Thursday, May 27, 2010


"Collective responsibility" has been and is the foundation upon which the federation system has been built. It is that which has distinguished our federations and their work from all...all...other charities and philanthropy. It is embodied in our systemic support for Israel and overseas needs through the Jewish Agency and the JDC; in the dues which we pay to support the JFNA; in our response to disasters; in our support of special campaigns to care for our People in danger or in need wherever they may be; in systemic support for our national agencies; in public statements on matters of urgency for our communities and People; among other things. Collective responsibility has enabled us to demonstrate with pride time and time again that "we are one" and that "no gift touches more lives."

And it is over...over because in large measure the leaders we have elected and engaged have neither an understanding of what collective responsibility means or, if they do understand what it means, they apparently lack the will to advocate for it. This "rebranding" of the collective, led by JFNA, will lead our system over the edge; we are already teetering on the precipice. So I am confused and encouraged by JFNA having devoted not insubstantial time to the very subject on its Board Agenda while meeting somewhere in New Jersey this week. We heard brilliant observations and insights at that Board meeting from Misha Galperin for JAFI, Steve Schwager from JDC, and CEOs Steve Nasatir and Jacob Solomon (Barry Schrage also spoke -- the designated "anti-collective" spokesman). Kathy Manning spoke in strong support of an expansive definition of collective responsibility and JFNA's responsibility for "education" on the issue.

Yet, at one and the same time, just look at the "areas of focus" outlined by Kathy Manning earlier related to "Legislative and Collective Responsibility" -- "Emergency response, Convening (the GA and regional meetings), Public Policy (D.C.), Consulting on merger and leveraging (donor management system) and Advocacy on major Jewish initiatives, e.g., Iran." The end result is the "miniaturization" of collective responsibility. This has been tried before in another context. The so-called "visionary" chief professional of a Large City about fifteen years ago began to argue that work of the Jewish Agency should be restricted to the "aliya of rescue." Given this professional's long-term antipathy toward JAFI, his "advocacy" on the subject was but a transparent attempt to delimit JAFI out of business. That "advocacy" was rejected by the almost unanimous negative reaction from the federation system. (So, this year that professional has led his lay leadership to reject all core funding for JAFI.)

For that professional, this was a conscious effort to delimit and thereby delegitimize. For JFNA's leaders, the delimitation of the collective appears to this writer be an almost unconscious effort to walk away from historic principles and the values inherent in the concept of collective responsibility. Not understanding the concept, they walk away from our values, in part, through a limiting redefinition, and, in large measure, by their silence. And, now, somehow, JFNA suggests that it will rotate 180 degrees and become the advocate it always should have been? And, yes, I know I should be happy about this sea change...and I am. If only I could believe it. Who at JFNA will lead the effort -- those leaders who have sought to delimit advocacy and collective responsibility? Forgive my cynicism.

As William Rhoden, the brilliant New York Times columnist, wrote during the NCAA basketball payoffs of the differences and parallels of Cornell/Kentucky on the eve of their not so epic battle, wrote: "There is nothing tragic about attempting a great leap and falling short. The tragedy is not even trying." And there you have date no one has even been trying.

The failure to comprehend the meaning of collective responsibility impacts JFNA's work and its leaders fail to comprehend the fact. For JFNA Dues are an expression of collective responsibility. No federation...none -- from the largest to the smallest -- receives a quantifiable financial benefit that equals the Dues it pays. Thus, Dues are paid, when they are paid, in recognition of the supposed benefits the system receives from JFNA and out of JFNA's Budget. As collective responsibility as a motivating principle collapses, so will the raison d'etre for the payment of Dues (if that hasn't happened already) and, worse, so will the commitment to the greatest of values of our system. And these guys don't get it. But now they are going to lead the effort to support it?

Now, after some significant discussion at the Jewish Federations of North America Board meeting last Monday attended by, maybe, by best count, 40 federations out of 157 in person, of system-wide broad support for the expression of collective responsibility through federation allocations to meet needs in Israel and overseas, it is up to JFNA's leadership to develop federation support, to build consensus for the binding implementation of the concept through formal action by the federation members. Can the JFNA lay leadership, which has cowered and backed away from any...any...advocacy for these same needs while core allocations have shrunk by in excess of 28% over recent years, now rally the federations? Let's hope so -- for the federations' sake as well as JFNA's.

Thus, my friends, the "rebranding" of collective responsibility has been a most dangerous game. It has taken place without regard for the destruction the miniaturization of collective responsibility will work upon the federations and our system and upon JFNA itself -- the "rebrander." As one of my correspondents wrote in response to the Post "Serious Persons: "The system must come to understand that it is today, as it always has been, about global deliverables, the collective of leadership and purpose -- not spin and individual saviors (however talented). JFNA only mirrors our own wanderings in the wilderness."




Anonymous said...

The collective, whether on a local, national or global level, is defined by a common and compelling overiding purpose and agenda. Establish and articulate that purpose and collective responsibility will be renewed.

RWEX said...


Do you want to share your thoughts...or is this it?

paul jeser said...

The communal collective started to disappear with 'Project Renewal' when donors were allowed to select their own projects (albeit within parameters of the community process).

With that door opened, there was no return - most donors don't see the need - today - for a communal collective - they feel that they have the knowledge and sophistication to make their own decisions and not be told what is important. For right or wrong, good or bad...

Lisa B said...

I can't comment on the whole, but I can comment as a younger Jew.
I personally am involved with my local federation. I donate and I serve on two committees. And yet I have reservations.
I have a real issue being part of a "collective".
I'm a left wing supporter of J Street, and my CRC trends right (while speaking as my representative). I'm extremely involved in Israel issues (I carry Israeli nationality) and disagree with much of what the Jewish Agency is doing now, funded by my donation.
I can't afford to send my children to Day School and yet my gift helps support those very schools and the children of those better off than myself.

I'm happy to support important programs assisting the elderly and Jewish Family Service and Vocational Programs. There is much to be proud of. And yet enormous sums are also spent on the whim of donors or the personal preference of professionals. We aim to speak with one voice and yet we don't agree, frequently on very fundamental issues.

A huge amount of money is wasted.

I'm not saying my experience is right or wrong. I am simply describing why one person is ambivalent. I don't have a cure or a solution to your problem. I'm not sure there is one.