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The Federation Movement is Dead; Long Live the Federation Movement

April 20, 2009

Perhaps one of the most frequently heard refrains regarding any existing organization, initiative or program is that “if it didn’t exist, we would need to create it.”  It is spoken in boardrooms and parking lots, by professionals and volunteers alike. It is often said in moments of frustration and defense, and rarely in times of admiration. It is a refrain that often is much more true than false, but is often used falsely in the defense of ideas that have grown stale in a tin breadbox of conviction.

We often say this about our local Federations, the Federation system and United Jewish Communities.  We say, with firm conviction, “if they didn’t exist, we would need to create them.”  We say that the current model of Federations may need to change, but that the need for Federations has not changed. We say that if we can only fix what is broken we can preserve what is of value.

But what if we are wrong?

What if our current model of the Federation system is of a nature that is fundamentally past its prime? What if the effort to adapt our Federation system and reengineer United Jewish Communities exhausts us from using those same energies and intellect to create anew?

We must have the strength to come to a fundamental realization about the state of the Federation Movement as embodied by our current Federation system –

it is dead.

But in its death, it presents an opportunity for it to be reborn.

While the basis of its need still exists, we have long ago outgrown the humble origins of the Federation system. The history of its birth, its growth, and its decline is a great chapter in American Jewry. But it is only a chapter… there must be another.

Now there are those reading this essay that will immediately start defensively listing all of the successes and the triumphs of the last century of federated Jewry. Make no mistake, all of those successes and triumphs are due recognition for their displays of strength and appreciation for their magnificent results. There is no question that this Movement has achieved more that we could have imagined…

but we need to imagine more.

We now, at this moment of unparalleled economic challenge, find ourselves looking at a Movement that has shed much of its “move” and is hand wringing too much about what it has “meant.”  It is a Movement that has been transformed into an establishment that has lost its flexibility to adapt to the times in which it exists. Federation infrastructure has remained a tool that is highly responsive during times of crisis, but is adrift when the crisis abates. The Federation system, no matter how innovative and forward thinking some of its leadership is, nevertheless does not present itself as the vanguard of Jewish innovation.

So in retrospect, as the Movement matured, and in its effort to harness wealth and achieve outcomes, it failed to ignite imaginations.  It turned from organizations created by need into organizations maintained by inertia. The Movement no longer was shaped by visionaries like Herb Friedman, but by committees and quorums.  As the Movement matured, (notwithstanding its financial success), what was once communal became further professionalized and what was once dynamic slowly ossified.

And as the Movement matured, it could not help but begin to grow tired from carrying its own legacy on its back. Even in its age, it was resilient  – the Israel Emergency campaigns proved that – but it nevertheless began to die. Our praise turned to platitudes, our exhortations turned to excuses. And like a modern day Council of the Four Lands, our Movement became more of a spectacle than a success, a gathering of individuals rather than a gathering of ideas.  In the face of ever surmounting challenges, it became a Movement much more focused on reengineering than reimagining.

So now, with Federation after Federation retrenching, reformulating and reducing, the Movement is gasping its last breaths – smothered by a system gasping for air and dollars. Community institutions of philanthropic engagement are morphing into professional centers of philanthropic management.  They have taken the 80/20 rule to its logical and most dangerous extreme and, as a result, engineered the narrowing, not the expansion of the Federation Movement. In many ways, the Federation Movement as we once knew it is dead.

So now we must face the question squarely – if it doesn’t exist, do we need to create it anew?

I think the answer is yes.  And the time to do it is now.

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2 comments

  1. I agree with you, Seth, that a fundamental paradigm shift is needed – not because the values that federations have represented are outdated, but because the context in which we seek to nurture and implement them have changed so radically. I’d like to propose four goals for the federation of the 21st century that I believe are in keeping with what made the federations of the 20th century so vital, but that respond to today’s historic opportunities and challenges:
    1. expanding the circles of Jewish engagement – community-building in a 21st century key
    2. building and supporting platforms for world repair – manifold opportunities to do tzedek and hesed
    3. connecting the Jewish multi-world – creating “peoplehood capital” through shared activity
    4. empowering transformational leaders – encouraging grass-roots energy and talent

    I believe that this is an agenda that captures the best of what federations have been, but re-casts it for our time of diversity, fluidity, choice, and a quest for purpose and connectedness.

    I’m not sure whether this requires starting afresh (hard to do), or whether today’s federations can renew themselves sufficiently to become something different (also hard to do) – it seems to me that a few, at least, are trying this. But, I do believe that we are at a moment when both imagination and courage are called for. I’d love to see the discussion you’ve begun continue.


  2. Wouldn’t it be so nice if none of us in the organized Jewish world – from the Federation system to the smallest grass roots organization – had to depend on others for funding. Ah, that nasty word. Money.

    In today’s communal muck and mire, I take the joke about 2 Jews 3 opinions and reword it to be 2 Jews 3 ideas. Everyone’s got an idea about what we should and how we should and that we should, or shouldn’t. Everyone’s got a thought about if we only made the idea better people would fund it.

    After spending a year as Campaign Chair for the JFGA, it became very clear to me that it isn’t ideology that people want to fund, it’s the work. The feeding, housing, community development, community engaging work that is at the very core of what Jewish giving is.

    It’s a messy and noisy world out there – the funding community is tired of it. Perhaps the most valuable thing that we can do as community organizers is to simply clear a path and bring everyone back to the core of what we do – let the ideas continue to flow but put the local, national and international community’s needs before our lofty ideas and talk.

    That would be a nice change. Less talk, more action. At least, that’s my idea.



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