A renewable light

Could federation system save the world? Seasoned entrepreneur and former GA insider wonders, "Why not?"

ga 2008 (photo credit: )
ga 2008
(photo credit: )
'We know for sure from the last quarter-century that an energized Jewish people energizes a federation system. What no one has figured out yet is how to reverse this formula: for an inspired federation system to energize the Jewish people. That connection hasn't yet been made, articulated, sold and implemented," says Yossi Abramowitz. Abramowitz is currently on the outside of organized Jewish life, living in the southern Negev working on a book, a family and a new solar power company that just announced the laying of a 500-megawatt pipeline, one of the largest solar energy pipelines in the world. But he is no outsider to the organized Jewish world. This GA is his 23rd. As a Jewish entrepreneur, Abramowitz counts almost 240 million online page views to Jewish Web sites he founded. Even at a low estimate of a minute per visit, that's about 450 years of Jewish education. As a fundraiser, he raised some $30 million for initiatives such as MyJewishLearning.com, of which he was co-executive producer, and BabagaNewz and JVibe, which he founded. Now he is involved in various ways with other high-profile Jewish projects, including Sh'ma, KolDor and Jewish Social Action Month. Ahead of the GA, The Jerusalem Post asked this former insider, now peering in from without, about the structural, cultural and spiritual challenges the American Jewish federations need to tackle in order to thrive in an environment that gets more difficult each year. To manage the current financial crisis and solve the deeper problems in Jewish life, the UJC must take a hard look at some underlying structural realities. While he insists on remaining positive throughout the discussion - "it's about taking a good system and making it great" - Abramowitz articulates concern about the future of the federation system. It is a system that depends increasingly on the vacillations of major donors, who easily jump ship to local universities or hospitals or to the growing world of private Jewish foundations. "Federations by nature are very big consensus-based organizations with a lot of sensitivities," says Abramowitz. "Anyone in the hot seat as chief executive or director of development has an overwhelming fear that they're going to make a mistake and lose a major donor. Jewish leadership is about empowerment. But as major donors become fewer and more important, and older, and start to look elsewhere to immortalize themselves in their own private foundations, federation leaders are being disempowered." Disempowered, that is, from innovation. To preserve the donors, the federations must cater to the sensibilities of a shrinking group. Private foundations, meanwhile, "can take more risks, be innovative." This is a potentially unhealthy phenomenon, says Abramowitz. "What if some major donor decides to build 10 more Holocaust museums, even if that shouldn't be on the communal agenda? In a country and a community as large and diverse as America and American Jewry, the closest you get to a central communal address that speaks for all the Jews is the federation." With innovation increasingly split off from the federation system, "you have a system in trouble, a system that can't inspire the Jewish people. Without that inspiration, the federations will suffer." A FIRST step toward reversing this trend is to engage in massive strategic planning on a level the federations have yet to do, says Abramowitz. His recommended method for doing this already exists in the system. He learned it, he says, from the current chairman of the board of the UJC, Joe Kanfer, an Ohio businessman and veteran Jewish activist. "First you decide on a purpose: say, for the Jewish people to save humanity - Judaism has always been about ethical global survival. The next layer down is the mission: to have a federation movement that has the majority of the Jewish people on the same page to bring about that purpose. Then you ask what your values are - Cooperation? Pluralism? You have to get that right," he stresses. "When those three are aligned, you can start to do what the federations today already do, which is to develop five- and 10-year benchmarks for success. For example: The federation campaign will be up, the number of donors will be up, the State of Israel will have no poverty," he says. Only then can a federation begin to strategize, to determine "core competencies" for hiring ("Who's driving the bus? Who's on the bus with you?"). This process is the reverse of the current model, says Abramowitz, in which leaders are hired before the purpose of the organization is laid out. This leaves the federation with often able leaders, particularly in fundraising, but without a mission driven by content, by intent. Another major obstacle in organizing and invigorating a Jewish community is simply finding that community. In many communities, an enormous variety of Jewish programs and services is available outside the federation, but there is no central source of finding many of those "products." "The federation needs to be a hub for relevant services, even if they don't own or produce the product," says Abramowitz. How? First, by developing the central "customer database" of the community. "We should get over the fear of making lists of Jews," a discomfort that "has retarded us from adopting the right kind of consumer relations management strategies that other faith groups and businesses have used. Every community should have a universal database of anybody who identifies himself as Jewish." "If I wanted to start a business that targeted Jews, I could reach an astronomical percentage of potential households. I would make a deal with supermarkets to get the databases of coupon cards. Even the most marginally affiliated family will buy matza on Pessah and maybe candles on Hanukka. I would strike a deal with [online retailer] Amazon to find out everyone within my zip code who buys a Jewish book." "Once you know who your potential customers are, you segment out your market - 20-somethings, singles, married with kids." With that basic knowledge, the federations are equipped for a real revolution in Jewish life - the end of the lamentable practice of "dropping the customer." Abramowitz explains: "The typical semi-involved Jewish family gets involved when their first child is born. Because of the brand equity of Jewish preschools as safer and better, they are more likely to send their child to a Jewish preschool. When it's time to go to kindergarten or first grade, they will leave the preschool. Some will join a synagogue, but a majority will not. Then when the child turns 11 or 12, the parents are thinking about the bar or bat mitzva, so a decent percentage will join a synagogue, be involved for a number of years and then drop off. When that kid gets to college, Hillel and birthright will try to find them again." In short, "We're incredibly good at dropping the customer at every entry point into Jewish life. We don't manage the hand-off because of a lack of vision," he says. "Imagine if at every stage, there was a hand-off. Before the end of preschool, someone would sit down with the family and see what's important to them. The community would give them discounts or gifts to shepherd them." Currently that's not possible because the preschool would never release the name or phone number for that family "because we don't do that." So the community must "re-recruit the same family" multiple times over the years. What if, says Abramowitz, the family's information could be entered, safely and discreetly, into a federation database maintained for that purpose that would be seen only by the professionals tasked with outreach to that family? More than any other institution, "the federation can be a trusted hub to facilitate that hand-off to the next stage of Jewish life. This is community organizing, 21st century-style." HOW DOES one inspire such radically new ways of doing business without creating tension, fear and blowback in the system? With a sweeping, comprehensive vision, says Abramowitz. An example where vision can make a real difference is the work of American Jews on behalf of Ethiopian Israelis, a community ravaged by illiteracy and difficulties in adjusting to modern Israel. "American Jews have in the back of their mind a visceral predisposition to not believe you can solve the problem of a permanent black underclass because that's been an experience in America," Abramowitz believes. "'There are black poor in Israel, so we help them,' is the feeling. But do we have a vision in one generation to bring their poverty and illiteracy down to the level of everyone else? Today we have 3,000 graduates of universities from that community, which only numbers about 120,000. This is a totally achievable goal. The world doesn't know how to run literacy programs for adults?" Federation giving today is mostly welfare, says Abramowitz. "It's good for the Jewish identity of the givers, but not for the next generation. People aren't apathetic, but they're not empowered. They want to make a real difference. If you show them how to end Ethiopian illiteracy in five years, people will ask how they can help, and then they'll want to volunteer in the summers." In the end, saving the world is not just morally satisfying - it's a good way to get people excited about Jewish life, whose greatest existential threat is that it become boring and inaccessible. The entire process and the inspiration for change are contained to a unique extent within the Jewish experience, Abramowitz believes. "We can do all this with core Jewish values, and with hope. Yes, everybody believes in hope. But the Jewish experience with hope is special. The return to Zion, a 2,000-year shlep through history based on a dream, is uniquely powerful stuff."