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Jewish Journal

Remaking a staple of the Jewish community

by Brad A. Greenberg

February 5, 2009 | 5:31 pm

The federation model of blue-blood community agencies all being supported by one umbrella organization is a staple of American Jewish life. Jewish federations exist in communities big and small, providing office space and serving as a central fundraiser for key service providers, particularly those helping the needy. In some cities, the federations also serve as quasi community governments and their leaders as representatives to the greater Jewish community.

But in Los Angeles the community has long since outgrown the federation model.

The new chairman of the L.A. federation’s board, Stanley Gold, took over last January with the stated goal of turning the umbrella organization upside down and preparing it for the future.

“It is largely irrelevant,” Gold said at the time. “I’m gonna make it relevant. Gonna make it relevant to the donor community. Gonna make it relevant to the Los Angeles community. And gonna make it relevant to most of the Jewish community. The alternative is a slow dissipation. I’m not going to let that happen.“

No one would argue that the federation looks pretty much the same today as it did a year ago. Its internal governance, its funding structure and relationship with the agencies have all changed; even its president announced that he will step aside at the end of the year. But the question some people are asking—inevitably—is whether Gold’s efforts will be good for the Jews.

My story about these changes for this week’s Jewish Journal picks up after the jump:

Many believe it will be. Some even wish change would happen more rapidly.

“Everybody benefited from the status quo — except for the community,” said Jay Sanderson, CEO of JTN Productions and a former Federation board member. “Most Jewish organizations in this community are completely overstaffed. They are enormous for what they do. There are tired organizations that don’t have a lot of vision and are spending a tremendous amount of money doing the same old, same old.”

“I like what Stanley Gold’s intention is. It just hasn’t gone far enough in The Federation yet, and hasn’t gone far enough in the community,” Sanderson continued. “That isn’t because of Stanley. The pushback is just ridiculous. Many institutions are functioning like they did in the ’50s. There is not a lot of vision in the community, and most of these organizations spend more money on staff and raising money then they do on what their mission is.”

But others — and not just the agency heads that have lost the guarantee of Federation support — have sounded a voice of caution.

“The dimension that is missing, I believe, and was missing before and has not been filled, is community building,” said Gerald Bubis, founding director of the Irwin Daniels School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

“The big error of most federations in the country during recent times has been devoting more and more of [their] resources to generating funding from major givers. When that collapses, the model breaks down because so many others view themselves as being either disenfranchised or ignored or seen as unimportant.”

Bubis, one of the many individuals whose opinion Gold has sought, gave Gold “high marks for trying to do something radically different, which was needed in the system and is needed in the system.” But, he feels only “lip service” is being given to the issue of community building, a duty that has long proved vexing in Los Angeles.

And then there is the frustration being expressed by those who fear The Federation is preparing to ditch agencies that have served the community for decades in favor of innovative new organizations, particularly those that may be sexier for donors than, say, maintaining an old cemetery or supporting indigent Holocaust survivors.

In multiple interviews with leaders from various Federation agencies — there are 20 locally — many expressed worries about The Federation’s vision for the community.

“It began as a federation of agencies,” said Gil Graff, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education. “I would hope that part of its thinking about what it means to be a federation would be a renewal of interest, a continuity of interest, in being closely allied with agencies that helped create The Federation.”

You can read the rest here. Also, Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research, wrote an op-ed in 2007 for JTA about the need for federation to change; it can be read here.

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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