Time to Write a Check to Federation

New York
November 9, 2011 / 12 Cheshvan 6772

The period from the end of the Jewish holidays (i.e. now) till the end of December (the end of the tax year) is peak season for non-profits raising money. That’s no less true for Hazon than anyone else: we’re doing important work on a relatively shoe-string budget, and we need your help. Despite that, this email isn’t a request to write us a check: it’s a request that you write one to your local Jewish Federation. That’s especially true if either A. you’ve never written a check to Federation before or B. it’s a few years since you last did so and you got out of the habit. In this email, I want to say why I think this is important, and I especially want to address critiques that are made of the system in relation both to Israel and to issues of diversity, democracy, and inclusion.

The Jewish Federation system accreted gradually over time. The first push was in the late nineteenth century; then again around the First World War; and then a different high-water mark happened in 1967 and 1973 around the time of the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War. At each point the central argument was that A. we were needlessly replicating ourselves, and needed to be more efficient, and B. that the whole was in some sense more than the sum of the parts.

In terms both of inflation-adjusted dollars raised, and the total number of donors, 1973 was probably the peak. In all sorts of ways, the system has been declining for at least the last decade and in most places longer.

It’s right to adjust to changing times. I don’t use a Sony Walkman any more. The three legacy national TV networks are in secular decline. I don’t wear a dark suit when I go to work. Life goes on. The Jewish community, like America itself, is more fragmented than it was a generation ago, and fragmented also means – in this case – more diverse, more inclusive, more varied, more vibrant. Geological monoliths erode over time and so too do their cultural analogues.

But the erosion of the Federation system is not inevitable, and even if it were inevitable it’s not good. On the contrary, those of us who most believe in the evolution of America’s cultural ecosystems, including its Jewish community, should be putting our weight, individually and institutionally, behind the renewal of the Federations. Here’s why:

First, there’s no other entity that’s capable of doing the range of good that a Federation does, with one single check. Hazon is part of a cohort of groups that have been involved in renewing Jewish life in powerful ways in the last decade. Hadar, JDub, Storahtelling, the Six Points Fellowship, Moving Traditions, Dor Chadash, Panim: all of whom have received material UJA-Federation support. Creating healthier and more sustainable communities, within and beyond  Jewish life? Jewish Farm School, Teva, Eden Village Camp, Adamah, Jewish Greening Fellowship, Wilderness Torah. A tremendous number of the key innovators have received significant support from their local federation – and that includes in the Bay Area and LA, and elsewhere. (Kayam, doing incredible work, is supported by the Associated in Baltimore.)

(Double disclosure: yes, Hazon receives support from the Federations in New York and in San Francisco, and now also in the East Bay and in Portland, OR. But in New York we applied five years running for a multi-year grant, and five years running we were rejected. I feared we’d go bust before we ever got a penny from the Federation. We finally received that grant in year 6. In San Francisco we talked to Federation – and tried to apply for money – for about four years and only recently received a multi-year grant for the first time. We are supported by the Federation system, and/but we have had our share of frustrations with Federations along the way. But here’s the key thing: despite imperfections, I understand what they’re trying to do, I know that they’re important, and I empathize with their challenges. My respect for the system has only increased over time – and not only, and perhaps not even, because Hazon has subsequently been funded, especially by UJA-Federation of New York, in significant ways.)

But the world that Hazon is most part of is only a tiny part of the system.  Separate from the organizations involved in renewing Jewish life or creating a more sustainable world for all, is a whole different set of organizations: day care centers, senior homes, programs for those in need. A slew of anti-poverty initiatives. The Kosher Food Net. The All in Need Kosher Food Pantry. The Passover Food Outreach Program. The Village Temple Soup Kitchen. Community advocacy. The disabled. People with AIDS. Spiritual Care as Part of Oncology Supportive Care. Many of us pay lip service to these sorts of needs, but America today is more and more unintegrated. There’s hidden poverty in our midst – but it is often hidden. There’s a whole universe of people and institutions at Federation that I don’t know, don’t overlap with, don’t see socially, don’t work with. But when I write a check to Federation, I’m supporting all of them, and rightly so.

And then so too with Israel, and Jewish people around the world. We’ve gone full circle on all this. For a century or more Jews in this country worked hard for Jewish people in need around the world. In recent years that’s somehow, in certain circles, become blasé or uncool, or too particularistic, or maybe less cool than supporting non-Jews in need. These of course are not either/or – I write a check to AJWS also, and to New Israel Fund as well for that matter. But I do care about Jewish people around the world – in Israel and elsewhere. The Gilad Shalit story is about the sheer wonderful irrationality of treating a member of one’s people as being also a member of one’s family. His redemption – at extraordinary and painful cost – makes no sense unless we accept an extended notion of family, and I absolutely do.  It’s a similar wonderful seeming irrationality that has led the Federation system to start to put resources behind supporting Israeli Palestinians (languaged by most Federations as “Israeli Arabs”) – since we care about Israel, we’re serious about Israel being an inclusive democracy, and so Jewish peoplehood resources stretch in new and to some unexpected ways. One perspective sees this as tokenism and argues we should do more; another would say, why do Federations do this at all? You can argue both positions, but if you do so, argue l’shem shemayim – believing in the renewal of philanthropic endeavors, and the complexity of the world we live in.

So: writing one check to your local Federation does incredible good, locally, nationally, and internationally. It does it at low-cost (as large organizations, their fundraising costs are proportionately lower than most other non-profits), and with strong infrastructures and deep systems of lay/professional partnership and transparency. So how come they’re on the ropes in so many ways?

First: people accuse Federations of being unrepresentative. I don’t think that’s fair. They’re a money-weighted and sweat-weighted democracy. People who are actively involved have a bigger say than those who are peripherally involved, and those who write bigger checks have more say than those who write smaller checks. You know what? –  that’s true at Hazon also, and it’s true in almost any non-profit you could care to name. The biggest check doesn’t give you the right of veto, and the smallest one (especially if you work hard, and you have good people skills, and you’re smart) doesn’t mean that your voice won’t be counted. Attacking Federations for being undemocratic is about 180 degrees off: they’re often slow-moving because they’re so participatory, and over time they’ve evolved complex governance cultures. If in doubt: volunteer in good faith, be patient, and I think you’ll find that most Federations would love to involve you in their work.

That leads me to my next point: let’s stop using Federations as a punchbag on Israel. In 1967, and even more so in 1973, the unifying secular religion of American (and British) Jews was “support for Israel.” Rightly or wrongly that’s not so today. We know it’s not so, and we see evidence of it every place we look. As the central structure of American Jewish life, Federations across the country support Israel, and a range of projects that connect in some way with Israel, in a staggering number of ways. That’s as it should be. My own views on Israel will be slightly different than yours; and yours from his, and his from hers. Yes, we should care, and yes we should express our views. But – and this is a key but, in the year 2011 – we need to have the maturity to support the system even if, in some particular respect, it does something that’s not exactly in accordance with our own views.

Do I have criticisms of the Federation system? Of course I do. My main one is a relatively unusual one: I think Federations have made an understandable but nevertheless significant mistake in focusing on dollars-raised to the exclusion of number-of-people-donating. Federations are very focused on numerical targets, especially dollars raised. I think a clear public goal needs also to be established of raising the number of people who donate to Federation, year-on-year, for at least the next decade. That’s a scary number for a Federation to focus on, because it looks like it’s fighting against the tide, and thus bound to fail. But I think it’s important in two different ways. First, the number of donors adds to the moral legitimacy of a Federation – and the diminution of that number is correspondingly problematical over time. And secondly, looked at through a different lens, I think that focusing on increasing the number of donors would actually help Federations tell their stories better – it would focus them, systematically and culturally, on moving outwards in various ways, including publicly.

Here’s the last image I want to share with you: it’s the photo over my desk; a photo, given to me by Andy Blau, of Jack Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy. Of all the photos I might have put there, I chose this one because of the famous words of Bobby Kennedy: some see what is and ask why; I dream of what might be, and ask why not? The word Hazon means vision, and that photo most sums up for me the possibility of bringing new vision to fruition in the world. But in this context it means something else as well: it means imagining what American Jewish life, and the future of this country and of the Jewish community, would be like, if we didn’t have a Federation system. It would be more chaotic, more expensive, less representative, less coordinated, less thoughtful, and it would expose many of the weakest in our communities even more than they presently are. It would damage central connective tissue in our communities, and it would remove a central support for innovation. And I make this observation in the week of parshat vayera. It’s the beginning of the story of Jewish responsibility and, yes, acceding to larger calls to give of ourselves in profound ways, and, clichéd though it may sound, the next chapters of that story are written by each of us, this day and this week.

So as I say: if you want to write a check, here are some links to help you find your local federation.

We gratefully acknowledge support from the Federations in New York, San Francisco, the East Bay, and Portland, OR.  Find your local Federation, anywhere else in the country.

Shabbat shalom


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