This past week, Michael Weiner, Chairman of the Board for the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, and I attended the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA is the membership body of 156 local Jewish Federations and 400 smaller independent network communities across North America) Board of Trustees (on which Michael serves) meeting. Approximately 125 volunteer and professional leaders from across the continent were in attendance to discuss key issues impacting the Jewish community. Beyond the typical “Board stuff” – amendments to the by-laws, audit report, and other corporate business -- we talked about communal challenges and opportunities.
The Board meeting opened with a speech by Larry Moses, Senior Philanthropic Advisor and President Emeritus of The Wexner Foundation. Larry talked about “leadership and change.” His major theme was that Jewish organizations are “over-managed and under-led.” In his eyes, we must reach beyond our capacities, move outside of our “comfort zone,” and recognize that solutions of the past will not serve us indefinitely. Typically, most organizations preserve and defend those ideas. For this reason, leadership is so important. Leadership forces us to wrestle with our own limitations, perhaps adding fear, since new ideas may be unpredictable and fail. Thus, we typically default back to what we know. As I have said before, change is about loss – something familiar has to be given up – which most people do not want to do. Larry’s challenge to the group, and our challenge, is to either go back to where we were, stay where we are, or take a major leap forward and just go for it!
The meeting also showcased new on-line tools for Federations to better understand successful models for financial resource development. This new “dashboard” can quickly generate comparisons between individual Federations or by different city-size groupings. This will allow Portland to better understand how it compares to similar communities vis-a-vis population size, geography, or campaign revenue. We can use real-time data to improve our efforts and be as efficient and effective as possible.
We had several speakers, including Nachman Shai, a current member of the Israel Knesset, talk about evolving Israel-Diaspora relations. Many recent experiences in Israel have raised difficult questions for American Jewry, including: a marketing campaign by the Israeli government interpreted by many as encouraging Israelis living in the United States to return to Israel because living here has lessened their Israeli identity; issues in Beit Shemesh where “haredim (ultra Orthodox) extremists” were “bullying” an 8-year old girl (among other incidents) because they believed she was not dressed modestly enough (despite the fact she came from an observant home); women being required to sit in the back of city buses in ultra Orthodox neighborhoods; and additional civil challenges. In the end, the question is “What role should/does American Jewry play in “civil issues” in Israel?”
Interestingly, on Wednesday, the Jerusalem Post reported that 77% of Israelis agreed it was extremely important for members of Israel’s Knesset to consider Diaspora views when devising new legislation on Jewish identity issues. The question the survey respondents were asked – “How important do you believe it is for Israeli lawmakers to consider the views of Jews in the Diaspora when creating legislation such as ‘Who is a Jew’” Apparently they do so in overwhelming numbers.
The reason I share all of this with you is because it is far too easy for us living in Portland to forget we are part of the larger Jewish world. Despite the idea that “all politics are local,” we must recognize that as a North American Jewish community, working collectively, we have far greater impact. Whether it is JFNA’s efforts in Washington, DC to lobby for senior service funding, “speaking out” about civil society issues in Israel, rescuing Jews from Ethiopia, or enabling over one million Jews from the Former Soviet Union to leave -- the collective voice of North American Jewry makes an incredible impact.
In fact, the North American Jewish Federation system raises over $1 billion per year via annual campaigns. Jewish community foundations (i.e. OJCF) have over $15 billion in total assets. And Federations annually allocate and invest over $2 billion for Jewish causes around the world.
I am proud of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland – the difference we are making here in Portland and SW Washington, in Israel, and 65 countries around the world. Always remember, Federation is acting both locally and globally – and not in isolation.
PS – Late next week, everyone who received the Jewish Review newspaper should receive their first issue of the new Oregon Jewish Life magazine. Although Federation is not involved with the magazine, we look forward to this new community resource.
PPS – The next issue of the Community Connections e-newsletter will be sent on January 31st. If you do not receive the e-newsletter, please let us know by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure that email@example.com is on your safe senders list.