As we sat at the Passover table reading the haggadah over the recent holidays, the narrative of the exodus of our people was recited and interpreted by Jews throughout Los Angeles. The interpretation yielded important questions that challenge us to recall the historic narrative of our people and relate it to our contemporary realities.
The organized Jewish community, as embodied in its central communal body, The Jewish Federation, also has a narrative. The history of Los Angeles Jewry and its development is reflected in its growing and diverse population, the sprawling residential patterns, the evolution of its institutions and its Federation.
In today’s Jewish Journal, a crucial question is asked: “Why is a gift to The Federation this year different from all others?”
A simple answer would be to look around at the impact of the worst economic crisis in over 80 years. Consider how fortunate many of us are, when compared to the thousands without jobs, any means of support, or basic necessities.
At the end of 2008, The Federation was already sensing the effect the economy might have on our fundraising. Some donors tearfully explained that not only were they unable to give, but they themselves were in need of help. The Federation rapidly identified emergency funds and made an extraordinary supplemental allocation to four of our human service agencies. No other organization in our community would or could do so — that is unique to The Federation.
At that time, the scope and depth of this crisis were not fully understood. The Federation reached out to agencies, Jewish schools and area synagogues to determine the extent of the challenge.
It is a tribute to The Federation’s leadership that we took rapid action, earmarking a half million dollars to establish a fund for emergency needs of Jews in Los Angeles. With the participation of the Jewish Community Foundation, the emergency fund was increased to $750,000. We established guidelines for making small grants for health care, shelter, employment support and emergency child care needs. We helped establish a Community Crisis Hotline. The requests began to pour in.
Meanwhile, The Federation went ahead with making annual allocations, locally and internationally, without reductions to the 2008 levels of support. A focus on making program grants to specifically targeted causes was essential to move us beyond support based on historical patterns. Critical times require new responses.
Many Federation agencies receive significant public support in the form of annual grants from the state or county. These grants might be in serious jeopardy due to the economic crisis. Our effective coordination of advocacy at the local, state and national levels is becoming more essential.
While taking pride in the services provided on a non-sectarian basis, The Federation also recognized that Jews in need require special consideration at this moment of potentially shrinking resources. This means making difficult decisions around priorities.
Services are deemed more important than supporting infrastructure. And although we continue to provide communal office space and other central services at the Goldsmith Center and Milken Campus, we are placing the emphasis on funding programs for those in need.
We also maintained our commitment to engage the next generations through allocations to our schools, campuses and young adult programming. We continue to assist in Israel and around the globe, and to enhance ties between Israelis and Angelenos in the areas of education, human services and culture.
Recently, we secured two major grants to stabilize Jewish educational programming in Los Angeles. Working with the Bureau of Jewish Education, day schools, Jewish camps and early childhood programs, The Federation will assure essential programs that touch thousands in the community are not diminished by the economic crisis.
It is obvious as The Federation approaches its centennial anniversary that we are in a period in which our communal narrative is being rewritten. We are in the midst of a crisis. It is not a war, nor a natural disaster, but it is indeed a crisis — once again calling for collective action.
Why, indeed, is a gift to The Federation this year different from all others?
Our Federation is approaching one hundred years of service to the L.A. community. In the early 20th century, when The Federation was created, most Jews lived in a few compact neighborhoods and there was no Jewish state. The leadership of L.A.’s Jewish organizations banded together to raise funds for organizations to provide critical human services to those in need. And although the fundraising purposes today are similar, the context is totally different.
I urge each of you who have the means to give generously to organizations that will make a difference. It will make a difficult year better for those who need help.
Please remember that a contribution to The Jewish Federation reaches beyond any single cause. It can ensure our collective future as America’s second largest Jewish community as we chart our course through the next few difficult years.
John R. Fishel is president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.