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Learning from JFL

 What can we learn from the end of Jewish Family & Life, the nonprofit incubator of Jewish projects?

The board of JFL, which was started more than 12 years ago, decided in late April that it would sunset the organization as soon as it found takers for its four remaining publications, Sh’ma, JBooks, JVibe and Babaganewz. And after placing Sh’ma and JBooks this summer, it agreed recently to cede JVibe to the social media network JVillage, and Babaganewz to the publisher of Jewish learning material and books Behrman House Publishing.

The deals, which have not been publicly announced, became official this week. And JFL, which was the landlord at an office space at 90 Oak Street in Newton, Mass., where several other Jewish nonprofits rented space, has handed over its lease to two of its renters.

"JFL is in the process of dissolution," the organization’s CEO, Amir Cohen, told The Fundermentalist. "We have filed an application with state of Massachusetts to be dissolved. It should not be too complicated, provided that we meet all of our obligations financially. At this time, JFL has followed a plan that began at our board retreat on April 30-May 1, that would lead us to a point that when all is said and done all of our obligations will have been met."

JVillage is a for-profit company started last march that helps synagogues and other Jewish nonprofits set up Web sites and then use social media and other online tools to create online networks in an attempt to broaden and engage their membership bases.

This summer, Sh’ma was taken over by the Lippman-Kanfer Foundation, which will build an organization around the magazine on Jewish thought. And JBooks was taken over by its publisher, Ken Gordon.

By finding takers for all of JFL’s products, Cohen has met the board’s goals — and worked himself out of a job in the process. But he is voicing no regrets.

"If you told me on May 1 that all of the editors of our publications would have kept their jobs and and all that wanted to keep their jobs would have jobs, I would have said that you are a crazy optimist," he said.
 
Fundermentalist’s take: This is a bittersweet moment for Cohen, but it’s nothing less than noble. He carried out a task that few of Jewish nonprofit executive directors have done, but in reality many should consider.

JFL took a hard look at itself last spring and decided, ultimately, that the Jewish world would be better off if the organization distributed its key assets and closed its doors. The organization had its time and its place, and was ahead of the curve when it was started last decade. But it saw that the best way for its programs to survive  — for its mission to continue — was without the overhead of having JFL administer them.

According to Cohen, the JFL, which had an annnual budget of about $3.5 million at one point, was spun into four separate programs, each with budgets in the low six figures. It sought out partnerships for those programs that made sense, with other organizations that would produce real synergy.

"When you look at JFL, it was an incubator that has been incredibly successful. We have been involved in the launch of some of the best programs around. We saved Sh’ma 10 years ago. JFL was involved in development and creation of programs like MyJewishLearning.com," he said. "The financial reality of the world though dictated certain things, and that JFL would no be able to stay in the capacity it had been. Is it sad for Amir Cohen to be the one closing the door and shutting the lights? Of course it is. But I have no regrets with any of the decisions we have made over the last four months."

Cohen said that he needs some time and separation from the end of JFL, but expect down the road on the pages of JTA and The Fundermentalist a more in-depth look at this process and what it meant for him and for the JFL board.

"At end of the day, if you have backing, you have a better shot of survival. But if [survival] is your only goal, then what is your actual mission?" Cohen said. "There isn’t a good mechanism in place to decide what deserves to stick around and what doesn’t."

We are all faced with difficult decisions now. We have built an organized Jewish world that does some great things, but — most observers and insiders would say — also has developed fat and overlap that even before the recession could stand trimming.

How many boards and professionals are looking at their organizations and asking themselves the question, "Do we exist solely to exist?" The problem, judging from plenty of interviews, is that philanthropic loyalty and salaries that feed families make those decisions near impossible — especially without a rigorous process to help look at the existing infrastructure and make some of those difficult decisions.
 

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