February 22, 2001
The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles is one of our city's most successful philanthropies. Yet, nationwide, it ranks behind New York, Chicago, Detroit, the Bay Area, Philadelphia and Baltimore in the Chronicle of Philanthropy's annual listing of the 400 not-for-profit organizations with the largest revenues from individual contributors.
I've often wondered why this is so. With the exception of New York, these are cities whose Jewish populations are far smaller than our own. People tell me it's because Jews are like other Angelenos: They come West to make their own way, to avoid hierarchy and organization of all kinds. They are spread out, self-absorbed, apolitical and apathetic.
Others tell me the Federation itself is to blame. For too long it focused on Israel and overseas Jewry, as local Jews turned more toward domestic concerns. It lacked a clear mission, it became political (or not political enough), and it had a cumbersome and resolutely unsexy name -- Federation -- in a town where packaging matters.
In fact, a little of "all of the above" might be the case, but these reasons must not obscure what I've understood as the Federation's mission: to meet the needs of Jews here, in Israel and around the world.
The Federation is the central planning, coordinating and fundraising body for 18 local and international agencies that offer the entire community a broad range of humanitarian programs. The annual UJF campaign supports these programs and is the largest single year-round fundraising endeavor in the Jewish community.
There is a legitimate discussion going on about the best way to meet Jewish communal needs in the 21st century. But now, today, the Federation and its beneficiary agencies are the primary way those needs are being met.
You could dismiss the organization, focus only on its faults, or argue it should be reinvented from A to Z, but that wouldn't change the nature or urgency of the needs the Federation has evolved to meet.
There would still be 31,300 L.A. Jewish households living at or below the poverty line. Who would help feed, shelter and care for these people?
There would still be battered women, drug- and alcohol-ravaged families, mentally ill Jews and non-Jews. Who would meet their needs?
There would still be immigrants from Russia, Ethiopia and other nations in need.
There would still be thousands of Jewish children in need of quality education, good community centers and programs that reinforce a strong identity.
There would still be emergencies, such as the North Valley JCC shooting, to which the Federation and its beneficiary agencies are uniquely suited to react, with a full range of social services that goes beyond sound bites.
This Sunday, thousands of people will take part in the Federation's Super Sunday fundraising event. Volunteers will make calls, staffers will coordinate, donors will donate. It's a big production, which last year raised $5 million, about 10 percent of the annual United Jewish Fund (UJF) campaign locally.
I don't think there is ever a time to stop asking whether the institutions that help define this community could do better, be more efficient or more accountable. To ask those questions and seek fair and accurate answers is the job of this journal, if not each one of us.
But at the same time, our other job is to make sure that those among us who need help will get it. One of the best ways I know of doing that, still, is giving on Super Sunday.