Archive for December, 2008

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Memo to the (Federation) File: It is time for the “He” to be a “She”

December 15, 2008

This past week I had the unusual opportunity to participate in breakfast briefings with two outstanding professionals that head two important international Jewish organizations. First, I attended a small breakfast with Robert Singer, Director General of World ORT.  Then two days later I was invited to the home of our local Federation president for a breakfast briefing by Moshe Vigdor, the Directory General of the Jewish Agency. Both men are impressive and both men projected skill and confidence even when discussing the immense challenges their respective organizations face in these uncertain economic times.  Reflecting back on both meetings, both educated me about the issues facing international Jewry, and both reminded me of the importance of organizational excellence.  Two meetings, two outstanding men.

But as I look back at the similarities of the meetings, here’s the question that is most on my mind…

What about the women?

I have thought a great deal about this question recently, in part because of my two daughters, but also in part because the absence of women professional leadership in Jewish organizations is conspicuous to those of us who spend a great deal of time in Jewish communal affairs. When I look around my own community in Atlanta I see a substantial number of women in volunteer leadership roles, presidents of federation, schools, the JCC, synagogues and so on.  And I see women in numerous professional roles in those same organizations.  In fact, I see Jewish women in all aspects of Jewish life except in one place…

… at the very top.

I know that I am not the first to notice (or bemoan) this fact, and I have found several resources that have been instructive on shaping my perspective on the matter.  Most substantially, I have found the report “Creating Gender Equity and Organizational Effectiveness in the Jewish Federation System: A Research-and-Action Project” prepared on behalf of Advancing Woman Professionals and the Jewish Community and United Jewish Communities to be a helpful (albeit four-year old) point of reference in my statistical understanding of the issue.

There is a significant amount of research on the question of where women are at in professional Federation leadership, and there even has been some action.  But clearly not enough.

So here is one piece of advice on how to take action, substantial and meaningful action, in addressing the woman deficit in CEO roles at international and national Jewish organizations:

Make sure the next CEO of United Jewish Communities is a woman.

I suggest this knowing full well that some critics might assert that I am proposing status outweigh merit.  That is not the case at all. Especially since I believe that there are several qualified candidates that would have both status AND merit. Focused searches are frequently used to find CEOs that have key attributes that an organization needs, and this case would be no different.  If UJC is serious about taking action to put women leaders in top positions throughout the Federation system (a clear and important need), then the best place to start is at the very top.  That would be action that is well overdue.

Much has been made of the nature and power of women’s philanthropy and the annual Lion of Judah conference held recently in Israel amply showcased way women personify such power and generosity.  But women have more to offer the Federation system than just their dollars and their wisdom in leadership of our volunteer and lay organizations. They also offer skill, perspective and judgment that can lead our professional organizations as well.

The UJC website notes that “Jewish women are setting the standard for creative philanthropic giving and commitment to future generations.”  I could not agree more. But it is time to change website rhetoric into organizational action.  If UJC wants to take a bold step in demonstrating its commitment to future generations of women in the field it will make sure that it sets the standard by selecting a woman as its next professional leader.

It’s time for the “he” to be a “she” – and with all due respect to Robert and Moshe, I look forward to seeing “her” at a breakfast briefing in Atlanta sometime soon.

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(Jewish) Community Organizing: Lessons from the Obama Campaign

December 12, 2008

Regardless of one’s political affiliation, the recent election of Barack Obama as the forty-fourth president of the United States is a momentous event to consider. In a time of dramatic concern by so many, the Obama campaign has given an equal number of people in the world a moment of radical amazement.  There are certainly many lessons to be learned with respect to the Obama campaign in the political context, but the strategies and tactics deployed by the Obama campaign also hold numerous lessons of how we can better organize our Jewish communities.

1.    Positive messages create positive results.  Certainly in 2008 there were numerous negative topics to be discussed, including a war in the Middle East, and a troubled economy at home.  But Obama, while voicing concern about those several topics, nevertheless focused on a message of hope and change. So too must our Jewish community focus on positive messages.  While so much of our Jewish message is framed in the context of “never again,” too little of it is framed in the context of “Yes we can.”  True, there are great challenges facing our community – slowing affiliation, a nuclear Iran and Jewish apathy.  But much is going right as well – and we need a positive message if we expect people to join a positive Jewish campaign for change.

2.    Small contributions count as much as big ones.  Much has been made of the Obama campaign’s record-shattering fundraising.  But what has been remarkable about that effort is how many of the contributors were first-time political contributors and how many made small, but repeated, contributions. Also remarkable was the way Obama’s campaign tapped into the financial power of the netroots community.  Our Jewish community would be wise to quickly learn these fundraising lessons and apply them to our own efforts.  We are missing a tremendous opportunity to engage community members philanthropically in new and different ways – ways successfully deployed by the Obama campaign.

3.    Investment in field operations and social networks matter.   The Obama campaign redefined the power of the ground game in the recent election. Whereas Hillary Clinton focused on the big states with large primaries, Obama also focused on the states that had caucuses, understanding the power of small collections of passionate individuals. By engaging in places big and small, Obama created a network that engaged voters where they were in ways they wanted to be engaged, where in person or online. Sounds like something we would be wise to do with American Jews – meeting Jews where they are, and leveraging emerging social technologies to make those meetings happen.  We need to improve our Jewish ground game, before that game becomes too difficult to win.

4.    Agents of change still need voices of experience. Obama knew that one of his greatest weaknesses was the perception of his inexperience. So what did he do to counter that criticism? He found one of the most experienced senators to serve as his running mate. Rather than fear the influence of a more experienced leader, Obama embraced it. We should apply the same lessons in our Jewish communities.  While we need to embrace the fresh ideas that come from inexperienced Jewish innovators, we need to make sure those innovators embrace the experience and wisdom of our more seasoned leaders.

5.    Words matter. Perhaps the one critical mistake of the Obama campaign was when he commented that voters in Pennsylvania were bitter and cling to their guns and religion.  The Obama campaign credits that moment as a defining one in the campaign – after that episode Obama took a greater role in the campaign and worked to more carefully craft his message.  The care we need to use in choosing words in the Jewish community is no less important. When we refer to the “problem” of intermarriage we would be wiser to describe it as a “challenge.” Just like voters don’t like to be considered bitter, spouses don’t like to consider their marriages problems. If we want to be successful in our campaign for the engagement of more Jews, we should mind our words carefully.

6.    Create multiple paths to success.  Early in the campaign the Obama campaign said they were going to create multiple paths victory, including campaigning in states long ceded to the Republicans. And that is exactly what they did, so that on election night there were multiple ways for the electoral votes to add up in Obama’s favor. If we are wise, the Jewish community will learn from this experience and also focus on strengthening multiple paths to engagement.  If we want the numbers to add up, we need to create new and novel ways of Jewish engagement.

7.   Embrace the complexities of identity.  Obama has a complex racial background, one he embraced and transcended during the campaign. The Jewish people also have a complex background, filled with nuanced and conflicting identities.  Rather than getting mired in identity conflicts, like Obama we need to find common threads that help us transcend our individual insecurities about our identity.  Jewish identity has become a word we struggle to define and often endeavor to avoid. We should embrace the complexities of Jewish identity and perhaps we may find that there will be many more of us to embrace.

8.    Believe.  Obama believed he could win the presidency, and defying all expectations, he did.  People believed in his potential to effect change because it encouraged a belief that change could occur. Perhaps no greater lesson to be learned the Jewish community is the power of belief – belief in one another and belief in our collective ability to make our Jewish community stronger.

So there you have it, eight lessons from the ’08 Obama campaign. Even with these lessons in hand, it is fair to wonder if can we change the way our Jewish community engage individuals with the same level of success the Obama campaign achieved.  The parallels are remarkable – just like the current state of our nation, the current state of American Jewry gives us much for concern, but much more for pride. And while even the greatest challenges may still lie ahead of us, the strength of our Jewish past and the resilience of our Jewish spirit give us much to aspire for our collective Jewish future.

As a Jewish people, can we too achieve our goals?  The answer must be no different that the one boldly spoken by our new president on a clear, and clearly victorious night  – yes we can.

And we must.

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One Year Later…

December 7, 2008

In a rare occurrence, I have back to back personal posts, and for those who regularly read this blog for my other essays, I apologize.  For those who have read this blog form its beginning, you know that it was inspired  by my friend Jon Barkan z’l who passed on from this world one year ago today.  There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about my friend, and what we all miss in his absence.  Nevertheless, while we honor those who have died with our memories, we also honor them with our lives and the way we live them. Even as we find ourselves sometimes lingering in the shadow of death, we must draw ourselves into the light of the living – to fill voids, to create anew and to celebrate all that life has to offer. I am certain that is what Jon would say  –  and that is what I now say as well.

This morning I was given the privilege of addressing a group of pro-Israel activists at a local AIPAC function. It was fitting that this gathering occurred on the first secular anniversary of Jon’s passing – it reminds us that important work must go on, life must go on, and that it it incumbent upon all of us to recognize both.

Below is the text of my comments delivered this morning.

Comments Delivered to Atlanta-Area AIPAC Breakfast Briefing on 12/7/08

My friends, I am glad to be here with you today, in a room full of pro-Israel activists who have taken time out of your busy lives to spend some time learning about and advancing the interests of pro-Israel politics in our nation. And even as we gather together, it is not lost on any of us that there is one dear friend that is not in the room with us today – our friend Jon Barkan.

One year ago today, we woke up to a world without Jon walking among us.  It was hard for us – it is hard for us – to fully reconcile the loss we all suffered, the loss his family suffered, the loss our community and Jon’s many communities suffered.  There is rarely a day when we don’t speak of our memories of Jon, and the ways he impacted all of us.  And never a day has passed where we haven’t felt diminished by the loss of his ability to do so much, to be so much, and to help so much.

Nevertheless, we have soldiered on with the memory and the legend of Jon in our hearts and minds.  And we have soldiered on in a world that, in many ways, has changed around us.  We have a new US administration and new elections in Israel. We face new economic challenges and new and increasing challenges in the international arenas.

However, there is much about our world that has remained the same. There is still a need to recognize that Israel has numerous enemies that pose serious threats to its safety and its very existence. There is still a need for a strong US/Israel alliance, with substantial economic, diplomatic and military ties.

There is still a need for a room full of pro-Israel activists to gather to learn about ways to support pro-Israel policies and the elected officials that establish those policies.

So in the days following Jon Barkan’s death, many of us recognized that perhaps one of the best ways to honor our friend – a friend who was an enormous pro-Israel advocate, was to inspire and recognize other pro-Israel advocates to do what Jon did – work tirelessly to strengthen the bonds between our two nations.

Through the generosity of several individuals and families, including many in this room, the Jon Barkan Israel Advocacy Award was established.  The award shall be given annually to an individual living in the Atlanta, Georgia metropolitan area who is under the age of 40 and has demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to Israel by means of leadership, activism or involvement in organizations or activities that strengthen the bonds between Israel and Atlanta-area Jews.

Criteria for selection includes demonstration of significant leadership ability, level of passion and involvement in pro-Israel causes, and the potential for greater pro–Israel leadership responsibility in the future. Nominations will be solicited from across the Atlanta metropolitan area and the selection process will be administered by local professional and volunteer AIPAC leadership.

The annual recipient of the award shall be formally recognized at the annual Atlanta-area AIPAC Community Event and, along with a plaque commemorating the award, the recipient shall receive a $1,000 stipend to be used for attendance to the AIPAC Policy Conference (held annually in Washington D.C.) in the year in which the award is given.

To date, over $23,000 has been pledged to endow the fund. Contributions are tax-deductible, and to the extent any of you are doing year-end tax planning with respect charitable contributions, contributions can be made to the fund at any time for any reason. My wife Marci and I have done exactly that, and I invite you to join us in that honor of our friend.

The process for selecting the first award recipient is already underway and if you have any nominations, the professionals at AIPAC will soon be communicating with you the opportunity to share such nominations.  The recipient will be announced at the community event this spring.

When speaking of a righteous Jew who has passed from this world to the next we say – zichrono livracha – let his memory be a blessing.   May that be the case with our friend Jon Barkan, together let us remember on this day and each day that his memory is a blessing.  And let us ensure, with the Jon Barkan Israel Advocacy Award, that his legacy continues to be an inspiration to future generations of pro-Israel advocates.

Advocates just like you.

Thank you.