Federations form the funding backbone of Jewish life in the United States. In the vast expanse of synagogues, schools, political and advocacy organizations, religious associations, youth groups - all the ways American Jews gather - the federations are the only place where hassidic and Reform, affiliated and distant, young and old, sit together at the table and consider carefully the educational and welfare needs of some 5 million American Jews.
In a Jewish civilization without government, the federations are the closest you can come to comprehensive organization.
So the question of how North America's 157 federations communicate and coordinate - to lobby their leaders, to fund Jewish schools, to help Israelis in crisis or poverty-stricken Ukrainian Jews - is a critical one. And it is on that question that the Jewish Federations of North America, until a few weeks ago called the United Jewish Communities (UJC), meets in Washington DC on November 8 for its annual General Assembly.
Ahead of the gathering, The Jerusalem Post spoke to the new leaders of the federation network, chief executive Jerry Silverman and incoming top lay leader Kathy Manning, who insist that the federations will continue helping Israel's poor even as Israel comes through the financial crisis in better shape than the federations, that contrary to the popular imagination, the federations are at the center of Jewish innovation in America, that the "iPod generation" can be folded into Jewish life and that the future of American Jewry, despite the constant wrist-wringing of Jews through the ages, is bright.
AMONG THE first acts Silverman wants to lead in the federation system is a rethinking of the federations' priorities outside the US.
"We need to clarify with our federations what our mission is overseas," he says. Once, the federations were a pillar of Israel's survival. "In 1948, US Jews sent $250 million to Israel, when the entire state budget was just $500m.," notes Silverman.
The circumstances have changed, but the principle hasn't. "World Jewry still needs to have an important connection to Israel today," he insists.
But can't Israel fund its own welfare needs?
"The Jews take care of each other," responds Manning. Yes, Israel has responsibility for its poor, but "there are specific issues where help is appropriate. I don't think you can say Israel doesn't need help with certain things" - such as the absorption and education of Ethiopian immigrants, she notes.
What about investment going in the opposite direction, with Israeli funds helping to sustain North American Jewish communal life?
"I'm not uncomfortable asking this question," Silverman says after a pause. "But if Israel starts investing in Jewish education in the US, that doesn't mean US Jewry will stop investing in Israel."
THE TWO are more talkative on a question that hits closer to home. It has become fashionable to criticize the federation system for lacking innovation, for failing to recognize profound changes in American Jewish life and identity, for failing to include ambitious young people in the leadership and planning of communal life.
This perception, say Manning and Silverman, is born of ignorance.
"To me, the critics look at innovation as though it has to be a brand new idea or organization," says Silverman. "But look: We've been hit with these uncommon times economically, and within a short time in New York you saw the opening of 'Connect to Care' centers to create a space for people hurt by this challenge. Chicago did something similar. In Detroit, you see a program to help people not lose their mortgages and keep their homes."
The federations also look outside themselves for inspiration, says Silverman. "One of the most up-and-coming organizations, based here in Israel, is PresenTense. In Boston, they're doing PresenTense innovation training that will lead to programs in the community," he notes.
It isn't just individual federations that seek out innovative new programs, says Silverman. So does the umbrella body he now heads.
"The federations are looking at everything happening around them. UJC [the former name of the JFNA] hosts Bikkurim, an incubator for innovative projects, giving it office space and supporting these projects to the point of sustainability," he says.
So why is the negative impression so pervasive in Jewish media and among Jewish officials and activists? "We need to do a better job helping to educate about this," Silverman admits.
But according to Manning, some of the problem are with the accusers, who misunderstand that the federations are tasked first and foremost with taking care of the downtrodden and the elderly. It isn't "sexy" and doesn't get much notice in the debate, but it's critical.
"Young people maybe don't see this part [of the federations' work] because they don't need these services yet," says Manning. But the federations must continue spending much of their time and energy "dealing with fundamental things: care for the elderly, for the needy, education for the children, building a connection between Israel and Jewish communities."
"It might not be sexy to help write legislation that brings $10 billion to the needy through Medicare and Medicaid," agrees Silverman, "but it has to be done, and it's work that demands a high level of expertise."
ONE OF American Jewry's most pressing problems is ensuring that a new generation of young Jews grows up with the same charitable and communal commitments of their predecessors.
To do this, says Silverman, federations have to "communicate with an iPod culture that doesn't look at the world the way we do. We grew up listening to entire record albums start to finish. These 18 to 30 year olds, sometimes called the 'odyssey group,' only listen to the songs they want, only download what they want to hear."
This youth culture means American Jewry will need new ways of plugging into communal life. In Silverman's words, "there have to be many paths for entering this tent." The good news, he adds, is that many federations are already leading the way.
"New York has fabulous young leadership programs - a young presidents conference that brings together people who are valued, empowered, and ambitious. This is also happening in smaller federations. In Denver they created a concept of 'Total Choice Tzedaka,' a new way of fund-raising [offering donors the ability to 'designate' their donation for particular purposes] that led to seven straight years of increased giving until the financial crisis. Denver is 70 percent unaffiliated, so they needed ways to reach the less affiliated."
Every community, Manning and Silverman agree, will develop its own solutions, since local culture and community demographics differ so greatly across the continent.
"I'm from Greensboro, North Carolina," Manning says. "It's a tiny community of only 3,000 Jews, but it's very active. It maintains the only pluralistic Jewish boarding school in North America."
"Just like the cultures of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are very different, the Jewish community of San Francisco is not the same culturally as Washington DC," summarizes Silverman.
AT THE end of the day, Manning and Silverman share a deep optimism about the future of American Jewry and of the organization they now lead.
On the financial side, Silverman doesn't believe the downturn of the financial crisis signals the long-term trend.
"I come from the private sector," says Silverman, a former corporate executive and 25-year veteran of the US clothing industry. "I don't look at a trend after 18 months. [Federation] campaigns have been good for years." In the end, Silverman believes, American Jewish life will return to pre-crisis levels in terms of activity and funding.
Manning is even more optimistic on the worrying question of declining affiliation. While studies suggest less identification with the Jewish community among young Jews, Manning points out that large swaths of American Jewry are actually strengthening their connection to the community.
Jews have always worried about affiliation, she notes. "When I took this job, I started reading [Brandeis University professor] Jonathan Sarna's American Judaism. In the first two chapters, which talk about the earliest Jewish communities in America, you hear pre-Civil War cries that in 50 years there won't be any Jews left."
But there are always those who sustain the community, she insists. "If you look carefully enough at the Jewish community today, you'll see Judaism is flourishing in America in all sorts of different ways. It's overwhelming to see the incredible good works that Jews are doing under the auspices of being Jewish. I look at the growth in Jewish life, not the ones who are leaving."