Tuesday, June 11, 2013


The Jewish Federations of North America National Agencies Alliance has been a study in constant failure. It was created as a successor to the National Funding Council -- another of those JFNA re-brandings with no apparent purpose -- ostensibly to promote the role of the national agencies, to evaluate them, to collectively increase their financial resources, to recruit additional federations into membership and to be an advocate for the work of the national agencies. It has failed in almost every aspect of its purposes -- the funding pool has been reduced, the number of participating federations has been decimated, there has been no advocacy, the criteria for agency evaluations would disqualify organizations whose purposes are international in scope, and so on. This Alliance was formed, as are most, to advance the "common cause" of the federations and the member agencies; the reality? It has done no such thing.

In the face of this record of constant failure, the Alliance determined to defund two national agencies which were making substantial contributions to the work of federations and other organizations -- the NCSJ and NFJC -- while inviting two agencies with only the most distant relationship to the federation system to participate in funding from the drastically reduced national agency funding pool. 

And, just days ago, one of the national agencies which was vetted by the Alliance and determined to be eligible for full funding, JESNA, determined that it would cease operations at the end of July. Yes, the Jewish Education Service of North America, "...the Jewish federation system's educational, coordinating, planning and development agency" out of business. And, where was the Alliance as this was happening to one of the agencies it determined worthy of continued 100% funding? Silent; comatose; in its "let's see who we can cut next" mode; where was JFNA? Don't be silly -- busy planning to be American Jewry's "sole source" in our dealings with Israel, and to convene another Fest. 

I believe that JESNA had an absolute right to rely upon the federation system for the most major funding its work. And JESNA was certainly a favored national agency within the Alliance for whatever that was worth. Its founding CEO, Jon Woocher, who morphed into the "Chief Ideas Officer" in recent years, has been one of my heroes ever since he was my daughter's favorite professor at Brandeis, and his major work Sacred Survival, describing the passion with which my generation embraced Jewish communal life, remains the seminal work on the subject. (Jon also has been a private and personal critic of this Blog from the beginning.). But, being a favorite of the Alliance has proved to be of the same value to JESNA as has being deemed a JFNA "partner" to JAFI, to JDC, to so many others. One knowledgeable Anonymous Commentator has written:
"There is a JFNA angle and culpability in the JESNA demise. However other factors are also in play including the downside of having a supposedly charismatic and iconic CEO and his decision to hitch the agencies future to the ever fickle foundation sector and pursue a national agenda at the expense of serving agencies at the grass roots." 
And yet, my friends, there is a most relevant point, JFNA's Alliance was created in part to vet the member national agencies for the federations as to the agencies' financial accountability. Year in and year out, right up to JESNA's closure, JFNA's Alliance assured the federations that JESNA was financially accountable and approved the maximun allocation. Sad but true.

In my view the Alliance was to be a stalking horse for the Global Planning Table -- it would engage in national planning for its member agencies, directing more funds to those favored by its evaluations (no matter how skewed those evaluations were). Instead, federations lost interest in collective funding, more and more reduced their allocations to the national funding pool and even more dropped out altogether. The Alliance's lay and professional leaders themselves failed to communicate with the national agencies, failed to advocate for the national agencies who were its members and failed to actively recruit greater federation participation in the Alliance.

And now our system has lost JESNA.



Anonymous said...

What have always been the stepchildren of the federation system, the National Agencies, even those like JESNA, created to serve the federations, are now abandoned stepchildren. Remember, if you hear the phrase "we're from JFNA and we're here to help you," shut the door and scream.

Anonymous said...

Not every organization deserves to live, despite its internal hype.

JESNA was the successor of the American Association for Jewish Education founded in 1939. It's mandate was to be the umbrella of the local Boards of Jewish Education. As the Boards all over the country went out of business, JESNA sought to reinvent itself.

Just because you served our system well in the past does not give you an eternal right to Federation funded existence.

The same is true with NCSJ. It does not represent Jews from the former Soviet Union. There are two offices in New York of emissaries from the Jewish Communities in the FSU. They do not want or need NCSJ. They are not a voice for refuseniks or activists or policy regarding anything.

They have two purposes in life 1) to find relevance and something to do, and 2) happen to be stuck in the auto-dialer of several Federations who respect what NCSJ once stood for.

There are Federations who gave up on the Alliance for their failure to have the political will to defund these organizations.

Like the vestigial human tail, it was time and is sill time to end these historic anomalies.

They did great work, they had a glorious past, they should have no future.

Anonymous said...

It appears as if the last Anonymous Comment flowed from either a woefully uninformed JFNA professional or an Alliance lay person suffering from the same misinformation. JESNA did in fact "reinvent itself" quite brilliantly and that sorry Comment also reflected how little that writer knows about the role of the NCSJ historically or currently.

There are certainly arguments that could be made and should be debated about the value of all of our organizations. We just never seem to have them except on this Blog. The sorry truth is that it just this kind of misinformation coupled with recriminations that results in uninformed decisions.

Anonymous said...

I was there at the beginning of the Alliance and agree with the last Anonymous Comment -- there were and are federations who have left the Alliance because they did not get their way but most left because they felt they lacked the resources to continue financial support for national agencies.

Anonymous said...

"There are certainly arguments that could be made and should be debated about the value of all of our organizations. We just never seem to have them except on this Blog."

And that friends is our real problem. As a community we are afraid to have any serious discussions least we rock the boat. Professionals are afraid for their jobs, or their turf, and/or don't want to "rock the donor's boat". Lay leaders - in all too many cases - just want to get through their own terms without an earthquake.

Goes directly to another problem we face today, a lack of real LEADERS in almost all of our national organizations.

Anonymous said...

So, what's to be done? Our organizations get the leaders we deserve.