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Rieger: In a do-your-own-thing world of Jewish giving, how do we do our own thing?

In his first public writing since leaving office in 2009, Howard Rieger, the former president and CEO of the United Jewish Communities (now known as the Jewish Federations of North America), offers a stern warning for the system that he left behind. Rieger writes:

I recently attended the funeral in Baltimore for a close friend, Dr. Merrill J. Egorin, a physician who devoted his life to developing better treatments for cancer. Dr. Egorin brought a rare combination of human understanding and compassion to his practice of medicine and to his research, and he did so with a commitment to sharing his insights through teaching and mentoring the next generation of specialists in his field. He died knowing that his work would go on and that progress would continue.

In August 2009 I retired after 40 years in the Jewish Federation field, uncertain whether the work to which I had dedicated my professional life would continue to be the top priority in Jewish philanthropy.

As I thought about how Merrill’s field of medicine saves lives, I was equally certain that Jewish Federations save lives, too. Just as Merrill openly conceded the limitations of available treatments as a prod to further research, I realized that if we don’t acknowledge the imperfections in our methods of meeting Jewish communal needs, namely our inability to work together better, we may be sacrificing the Jewish future.

What passes for innovation today in the Jewish communal world are niche undertakings that address areas of individual donor interest. Birthright Israel, arguably the most successful, is touted as the answer to all of our shortcomings, while central communal institutions such as Jewish federations are portrayed by some as passe. Birthright Israel has proven that if you give young people a free overseas trip, they will sign on. And sending more than 250,000 young people to Israel, many for the first time, should make Birthright Israel sponsors, which prominently includes the Federation system, justifiably proud. But it will take years to determine the lasting impact of such a costly endeavor, and by then we may be even further from agreement on how to sustain the core aspects of our Jewish communal responsibilities, which would weaken the Jewish people immeasurably.

Some make the case, myopically, that these times are different; that a central structure is no longer needed; that our acceptance in society assures our safety and security. But when in our history have times when we were similarly privileged not come to an end?

The best protection for the Jews is to have strong communities capable of addressing our needs. But the trend toward fragmented initiatives that focus on a narrow view of “what’s important now” to the exclusion of what has always been important makes it less likely that when, God forbid, we find ourselves in perilous times, we will be able to respond effectively.

This slide toward communal entropy is given an added push by the opportunistic belittling of traditional communal efforts by advocates of one or another special interest. By inflating their own accomplishments while criticizing the traditional philanthropic work that is based upon fundamental Jewish values passed down from time immemorial, they work against the very thing that they claim to be advocating for — stronger Jewish future.

That brings me to the Federations themselves.[[READMORE}}

Federations are uniquely local creatures.  Founded in North America more than 100 years ago, they are the embodiment of systems of Jewish self-governance that have existed for much of our history in the Diaspora. In good times and bad there has been a central communal instrument aimed at carrying out collective local undertakings like feeding the poor, educating the next generation, supporting the elderly, providing community centers, counseling the troubled and, around the middle of the 20th century, taking on responsibility for Jews worldwide and in Israel.  

For much of Federation history, funding for these good works came from an annual fund-raising campaign, and increasingly in recent decades from endowments, government and foundation grants. While available funding has always fallen short of growing needs, our funding capacity grew, at least until the latest economic crisis.

Now we are in an era of retrenchment and must reassess our priorities. It is the time to take the most obvious step: namely, to recognize that many functions can be standardized across the bulk of the North American Federation system. By achieving economies of scale, countless millions of Jewish philanthropic dollars can be saved to fund existing, life-enhancing services that otherwise will be slashed and to fund creative new initiatives.

Throughout our history we were relegated to functions in society that others did not want to perform. Money lending and peddling morphed over time into our commercial prowess. But why, when it comes to our work in the Jewish community, does our business sense elude us? 

Though every Federation has a unique local history and culture, every Federation does essentially the same thing. They raise funds, plan and develop operational strategies, manage day-to-day fiscal affairs, hire and train staff, communicate and market to their broad constituencies. At a time when we should be redoubling our efforts to serve the community, we need every advantage that size and shared endeavor can bring to the table: money saved, new models developed, less duplication of effort.

The institutional players in the Federation system need to determine how similar efficiencies and new approaches can be developed within their domains. Locally, the answer of some Federations, as reported lately in the media, has been to just abandon the system of human services. No more problems with agency relations if one just gives up the Federation-agency relationship. Unsurprisingly, most of the communities that have gone this route continue to be underperformers.

Internationally, the lack of agreement about priorities among the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, The Jewish Agency for Israel and the Federation system, much publicized in the media during the past year, has led to a diminution of confidence in the system. Again we miss the payoff that could come from spreading infrastructure costs broadly to achieve targeted goals and objectives. And again it is those in need of our community services who suffer.

Times of war and crises prove that we are not congenitally incapable of working together efficiently and effectively. From Israel’s War of Independence through all of her battles for survival, through the most recent wars in Lebanon, we have been able to unify and put aside our petty differences.  We have been similarly able to work cooperatively during times of extraordinary opportunity such as the exodus of Jews from the Soviet Union and from Ethiopia. If what we accomplish through cooperation during crises could be applied across our system on a day-to-day basis, our current success would pale in comparison to what we could actually achieve.

In the biblical narrative we were given many opportunities — from the Garden of Eden, to the crossing of the Sea of Reeds on the way out of Egypt, through the period of our sustenance in the desert, to the foot of Sinai, to our entry into the Promised Land — to act collectively on the basis of a belief in a common destiny. Each time we failed we paid a terrible price.

Jewish experience has demonstrated throughout the ages both our strengths and our weaknesses. We have been confronted with the potential of blessings and curses, and have been the beneficiaries of both, depending upon our actions. While improving the way we carry out our work in the Jewish communal world might be seen as mundane by some, the implications of not doing so can have a devastating impact on those we are mandated to help, which depending upon the twists of fate could include ourselves and our families somewhere down the line. Let’s not squander another opportunity.

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