Little did I know that when I quoted Faulkner -- "the past is not dead, it's not even past" -- how quickly I would learn how true Faulkner's words were and are. The word is circulating within the four walls of 25 Broadway that JFNA now aspires to nothing more than to be "a CJF of excellence." When one of my friends asked me what I think; my response was simple -- "The JFNA of today, while on the rise, was reduced over the past five years to a CJF of mediocrity; why not aspire to excellence?" Of course, my glib response paled in comparison with my real feelings. When JFNA leaders announce in the wake of the Dallas meetings that the organization is about to "retool," all one can do is reflect on this, the, what, 6th "retooling" in ten years...and, then, wish them well.
We had a "CJF of excellence" once. I remember it well. In fact, while we were cleaning out some storage boxes at our home a few weeks ago, Bobbi found a box that we hadn't opened for years. When we tore the tape away, we discovered a box of my Mom's, z'l, that contained my speeches and papers from another era. Among the memorabilia was a green covered binder -- a CJF Report on its Winter meetings 20 years ago -- at a time of its ascendancy, certainly of its "excellence." On the cover were pictures of the three keynoters -- Maynard Wishner, the then CJF Chair, Shoshana Cardin, one of its greatest Chairs, and Dan Shapiro, one of the most brilliant of federation leaders. The subject -- CJF at the Crossroads: Are We Ready for 2000? -- was explored in Plenaries and break-outs; no consultants needed as Carl Sheingold led a magnificent staff effort (with no outside consultants, no irrelevant speakers), a tremendous outpouring of leadership in numbers for which JFNA can only wish. The outcomes were those you would expect of serious people. But, at the end of the day, by 2000, CJF was, as no one at those meetings could have predicted, out of business.
So, can a "CJF of Excellence" emerge out of the ashes of what but a few lay and professional leaders were able to destroy? Sure. We can reduce federations' costs significantly; we can have a pared down organization that neither speaks for us nor inspires us. It will be, as CJF ultimately proved to be, without passion or real support from its members -- an expensive trade association. An organization absent our voice. A trade association with a Washington Office of excellence, an annual General Assembly, some regional meetings, a decentralized approach based upon "coalitions of the willing." Is this the best we can do? Is this the best we can be? Or is it aspirational to be the least we can be? How sad that would be.
But I could see where this end result might be appealing to some. Less work for a dwindled (defined as "smaller or less substance" -- in this case both) lay leadership. A budget of about $10 million, maybe less, could do it. It could be like Vietnam: "declare victory and just walk away." Trust me, the best federations would recognize, in far less than ten years this time, how much they need a new national organization -- one with voice, purpose, focus and passion. Let's hope that won't be too late.
Yet, in conversations with Jerry and Kathy it is clear that they aspire to a Jewish Federations of North America that will be a convener, a collaborator, a laboratory staffed by high performance teams of professional and lay leaders. I might be cynical about the capacity of JFNA today to achieve all of their hopes for the organization some of which are still but embryonic but I applaud them for dreaming big dreams. Neither of these leaders will "just walk away;" it is not in them to do so. And, that is a good thing...a very good thing.