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Implosion in Phoenix?

Adam Schwartz’s office is on the second floor of the Valley of the Sun Jewish Community Center in Scottsdale, itself part of a 30-acre, 110,000 square foot campus that is home to two Jewish schools, a kosher cafe, and the typical assortment of community agencies. Less than ten years old, the campus has the same feel of much of the Phoenix metro area — capacious, gleaming, and new — artifacts, it now seems, of a more optimistic time.

The Federation CEO was coming off a tough stretch when we sat down Monday afternoon. The cascade of bad news began with the laying off of half the Federation staff due to fundraising shortfalls. Then the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix reported last week that funding allocations for November and December would be delayed, and accompanied that story with a harsh editorial criticizing the Federation for its lack of transparency. The paper also revealed that, for the last two years, Federation has not been able to pay its commitments to overseas funding.

in conversations last week, several Jewish Arizonians, speaking totally independently of each other, used the same word to describe what is happening to the Phoenix Jewish community: implosion.

When I asked Schwartz if that was an apt description, he paused for a very long time. He shifted in his chair, coughed, repeated the question to himself and let his eyes wander into the middle distance. "I have trouble with the word," he said finally, "because it implies to me no hope." If the imploders mean that the situation is "dangerous, risky, and requires extreme measures," — then, Schwartz said, he "can live with it." If they mean that Federation is going to collapse, then they’re wrong.

Schwartz also said the newspaper’s criticisms were unfair, noting that the Federation still has every intention of making good on its overseas commitments, and that the financial data was available in its 990 for all to see.

The latest developments come at the tail end of a precipitous decline in Federation’s fortunes. After hitting a high-water mark for fundraising in 2007, pulling in $6.5 million, the community is on track to collect just about $3 million this year. Schwartz acknowledged that in a city of over 100,000 Jews, this is a poor showing. Only 29 percent of Phoenix Jews are affiliated. And of those, less than a quarter contributed to Federation when times were flush.

It’s to some degree typical of Jewish communities in the Southwest, where booming economies drew vast numbers of newcomers with shallow local roots. In 2002, Schwartz said, the community was adding 2,000 new families a year.

It’s also to some degree typical of the economic climate. The Phoenix area has been especially hard hit in recent years. Schwartz said at least $1 million in lost revenue this year can be attributed to the personal and professional setbacks of 10 donors.

And it’s also typical of the gestalt of the American West. You hear this all the time here: Folks go West to escape, to reinvent, to be free. If they wanted to be part of a Jewish community, they would have stayed back East. I can’t say if it’s true or not, but it’s undoubtedly part of the local mythology.

Regardless, Schwartz, who is leaving Phoenix in the coming months after more than seven years, remains hopeful. The crisis, he said, was bringing the community together in ways he has never seen before. Silver linings abound. When I asked him if the community would be better off once this crisis has passed, he didn’t pause at all.

"Things are being done," he said, "to make the community stronger than it has been in years."

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