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California Dreaming

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Santa Monica pier at sunset. It’s been cold by L.A. standards and the wind was whipping off the ocean. Tourists were bundled up in their hoodies, but the seagulls didn’t mind. They hung effortlessly in the air, buoyed by the breeze.

To hear Jay Sanderson tell it, he’s trying to pull off a similar trick. The recession has taken a large bite out of the L.A. Jewish Community Federation, as it has basically everywhere, prompting some anguished hand-wringing over the future of Jewish philanthropy. Fundraising in L.A. was off more than 12 percent in 2009 from the year before — not good, but not nearly as bad as elsewhere. Sanderson, though, was as buoyant as the birds.

I met Sanderson late on Monday in an upper floor conference room at the Federation headquarters on Wilshire. It’s a deeply institutional space; it’s heavy wooden table is inlaid with teleconferencing mics, and floor-to-ceiling windows offer a commanding view of Beverly Hills. The lustrous black ellipse of the Flynt Publications building dominates the horizon. The setting practically screams Jewish power.

From the start, it’s clear Sanderson has no business being there. The former CEO of the Jewish Television Network, Sanderson was tapped last year to helm the L.A. Federation and it’s obvious he is not a man tamed by the mores of Jewish organizational life. He has yet to internalize the maddeningly evasive yet verbose style that is the lingua franca of Jewish bureaucrats.

Sanderson did me the utmost kindness of answering my questions in plain English. He’s extremely polished and quick with a fresh coinage — perhaps excessively so. Several of his lines I later located almost verbatim in interviews he’s given to the L.A. Jewish Journal. But to a refreshing degree, Sanderson calls em’ like he sees em’.

The contrast was particularly telling because much of what he said I’ve heard from other Fed directors in other cities, some of it within the last month. In short, the old model — we collect your money and disburse it how we like — is dead. Federations must fund priorities, not agencies. It must re-conceptualize itself not as the community’s umbrella, but as its hub. Younger Jews won’t pay the “Jew tax” their parents did. And so on. This, I think it’s fair to say, is the emerging consensus on how to revive an ailing system.

“If the goal is to raise more money,” Sanderson said, “you will fail.”

Rather, the goal must be to tell a more effective story. In a city built on storytelling, you’d think this wouldn’t be that hard. Sanderson believes L.A.’s best years are ahead of it, that the community will weather the storm and emerge stronger on the other side.

Sanderson has already set some balls rolling. He eliminated Israel and Overseas as a distinct department, spreading that responsibility across other priority areas. He launched a website to find the next Big Jewish Idea , clearly aware that JTA just helped sponsor a search that yielded 28 candidates. He promises to dramatically scale back funding of agencies whose primary beneficiaries are non-Jews. And he projects unassailable confidence that if he offends some donors in the process, he’ll make that up fivefold in new contributions.

“There’s no community in this country that’s going to be able to grow like we’re going to be able to grow,” he said.

That may be because L.A. was underperforming before. The federation doesn’t have a single million-dollar giver, according to Sanderson. Vast reserves of Jewish wealth in the city remain untapped — which is surely true. But Sanderson believes he’s capable of tapping it.

“This place has never been an institution with a capital ‘I’,” he said. “I think it’s the culture of Southern California.”

L.A. is just not like other places. If ever there was a self-affirming mythology, it’s this one. But like all mythologies, this one’s partly true. California, as Joe Hagan ably put it in a recent piece, isn’t just a place, but an idea. California is a dream, a story. It’s where the power of tradition isn’t so powerful. Where boxes are things to be demolished. Where sometimes it feels like the beauty police monitor all checkpoints leading to the city.

It’s where birds can fly without trying.

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