Why? (And What?)

The other day, there was a piece in the media detailing what the anonymous author considers to be the “ugly side” of Jewish Federations. This piece particularly ignited the passion of our community. Some of our colleagues from other Federations (and from here) have posted comments, submitted emails, and shared their concern. You can read the original piece here (and the comments following it give us much food for thought).
 
In particular, I recommend you read the two responses below. (You can find them if you scroll all the way down the original page, but I’m reposting them here for ease of reading.) The first is by my friend and colleague Steve Rakitt, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington; the second is by our Federation President, Leslie Dannin Rosenthal.
 
Steve and Leslie articulate our values in the best way possible.
 
 
STEVE RAKITT
Response posted July 10, 2015 at 3:21 a.m.
 
I read this article with interest and disappointment — interest because the author touches on important issues facing Federations and our communities and disappointment because s/he wrote anonymously and in broad generalities. I am glad to see the number of signed responses, and proud to add mine as a Federation professional of more than three decades.
 
I’ll start off by agreeing with the author’s premise that an “ugly” side can be found in every business and every organization. The true test of integrity, however, is the willingness to be transparent and the ability to be responsive. There are over 150 independent Federations in North America. While we are all in the business of building community, we are unique in how we go about doing it. Most are learning organizations doing extraordinarily innovative and exciting work in how we approach community and inspire change.

Many organizations – and people – have a hard time owning up to mistakes. What separates good organizations and good people from others is the ability to be self-reflective, admit errors and make improvements. I have publicly admitted mistakes (G-d knows I’ve made them) and know many colleagues in the Federation system who have done so as well. In particular, the past 5 years have yielded a bounty of self-reflection by Federation volunteers and professionals locally and nationally as to what is working, what isn’t and how it can be improved. Far from shirking this responsibility, I have seen a collective embrace of the challenges. We don’t get it right all of the time but we are certainly looking hard at ourselves and our communities.
 
Federations are legacy institutions that have become countercultural. In an age of rampant individualism, we proudly promote collectivism. In an age of, “What’s in it for me?” we ask, “What’s in it for the community?” And at a time when philanthropy is increasingly targeted, we say that no one gift touches more lives. And that is what’s most important. We touch, change and save thousands of lives every day. We convene important communal discussions and take decisive action. We partner with, and support, a vast network of social, educational and Jewish identity-building services and programs which are making a profound difference in Jewish lives and in our communities. We help shape the Jewish future.
 
That’s the “beautiful” side of Federations.
 
Could we be better? Absolutely. Could we improve in each of the areas cited by the author? For sure. Could I be prouder to be associated with the thousands of men and women who dedicate their volunteer time and professional careers to the betterment of Jewish community through the Federation system? I doubt it.
 
Steve Rakitt, CEO Jewish Federation of Greater Washington
 
 
LESLIE DANNIN ROSENTHAL
Response posted July 11, 2015 at 12:35 a.m.
 
Jews are masters of the word, both written and spoken. We have debated our laws for thousands of years, in person and in writing. This debate has gone on in chevruta, in batei midrash, in board rooms, always seeking the most complete answer, seeking to challenge the best out of each other for a better Judaism and indeed, a better world.

Words can also hurt, and we Jews are all too often masters of words that hurt and sting as well. We are in a three-week period of observance that reminds us that while outsiders have tried over and over to destroy us, it is our own baseless hatred and misuse of words against each other that destroyed the Temple.

I write in service of words – and deeds – that can care, build and save.

I write to address the one plaintive question that Uzi ben Gibor [pseudonym of the author of this piece] and Dan Brown [founder of eJewish Philanthropy who published this piece] ask that does have an answer. I am proud to say that Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ supports Israel Hofsheet and Itim in their respective quests to open wider the tents of birth, marriage, conversion and death to all Israelis. We have been to the Knesset on these issues. We do this in the context of our religious pluralism committee, which funds many initiatives in Israel that are bringing the beauty and meaning of Judaism to Israeli society.

I personally believe that this support is necessary in the name of Zionism – we cannot ask young Jews, either born in Israel or who make aliyah, to defend Israel and hold the land on one hand, and have the State of Israel deny their Judaism on the other. We risk that otherwise they say, like the child at the seder table, “What is this to me?”

Not every Federation is interested in or able to engage in this work, and there are certainly debates within our own Federation about it, which is good and healthy. But there is a larger engagement in which every Federation does participate, in one way or another – our support of the Joint [Distribution Committee] and the Jewish Agency [for Israel]. It is through efforts like Partnership 2Gether that Israelis and Americans work to build the living bridge that we can cross every day, creating and strengthening Jewish peoplehood. And the more time we spend with our Israeli “framily” (friends who become family through shared experiences and home hospitality), the more we understand the complicated story of Jewish identity on both sides of the ocean.
 
I am proud every day to be a volunteer with my Federation. I do not do this work for glory, or to get my picture in the New Jersey Jewish News – I would far rather show the life-saving, life-affirming work that we do, and we will get there, eventually. I devote my time and my philanthropic dollars to my Federation because I wake up every morning and know that my gift, combined with thousands of others, makes a difference in the lives of others, Jewish and not, every day.
 
Leslie Dannin Rosenthal, President, Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ
 
 

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