NEW YORK (JTA) – For generations, the North American Jewish federation system has stood as the central address of Jewish philanthropy – demonstrating from generation to generation the power of our collective to build our community.
The 155 federations of United Jewish Communities and 400 smaller networked communities boast an annual fund-raising campaign nearing $900 million and endowment assets of more than $13 billion.
But that’s just the beginning. In every generation our North American Jewish community has responded in times of crisis and need, contributing crucial funds for global Jewish needs. After Hurricane Katrina, UJC/Federation raised $28.5 million for victims in the Jewish and general community. In response to Israel’s Second Lebanon war, we raised more than $360 million in the Israel Emergency Campaign – in each case without any overhead deducted.
All of these campaigns are aimed not only at challenges but opportunities. The IEC not only provided emergency relief but is creating new economic development in Israel. We have also raised more than $70 million in Operation Promise, to bring the Falash Mura of Ethiopia to Israel and lift all Ethiopian Israelis into the mainstream through education, while feeding needy seniors in the former Soviet Union and building the Jewish identity of young FSU Jews.
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Our collective isn’t only about writing checks; our donors remain full partners in our global agenda. More than 5,000 people attended our annual General Assembly in Los Angeles last year. And our funders are men and women alike – 16,000 women, called Lions of Judah, make a minimum $5,000 annual gift to the campaign.
Our collective voice is also felt in Washington. Our system won $50 million in homeland security earmarks, and $43 million to assist naturally occurring retirement communities – places where seniors have congregated on their own.
We face an aging, shrinking donor base. Donors who buoyed the federation system in decades past were animated by formative events such as the Holocaust, the founding of the State of Israel, the Six-Day War and the Soviet Jewry movement. As this generation ages and passes, it must be replaced by a generation of younger givers. But young Jews are not being shaped by the same existential issues as their parents and grandparents.
Further, older Jews have been more willing than their younger counterparts to unflinchingly trust large institutions with their philanthropic dollars. Younger donors often want to be engaged in a more a hands-on way than their parents have.
In addition, we live in an era of increased mobility. Whereas previously, Jews tended to plant roots in a community and stay there, today individuals and families tend to move around more or to own multiple homes, and they do not have the same long-term local communal ties as before.
We must increasingly engage this next generation of young Jews, who also bring new philanthropic priorities and creative approaches to giving and to community building.
UJC’s lay and professional leadership recently set out to look at our philanthropic landscape. In June, the UJC launched a strategic plan that tackles the major challenges and opportunities facing Jewish federations and our entire community.
First, UJC itself is being realigned, helping us deliver even greater value to federations and allowing us to better focus on our strategic goals. We have created groups devoted to Community Capacity and Consultation, Global Operations/Israel & Overseas, and Jewish Peoplehood & Identity. And we are intensifying our relations with our primary stakeholders – federation professionals and lay leaders, through in-person meetings and via new technologies.
One of our new strategic goals is growing our donor base. With the newly created Center for Jewish Philanthropy, we will take a new donor-centered approach, offering a menu of new philanthropic choices tailored to the varied interests of donors. We’re also developing a strategic fund-raising model for federations. Until now, many federations operated in separate, parallel areas – development, marketing, planning.
UJC is now working with 17 pilot communities on a collaborative fund-raising model aimed at integrating and coordinating federations’ functions and operations on a more strategic level. And we’re helping federations with approaches like Federation Peer Yardstick, which helps federations better measure their strengths, weaknesses and results.
We’re also working to enhance Jewish identity and peoplehood, first by
supporting proven initiatives such as Israel experience programs including funding nearly $12 million for birthright Israel. But further, we’re intensifying communal involvement through new ideas such as a Jewish service corps, and working to make Jewish learning more affordable and accessible to everyone, especially younger Jews and families.
A year ago February, we brought 1200 Next Generation leaders to Israel as part of our TelAvivOne initiative and in August, 400 attended our Young Leadership Cabinet, ready to dig in and take over. And in March, thousands of young professionals from Jewish communities around North America and Israel will converge on Washington as part of Washington 15: UJC’s National Young Leadership Conference.
UJC is also embarking on a major strategic branding initiative for the continental federation system, to outline how federations will need to position themselves as a consistent and compelling brand, and to deliver messages that resonate with a shifting, increasingly mobile population.
Finally we are working to identify and nurture the big ideas that will inspire us, and re-energize our collective in order to build our community into the future.
That is, at heart, what the UJC/Federation does best: we create and build community. We spark the imagination of our collective, and we act as one people, with one destiny, using our central address to meet Jewish needs and re-imagine our Jewish future, from one generation to the next.
Joseph Kanfer is chair of the Board of Trustees and Howard Rieger is president and CEO of United Jewish Communities.