Ruskay: “Living Lives of Sacred Responsibility”

Tuesday night, I attended the 10–year anniversary party for John Ruskay’s tenure as the CEO of the UJA Federation of New York.

I’ll have more on the event in the Fundermentalist newsletter, but I’ll tease you with an excerpt from the talk Ruskay gave about the future of his federation – and where he feels the country’s largest federation should focus its energies over the next 10 years.

You can read the whole speech, “Living Lives of Sacred Responsibility,” at the UJA’s Web site, but here is the real meat:

I believe the experience and accomplishments of the past decade confirms the broad framework and strategies outlined and they will continue to guide our work. Today, I want to call attention to four issues that are very much on my mind and, I believe, require our focus and attention if we are to seize this historic opportunity.

Foremost on my mind for tomorrow morning and the immediate future is the crisis of the affordability of Jewish life. Tens of thousands of our young — in New York, in North America, and in the former Soviet Union — are being turned away from Birthright, Masa, Jewish summer camps, and Jewish day schools. They seek to experience the best of Jewish life but for a lack of resources, many cannot.  While multiple factors impact such decision-making, the current economic crisis exacerbates the squeeze both on the poor and middle classes, leading growing numbers of Jewish families to forfeit enrolling their children in these programs.

We must address the affordability issue or we will deny growing segments of our people the opportunity to join our ranks and participate in what have been confirmed to be the most powerful Jewish experiences that can shape identity, particularly for those not raised in highly identified families or communities. It is time for Federations, foundations, major philanthropists, and all who care about the Jewish future to come together, pool our thinking, and determine a course of action for if we do not, we will have squandered the chance to engage large numbers of the next generation. Look for an announcement early next year for a high level study on “Priorities and Philanthropy for the Jewish People in the 21st century.” It will research and propose needed changes in communal policies and priorities to increase affordability and access.

Second, the reweaving of our community. When I called for placing social workers in synagogues ten years ago, none of us could have anticipated the positive impact both in our synagogues and in our human service agencies.  Today, there are social workers from our human service agencies in over 150 synagogues, connecting the incredible resources of our network agencies to synagogues and their members; enabling synagogues to provide care to congregants in new ways. We are consciously reweaving the community by connecting our human service agencies more directly to places where Jews come together as Jews.  This paradigm needs to be extended and expanded — to Jewish day schools, to hillels, and to additional Ys and JCCs. And we will. Instead of bifurcating human services and Jewish education, we have come to even more fully understand that both are essential for a stronger Jewish community.  

Third, our future role in Israel.  Our president, John Shapiro, board chair, Jerry Levin, and I are convening a task force of senior leadership to review, reframe and re-envision our future role in Israel.

The Jewish State is no longer a fledgling economy in need of philanthropy for its survival.  Israel’s GNP is now $180 billion; North American Jewish philanthropy annually approaches $2.5 billion. While our funding supports important work in Israel, the re-contextualization of North American Jewish philanthropy calls on us to consider new ways, working with our partners, to engage in strengthening Israel.  We believe this may require us to develop new partnerships with Israeli philanthropists and with the Government of Israel so that together we can again take on major challenges facing the Jewish State and its people.  Israel is one of the two main stages of Jewish life today and effective engagement with Israel is imperative
both for American Jewry and Israel, and for strengthening the bonds of our people.

Which leads me to the fourth issue.  Simply stated, too few of our people — on and off college campuses — are able to effectively respond to Palestinian claims or to campaigns which seek to delegitimize the moral basis for Israel.

The last decade has demonstrated the import of Israel advocacy.  We provide support for multiple advocacy efforts and will continue to do so. However, in conflating Israel advocacy and Israel education, we deny members of our community the opportunities to deepen their own engagement and bonds to Israel by developing their own positions and perspectives.  At its best, Israel education prepares young and old to develop their own positions, their own conflicting visions, about what Israel can and should be. An important component of effective Israel education provides settings to work through difficult historical and moral issues, which both deepens knowledge and solidifies personal commitment to and engagement
with Israel.

In cooperation with the Jewish Agency’s Israel Engagement Center/Makom and other Jewish organizations, we will embark on a major effort to enable young and old to legitimate Israel — not because they are defending a given line, but rather on the strength of the positions they have developed after wrestling with Israel’s history and difficult existential issues and reconciling their views with their deepest values. 

These four issues – the affordability of Jewish life; reweaving our community to connect our hesed work more deeply in the Jewish community; our future role in Israel; and differentiating Israel advocacy and Israel education — will augment our continuing commitment to the vision of creating “inspired and caring communities.”

For more on Ruskay, check out the Jewish Week’s retrospective on Ruskay’s first 10 years, including an Op-Ed by JESNA’s John Woocher and a Q&A with Ruskay.

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