It's time to answer these questions -- (a) was the peak of federation power realized on a frigid December day on the Mall in Washington in 1987 when we gathered 250,000 to 500,000 strong to demand that the then Soviet Union "let our People go;" or (b) did we find federations acme in the incredible outpouring of philanthropy embodied in the Operation Exodus campaign responding to real needs that followed? For today, really but a nano-second in our history since those epic moments, in so many places our annual campaigns are but a shadow of themselves, raising, in real dollars, less than we did twenty years ago, with a donor base that is but a quarter of what it was then. Our highest end donors are aging/aged and our efforts to inspire the next generations are wasted on TribeFest narishkeit -- but an excuse for failing to do the really hard work that would be necessary to replicate the successes of a number of communities. And those federations that continue to succeed -- they are characterized by the failed as being but aberrations in a decade of free fall.
Call me a cock-eyed optimist, but I continue to believe that the chapter of modern Jewish history writ large by the federations is not over. To paraphrase a great statesman: "There is nothing wrong with the federations that can't be cured by what is right with the federations. "But we do need a few things: knowledgeable lay and professional leaders: who understand and can communicate the beauty of and are dedicated to the legacy that is federation history -- for that is the history and legacy of our communities and People; who understand and can communicate the meaning of collective responsibility and how the exercise of that collective responsibility elevates federation from just another Jewish charity to a place of meaning and beauty (rather than a current leadership that, in its total ignorance, merely attaches the word "collective" to its every action thereby totally demeaning the concept); and who are willing to recommit to the construct that a national system must be the leader of a movement, not merely the reflection of the whims of its few leaders.
There was a time when our national organization knew that it must lead the federations to "new dollars and new donors." We failed in that effort then, but it was worth the effort then and would be worth the effort once again. We, as a lay polity, need to actually make demands of our federations, our Network leadership, and, certainly JFNA, whatever we have allowed that to become, that they are responsible to us, not the other way around. Certainly when we attract but a little over 800 full pay Registrants to our GAs, we have received a clear message of disengagement when we and our true partners and our beneficiaries need total and full engagement.
Friends, we have wholly failed as a system to even acknowledge that we have a problem. Those who have done so -- a new Large City Federation CEO here, a renegade lay leader there -- are characterized as outliers and worse. We must face the fact that we have multiple problems before we can address them. (I reflect on the ridiculous and meaningless survey that will be done of the attendees at Festivus this month with regard to "issues" for consideration by the Global Planning Table and all I can think of is how many opportunities to engage are lost annually by a JFNA that has lost its way...and the irony of attempting to gain input into the GPT from TribeFest. It's exhausting keeping up with this ineptitude.) And, once we have identified the problems -- although they are out there for anyone and everyone to see -- then we have to have the strength to act upon them.
We need, the times demand, the national conclave suggested on these pages and elsewhere by thought leaders far more insightful than I -- the national conclave we have never had. The dinosaurs in our system are not I and you and others who remember the best of times, the dinosaurs are those who ignore that history yet believe that they see the future with a clarity denied the rest of us -- they just can't articulate it. Nor can they understand let alone articulate the values inherent in the concept of federation, in the annual campaign, in anything. They are the true dinosaurs, for they will soon be extinct and, with them, absent some immediate action, so will the federations they were elected to protect and strengthen.
Are we going to let that happen?