This past week I was in New York City meeting with my colleagues from similar-sized communities around the country, including Indianapolis, Memphis, Sarasota, and Palm Springs. It was an important three days to listen, learn, and share many of the successes in Portland.
The most important part of the conference was, of course, the “offline” conversations with colleagues. Amazing that, despite geographic and demographic differences, so many of our opportunities are the same.
One important “news of note” is that the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA - our national umbrella organization representing 147 Jewish Federations and more than 300 independent communities) just completed a strategic plan where they will be focusing on several key national initiatives. Over the past six months a committee of lay and professional leaders, in partnership with The Bridgespan Group, a leading national nonprofit management consulting firm, collaborated to develop a set of recommendations regarding how JFNA needs to change to help the Jewish Federation movement realize its potential for today and tomorrow. They based their theory of change on data gleaned from hundreds of surveys and interviews and a widespread analysis of the non-profit sector.
The approved changes involve four core ideas:
1. Developing new rigor and capacity to collect and share benchmarking data so Jewish Federation can be an accountable world-class philanthropy that is data-informed in its decision-making. A more robust business intelligence capacity will not only enable and propel learning across the Jewish Federation network but will also enable us to more effectively share the story of our collective impact.
2. Reinvesting in talent, especially the professional and volunteer leadership resources that drive our system, so that Jewish Federations become the place where the best and brightest Jewish professionals and lay leaders gravitate.
3. Undertaking a marquis collective impact initiative focused on engaging the next generations of Jews with Jewish life and community, building on the millions of dollars that the Jewish Federations already invest annually in such efforts and galvanizing our system to deepen its impact in this crucial area.
4. Rethinking JFNA services and applying the same business models used by the most successful for-profit companies to help Jewish Federations access up-to-date resources, leverage expertise across the system, deliver top notch services in key functional areas, and break down silos that stymie innovation.
To say the least, these are exciting times for the Jewish Federation movement.
This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim , is where we are commanded to help our fellow human being with interest-free loans: “ If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, don’t be like a creditor to him, don’t impose interest on him. If you should pawn your fellow’s garment, return it to him by nightfall .” (Shemot 22:24-25)
This is why we have our Jewish Free Loan of Greater Portland program. This two-year old service to our community makes loans of up to $4,000 for any of “life’s ups and downs.” I want to recognize the leadership of Jeff Kirsch, our founding Chair, who just ended his term and welcome Les Gutfreund as the new Chair of our program. Les is very proud of his own personal connection with the Jewish Free Loan program in his hometown of Detroit.
Rabbi Asher Meir, author of the bookMeaning in Mitzvot , wrote “We might think that helping out a needy person with charity would be an even greater kindness, but our tradition clearly indicates the opposite. Giving a loan is considered a greater mitzvah than giving charity, so much so that the Hebrew word for a free loan is a ‘gemach ’ – an acronym for ‘ gemilut chasadim ,’ meaning 'granting kindness.' This linguistic identity points to a cultural reality that giving a loan is the basic act of mutual aid in Judaism.”
This special importance is not only because the lender is getting no benefit from the loan. In fact, making a business partnership with a needy person, where there is an expectation of profit, is considered on an equal level with a loan. Rabbi Meir concludes, “The greatest level of charity, with nothing higher, is to strengthen the hand of a weakened Jew, giving him a present or a loan or starting a partnership, or giving him work.”
Finally, here are two quick uplifting stories from different parts of the world:
In December, 40 people gathered at a Catholic-owned hotel in Kosovo’s second largest city, Prizren, to light the sixth candle of Chanukah. The ceremony was attended by local Albanian-speaking Jews and Muslims, visiting students from Israel, several dignitaries including Votem Demiri, the 72-year-old patriarch of Kosovo’s tiny Jewish community.
Within a year, Prizren will be home to Kosovo’s only synagogue and Jewish historical museum, “ Muzeu Shqiptaro-Hebraik .” It will stand out in a country where more than 95 percent of its two million inhabitants identify as Muslim.
Sadly, at the beginning of World War II, nearly the entire Jewish community left Kosovo. Today, Kosovo is home to only 56 Jews, 14 of them children. And now they will have their own synagogue!
At the same time, the United Arab Emirates has said it will ease restrictions on the country’s minority religions. As the region’s economy grows and attitudes toward Israel soften, a fledgling Jewish community in Dubai has founded that city’s first synagogue. The unmarked building features a sanctuary for prayers, a kosher kitchen, and a few bedrooms for visitors or community members who do not drive on Shabbat.
So, if you ever find yourself in in Kosovo or the United Arab Emirates, make sure you go to synagogue.