Monday, May 25, 2015


When the horrific earthquake struck Nepal, JFNA was quick to act as only it doesn't -- it set up a Mailbox, and asked for donations. Then it promoted that Mailbox/"Fund" in an almost daily barrage of information about what others were doing -- mainly the Government of Israel (which, to our knowledge, receives no funding from "us") and the JDC, the former doing incredible work on the ground; the latter mainly distributing funds to the main actors in the Ukraine. We not only heard from Jerry "Show-Me-A-Disaster-And-I'll-Show-You-A-Mailbox" supplemented by a strange Memo from Becky "She of Two Titles" Caspi which implied that the funds from this Mailbox made the GOI's and Joint's and Chabad's (!!) work in Nepal possible. Add to the mailings a conference call, constant references to what others are actually doing in FedWorld and, wow, are we ever great. (BTW, the funds in this Mailbox are merely transmitted directly to the Joint, which has its own Mailbox.)

I counted 4 separate alerts from JFNA on Nepal in a single afternoon on April 28. Maybe JFNA will send a Solidarity Mission to Kathmandu.

Compare and contrast this JFNA all hands on effort for Nepalese Relief with the same organization's woeful efforts on behalf of the Jews of the Ukraine* or with regard to the terrorists' killing of Jews in France -- and, the best one can say, is that this was all the sadder. This reality tells the tale of an organization that has no priorities, promoting its lack of accomplishments as successes. Hey, I know these Funds, these Mailboxes, promote "the Brand," but to what end? We are raising no real money -- not for Ukrainian Jewry, not for the security of Western European Jewry, not for the Nepalese, not for anybody.

Sure, I, like you, believe that our efforts on behalf of non-Jews during emergencies are noble, ennobling and consistent with our traditions as embodied in tikkun olam but we see in this work for Nepalese relief no real effort at all. We open a Mailbox; is this truly "effort"? This is part of the "rinse/repeat" cycle at JFNA under Silverman; there's no there there. JFNA gives the impression that it has dropped everything for Nepalese relief -- not even the Red Cross does that.

Friends, while all of this was happening -- or, actually, not happening -- Prime Minister Netanyahu, in his last minute "successful" attempts to form a governing coalition was handing Ministries critical to the Diaspora, to us, to Shas, and walking back commitments to ease conversion rules in Israel pursuant to Knesset legislation in the P.M.'s effort to bring ultra-Orthodox parties into his new government. These moves may significantly impact on North American Jewry in ways that we cannot today predict and, yet, JFNA -- so engaged in its Mailbox approach to FRD; this time for Nepalese relief -- has no time to determine what the position of the North American Jewish polity should be and to articulate it. Instead, JFNA  sort of reported on the coalition building in the oh-so-self-important FedWorld  ("the most important news affecting the Jewish world" -- uh huh) by merely linking (once?) to media reports but apparently finding no cause for concern...none. With this group, events have to overtake them before they are even aware of them.

The question that should be asked, never is: "Where in the world is JFNA making a real difference?" Never is the predicate asked: "Where and how could JFNA make a real difference?" But, you can't ask any questions of substance, let alone find answers, if JFNA's leaders don't understand (and haven't even tried to understand) the federation ethos -- and they don't understand that ethos at all; they just don't get it. Opening a Mailbox/Fund may be part of it, but to JFNA it is all of it.


* It should be noted that one day after the out-pouring of JFNA alerts on Nepal relief, Michael Siegal announced that JFNA will convene a Solidarity Mission to the Ukraine. I would say better late than never but, when the federations have raised only $4 million (and, perhaps, some more on the way, but nowhere...nowhere...near the $5 million JFNA recently claimed) to assist our partners in their efforts in Ukraine (and, strangely, consider that failure a success), it's more like anything is better than nothing. In the dictionary this feeble effort appears under the definition of "a day late and a dollar short."


Anonymous said...

Facing a basic truth: The glue that held the Federation movement together was oversea, mostly Israel centered, needs and the needs of Jews in distress wherever they may be. Continuity programs might resonate with social engineering foundations but are not considered "tzedakah" by the average Jew. Day Schools have been a failure in terms of non-orthodox market and are dubious financial risks for parents and supporters. The tragedy is that the Israel agenda to address social gaps has yet to be addressed and human services at home are step children of our allocations processes. A return to basics with some 21st century upgrades is the path not yet taken.

Anonymous said...

To me there appears to be an interesting and seriously unfortunate result from the lack of JFNA advocacy and support of Israel. The observation is not based on research, only intuition. Because JFNA does not advocate for Israel, federations either aren't pushing overseas to their donors or can't as easily go to their donors and ask for increased donations because of the overseas needs. The result seems to be a very large decline in numbers of donors yet campaigns are about the same in total, hovering around $900 mil or so. Yes, this may be a decline from historic highs, but it certainly is not the 50%-60% reduction that is the decline in numbers of doors. Probably this is due to the old time donors who understood the importance of overseas partners and the critical nature of their work continuing to give and to give more than ever before per capita. At the same time we observe what appears to be a drastic rise in dollars raised and numbers of donors to other Israeli organizations, including hospitals, universities, and other worthy charities. One can only assume that these organizations have stepped into the cracks and captured disenfranchised donors to federations thanks to JFNA.

Anonymous said...

The federation system turning into a local needs social welfare fundraising mechanism (with an occasional universal cause such as Nepal or even a little war in Israel when the opportunity arises) will lead to it being just that - just another local social welfare fundraising organization among many others. This is nothing unique, nothing special and will lead to even more serious drops in numbers of dedicated donors and eventually to much lower campaigns.
JFNA should be leading and fighting to restore what was once unique and compelling - that we are working for the Jewish People, our people, our family wherever they are. Instead, it is allowing that uniting "We Are One" (remember that?) ideology to continue to be eroded and our wonderful partners in Israel (the Jewish Agency and the JDC - remember them?) to constantly have to fight keep their heads above water - even now promoting itself (JFNA) as a competitor rather than a supporter to them. Isn't anyone wondering how stupid it was for us to destroy the UJA brand and culture? Doesn't anyone care enough to put a stop to this self-destructive behavior and to do something about it?

Anonymous said...

To the 1:13 am anonymous:

Perhaps a reappraisal of the diaspora vs Israel formula is in order. In the old days, Israel's economic needs were great and our assistance was sorely needed.

Today, Israel's economy is in a much stronger position (albeit income inequality has become a significant issue, much like the US). Increasingly Israel can handle these issues on its own, and in fact sometimes demands that we in the US stop being so paternalistic. Indeed, some in Israel are even questioning US foreign aid (at least the economic portion of it).

So while perhaps the identity-building part of the Israel formula is needed, it is quite plausible to argue that the vast bulk of the Federation world's campaign should be spent elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

As the first anonymous, I believe this is exactly the discussion that needs to happen and I applaud the respondents for their thoughtfulness in reply. The basic questions begging debate and conversation are in my mind: What is and should be the Israel agenda of Federations and is it donor and market sustainable? How should we define our philanthropic relationship to other diaspora communities? Locally, have we met our responsibilities in giving our local communities the best modern day infrastructure of caring and inclusive services they deserve? Do we populate our boards and staff our efforts with people who are motivated by these concerns and have understanding of and empathy for the populations we claim to serve?

Anonymous said...

Thoughtful question and thoughtful and impassioned suggestions.

I have a different take. Not saying it's right or even what I'd like to see happen.

It's time to understand and accept that the federation system isn't needed any more, at least not at the same scale as it's been. Thankfully, we don't face the same problems and challenges as we did decades ago, and the challenges that exist are nowhere near as compelling or unifying (to say nothing of our total freedom to connect, live, join, marry, donate, learn, work anywhere and anyone we want).

Yes we have slogans like "better together," "the strength of a people, the power of a community" etc, but to the degree these are even compelling concepts to many people, folks are finding these slogans come alive for them through other mechanisms (organizations, causes, etc). We assume that these slogans mean one thing: Federation.

It's easy to find a cause you like and donate to it -- in fact just about every federation beneficiary, local or overseas, is doing just that and so obviously are many donors.

The continuity agenda, as mentioned by a prior commentator, is not compelling to many as tzedakah. It seems to be the province of the wealthy and foundation types (sometimes one and the same), rabbis and federation types-- this isn't a criticism.

For many, social gaps in Israel are more or less compelling than social gaps in the U.S. If you're into Israel maybe more so. If you're not, then less so. For many, it's the job of the government to address these gaps-- we all know that charity alone can't come close to solving them. Gone are the days of tiny, struggling Israel looking to erect tent cities for new immigrants etc.

If federations indeed reflect what "the community" wants (and I'm not sure who/what "the community" means today -- seems largely self proclaimed), then we'd best decide what that is and go do it. That means making decisions and executing. Demonstrating impact that is directly attributable to federation and/or partnerships that enable federations to demonstrate its distinct and compelling value added.

I'm sure there's more than one "right" approach. It's time to pick one and do it. Let's be realistic about it's market potential and scope. Trying to recapture the past because we remember the glory is a mirage.