The existence of a State of Israel or the notion of raising $100 million would have boggled the minds of the founders of the Federation of Jewish Charities in 1911. But as the 100th anniversary celebrations of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles launched this month, Israel is not only a fact, but also a draw for a proposed 1,000-person trip to Israel, and the founding of a $100 million community endowment seems imminent.
Federation president Jay Sanderson, who just completed his first year on the job, sees the centennial as an opportunity to help the community understand Federation’s evolving role.
“The idea is to use this not only to celebrate 100 years and raise a whole lot of money, but to bring the whole community together,” Sanderson said.
In 1911, an estimated 12,000 Jews lived in Los Angeles when seven Jewish social service agencies decided to unite their fundraising efforts into a central body. They set an initial budget of $30,000, and in 1912 raised 30 percent more than the separate entities had the previous year, according to Karen Wilson, guest curator/historian of “Life in the Mosaic: 160 Years of Jews in Los Angeles,” scheduled to open at the Autry National Center in Griffith Park in 2012.
The model evolved over the years as various organizations formed and merged into what is today The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which now has a nearly $50 million annual budget and collects and allocates funds to hundreds of communal organizations serving Los Angeles’ 600,000 Jews.
But over the past 10 years, fundraising has been flat or declining at Federation, which, like umbrella charity organizations nationally, is struggling to reach out to donors who prefer more directed giving. The decades-long notion that giving to Federation is a mandatory community tax doesn’t speak to today’s Jewish community. While Federation’s 2010 campaign eked out a slight increase over last year’s in the last quarter of the year — coming in at $47.2 million — Sanderson wants to make the centennial’s message an articulation of Federation’s future as much as a celebration of past accomplishments.
“The model of Federation [set up] 99 years ago … worked really well for our grandparents and not too badly for our parents, but for us and our kids — they’re looking for a direct connection and they want to know where their money is going. They are looking for a different kind of value proposition,” Sanderson said.
Sanderson hopes to position Federation as setting communal priorities and using its leverage to coordinate and enhance the offerings of the myriad Jewish organizations that serve the Los Angeles community.
And he is hoping to use centennial events to focus attention on innovation, community service and Israel, all with an underlying theme of uniting L.A.’s sprawling Jewish landscape.
Before Sanderson took office, Federation had already started a $100 million centennial endowment campaign. Around $50 million is already pledged, Sanderson said, and several major donations are nearly finalized that will assure the $100 million goal is met.
Among the programs, front and center is the search for the Next Big Jewish Idea, an online contest for an innovative program or initiative that would galvanize Los Angeles Jewry, with an eye toward taking the idea national after it is piloted in Los Angeles.
The winning idea — to be selected from six finalists by a combination of online votes and a panel of judges — will receive $100,000 in funding, plus office space, mentoring and support services at Federation’s Wilshire Boulevard headquarters. You can enter or vote through the end of March.
Around 45 ideas were submitted just in the first week, including a nonprofit rugelach bakery at the Grove that would employ people with special needs; a Shabbat experience hotel at the beach; “Date My Jewish Son,” where parents engage in matchmaking; and the Friday delivery of dough so people could braid and bake their own Shabbat challah.
Centennial-year programming will also take old ideas and update them.
For decades, volunteer callers have solicited funds for Federation on Super Sunday.
Over the past few years Super Sunday has included a social service component, and this year the day will become the first of four community service days throughout the year, highlighting the importance of the Jewish community’s relationship with the city of Los Angeles.
Many of the callers on Feb. 13 — and hundreds of other volunteers — will spend part of the day working at social service organizations Federation supports.
There will be training for tutors for KorehLA, a literacy program that has helped more than 20,000 underprivileged children in Los Angeles learn to read over the last 12 years. Volunteers will plant a garden at the Westside JCC that will be used to teach about hunger issues, or help sort and distribute food through Tomchei Shabbos and Jewish Family Service’s SOVA Community Food and Resource Program and Project Chicken Soup, which feeds homebound AIDS patients. CSUN Hillel will get a makeover, and children will paint a mural for a school in Israel that serves disadvantaged students. (All programs require registration at jewishla.org/supersunday.)
While Super Sunday focuses on the Jewish community, the other dates — June 5, Sept. 18, and Dec. 4 — will focus on the wider Los Angeles community, emphasizing hunger and food insecurity, issues associated with youth and seniors, and programs involving learning and books.
The centennial year will also include some big parties. Federation’s annual dinners will be combined and ramped up a notch, with events at Pacific Design Center and Union Station meant for several thousand people.
One Friday night in May will be designated as the night of 100 (or more) Shabbat dinners, and a giant city-wide afikomen scavenger hunt will illuminate places of importance in L.A.’s Jewish history.
But a real highlight — and a challenge — will be the proposed 1,000-person mission to Israel.
Federation is busy mobilizing organizations, synagogues and Jewish day schools to sponsor simultaneous missions Oct. 23 to Nov. 1 this year. Once in Israel, all the groups would meet for three joint events — an arts and culture program in Tel Aviv spotlighting the Federation’s Tel Aviv-LA Partnership; a meeting in Jerusalem with the prime minister and other dignitaries; and a giant singalong at Ashalim, a southern village sponsored by Ayalim, an organization founded by young army veterans in an effort to update for the 21st century ideals such as Zionism, entrepreneurship and the bonds between the people and the land. Ayalim has 11 student villages and serves 20,000 at-risk youth, supported, in part, with Federation funds.
The mission to Israel, like the other centennial celebrations, will focus on what is important to Federation, said Richard Sandler, Federation’s board chairman.
“The centennial gives us an opportunity to tell our story, to basically say that we’ve been around for 100 years for a reason,” Sanderson said.
“The power of Judaism is so great, that it has sustained us for all these years and has allowed us to give so much to the world. And we still have a role to play.”