Tuesday, April 10, 2012


 It concerns me, as I know it does all of you, that the Federation system is in apparent arrhythmia -- it no longer has a collective heart beating as, or close to, one. Below you will read an exchange, reprinted in the incisive and always informative ejewishphilanthropy, between two federation professionals. My comments then follow:

[eJP note: Several recent articles have highlighted the leadership challenges that exist in our community, the role of how professionals are viewed and the almost here Boomer retirements - all subjects worthy of longer conversation.

The articles sparked our receipt of an email exchange between two federation professionals (names withheld for obvious reasons). Going forward, we invite readers, especially those in decision-making positions, to weigh in on the important issues raised in the various posts.]
I recently was in an email correspondence with a colleague in another Federation. I believe the email exchange was illustrative of a looming problem in Jewish communal service – a lack of leading professionals. Here is the exchange:

Working here is getting so frustrating. My colleagues and I are beaten down. How can you be in your position for so long without going crazy?
 It upsets me to hear you talk like that.

It is so hard to work at my federation. Middle management has no say and no role to play. And we, my volunteers included, are at the whim of the CEO on who we can talk to and involve at the Federation. Amazing how many people we discard.
I feel lucky to have a good run here. Doesn’t seem like that is the norm. Most people just work for the paycheck. There is such a lack of leadership out there and no one seems to care.

I agree. Sometimes I think back to my first job in the field where we were a great team. Everyone was on the same page. Working hard with great results. It was a fun time.
It is harder and harder as people are less committed to the field. My Federation staff is mainly made up of people who just happen to live in this city. They like the job and the work they are doing. But are they really going “above and beyond?” Are they devoted to this work? It is not like when people would be recruited from all over the country to have the best and brightest.

The system is in trouble because we do not value people who want to do this for a living. I keep hearing how we need to hire people from outside the field. Really? So they can work here for a year and realize the work is not what they want to do?
We need to go back to recruiting and training people for this field. Give them real opportunities to grow and develop. At the same time, enable them to see the positive impact they are making and allow them to succeed.

Can the system be fixed? Is it too late? Does anyone really care?
All $64,000 questions.

We need to find people committed to this field and who care about this work. Plus, I want a leader with a clear vision of where the organization is heading and how to get there. Instead, too many bosses are going about their daily work with little interest and commitment to their professional team.
Lots of challenges, but the opportunities are there. I think?

I’m an optimist by nature. That optimism has been beaten down over the past few years. It is a HUGE issue for the Jewish world in general and for the professionals in specific. The organizations large and small are run by wealthy donors – who believe they know it all. I look around and am saddened by the leadership of my local agencies. And, is the rabbinic leadership any better? Is there anyone out there that you would say “I want to work for them?” Disappointing.
This is all about leadership. Where are the leaders? Even those who are CEOs are afraid to take risks in this day and age, so status quo becomes the norm. Change is risky, yet must be the norm. And if you challenge them, then forget it.

The field has lost its luster. I used to hear stories about “giants” in the field – Philip Bernstein, Bob Hiller, Ralph Goldman, Ernie Michel to name a few. Remember those names? Now some could say we have Nasatir, Ruskay, Shrage, but who are the others? And then outside of Federations there is Hoenlein and Foxman as examples. Soon these guys will retire. And now we have a world where volunteer leaders want “outsiders” from the field to lead, yet do those people really care about the mission? Or are they just trying to show their acumen as “leaders.” Curious if any of them have been successful?
Who will help maintain the history of the field?

What the f*** are they doing to replace themselves?
Unsure. But for now, I will keep my head low and stay out of the way.

Think this is any different than your organization? Guess again."

And here is the rub: The federations own umbrella, JFNA, not only has no answers, its leaders don't even understand the questions. It's beyond the pathetic. Silverman has visited over 110 federations, visits for which he would be congratulated if he had learned one basic thing...one basic thing...about the system's needs from those visits. Don't get me wrong, it's great to have a cheerleader -- and Jerry is a terrific cheerleader for JFNA -- but we are approaching that moment, if we aren't already there, when we won't have a system worth cheering for anymore. 

We certainly have already buried the idea of a "movement" in the cemetery of lost dreams, with JFNA performing the last rites while crying that it doesn't have enough money from Dues to accomplish...yes, to accomplish what exactly? The GPT, TribeFest 3, the IAN, the SCN, and a whole bunch of programs rebranded from UJA and CJF and claimed as their "new ideas?"

When we -- all of us - created what is now JFNA by merger. it was for dual purposes: (1) to enhance the role of federations as the central address in the Jewish community and (2) to increase the financial resources available to our partners, the Joint and Jewish Agency. Never...never...did we...all of us, any of us...contemplate an organization that would evolve into what it so clearly has become -- an organization that exists for its own purposes. Not for the federations and operating in a manner adverse to the interests of JAFI and JDC. And, as always, we have only ourselves to blame...our silence, our collaboration, our inaction.

And, meanwhile,  everyone is keeping their "head low and stay(ing) out of the way."



Anonymous said...

We have created a system that eats and fires it's best and talented. That hires CEO's that express the idea that vision is over rated. Where constructive criticism is punished. Where jobs are posted by our national agency with the implicit message "no federation pro's need apply". Where top laity openly revel in their intellectual mediocrity. Where mentoring begins with "keep your head low and don't make waves". Where passion is suspect and true loyalty to the federation concept JAFI or JDC is for friers and dinosaurs. We are wandering in the desert without manna, bereft of institutional torah and without a Miriam , a Moses, an Aaron or a Joshua. But do not fear-Mad Men is back on TV and marketing will save the day. Right?

Anonymous said...

I think is is time to start looking to our overseas partners who seem to have some of the people who still have the vision and willingness to put in 110% for the good of the organization mission. Perhaps they can set the example and provide some direction to the diminishing group of lay leaders who share the vision.