Analysis: How to serve the Jews

Analysis How to serve t

November 9, 2009 01:25

Kiev has four chief rabbis. While Jews and their non-Jewish relatives number perhaps 70,000, only a few thousand actually participate on a regular basis in any communal activities. But institutions exist in Kiev, and in much of the FSU, regardless of constituency. Synagogues are funded and controlled not by their "membership," but by an assortment of oligarchs, foreign organizations and local rabbis who make up a Jewish hierarchy that exists almost independent of membership. Similarly in Israel, government-funded synagogues continue to dot the urban landscape, receiving public funding even if they are empty. Worshipers do not a synagogue make, but rather government bureaucrats and Interior Ministry zoning regulations. In the handful of years I have covered the world Jewish community, I have attended rabbis' conferences in Prague, lobbyists' gatherings in Brussels and Washington and donor meetings in Jerusalem, Moscow and New York. In Jerusalem's hotel lobbies and Brussels' press conferences, it is easy to forget that the Jewish world is neither a hotel lobby nor a press conference. But there are some 6 or 7 million Jews outside Israel living some sort of Jewish lives. It is the sum total of their experiences that constitutes the real Jewish world that all the organizations and institutions must ultimately come to serve. Where Jews gather, there is community. If they do not gather, no billionaire's whim or rabbi's dream can truly replace them. But there is one annual Jewish institutional gathering that is like no other, because its essence is an overriding obsession with its constituency. The Jewish Federations of North America is rare in the field of Jewish umbrella organizations because it is the servant, not the master, of the vast active community that makes it up. It represents 157 regional Jewish federations, many of which count among the largest charities in their areas, that must believe each day that the New York-based JFNA umbrella is useful to them. Without this, the Jewish Federations - the umbrella, not the local charities - ceases to exist. The North American federation system agonizes over - and is harshly criticized about - whether it truly serves its constituency. But from the perspective of someone outside the American Jewish community, it's clear that the criticism itself tells us more about the organization's true purpose than about its failures. Israeli or Ukrainian rabbis face little local excoriation for being "out of touch" with their "constituency," because they do not have one. SHORTLY AFTER the founding of the state, prime minister David Ben-Gurion famously called for the dismantling of the Jewish Agency. When a house is built, he said, what use is there for the scaffolding? As it turned out, the Jewish people still had great need for the "scaffolding" as a nongovernmental organization that was also a branch of the state, bringing millions of olim and receiving billions of dollars in donations from overseas Jewish communities. But the question remained. Unlike the "house," the scaffolding must always justify its existence or risk being taken down. The General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America is, in a sense, all about scaffolding. It is about the funders and organizers of the Jewish community. But - to stretch the analogy just a bit further - since the American Jewish community is completely private, it is permanently under construction. Each year means more schoolchildren, more poor community members who need help, more aid for Jews facing discrimination or poverty abroad. The General Assembly reflects this, with an agenda that is all about the daily grind of managing the communal treasury, and thereby sustaining thousands of schools, synagogues, welfare services, old-age homes and employment services throughout North America. These are the primary funders of the real-life architecture of the majority of Diaspora Jews. BUT THE JFNA's future is not assured. This GA is in large part about demonstrating to the "clients" - the federations - that a national network linking the Jews of Denver to those in Cleveland is a service worth paying for. "This GA is the first opportunity to show the federations they can give them something of value," according to Jacob Berkman, one of the keenest observers of the Jewish philanthropic world. "If the workshops are valuable [to some 3,000 participants], and they get ideas to take back to their home communities, it's a good first step" in convincing American Jewish communities that there is value in the JFNA, Berkman adds. According to Berkman, who writes about philanthropy for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and blogs at The Fundermentalist, the GA is also a "coming-out party" for the federations' chief overseas recipient, the Jewish Agency. The agency is one of the largest Jewish organizations in the world, and one of the largest charities in Israel. But it has also faced a years-long decline in influence and funding as Jewish money and interest turn elsewhere. This time, says Berkman, the Jewish Agency has a wild card: "Natan Sharansky is as big a name as you can find in the Jewish community. I'll admit I was a 'Sharansky skeptic,' but I've seen him speak a couple of times now. People seem to listen to him." Sharansky has staked his reputation on his ability to save the agency from a slow oblivion, and is pursuing this goal with gusto. He is currently on a weeks-long tour of American Jewish federations in an effort to create direct fund-raising partnerships with individual North American communities to help reverse the agency's dwindling reserves. Success for the agency will depend on two factors, according to Berkman: coordination with the JFNA umbrella and "righting the ship at home." "If everybody tries to fund-raise from the same pool of donors, it could get messy. But if the Jewish Agency works with the Jewish Federations and the Joint [Distribution Committee] on how to divide the pie, then it should be okay," he says. Berkman believes the GA is the agency's best opportunity to show that it understands this. Meanwhile, the agency "has other problems at home besides fund-raising. Sharansky has to make sure the dollars he raises are spent right. If those dollars don't accomplish what they're supposed to, for whatever reason, there are going to be repercussions." But that warning also holds great promise for the agency. Direct fund-raising could serve as a powerful impetus for reform back home, with the financial lifeline now directly dependent on the perception of the agency as efficient and essential. Much is at stake at this week's GA in the American capital. How Americans sustain their Jewish world, and even how they give to ours, is up for grabs.

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