annual meeting June 14.
Reflecting on the retreat a few days later, Lazar wrote in an e-mail, “I do think the event was successful. Certainly, we will need to continue the process of planning and moving forward but we now have ideas/input from a broader perspective of the community.”
Zaifman said she was pleased by the spirit of community building that was evident, and the participants’ interest in what comes next.
“My expectation is that the effort will lead us to identifying the areas of greatest need and opportunity,” she said. “From there, we should assess whether the programs that are currently provided are meeting those needs, and further evaluate whether there are changes or innovations called for in response to our findings.”