Archive for May, 2009


Itta Dozntmatter about Federation 2.0: A Response

May 31, 2009

“As an essayist I don’t believe in the fiction of an anonymous observer. Rather than the sham of objectivity, I think you should put your perspective up front. That’s only fair to the reader.” – Ralph Wiley

One of the most fascinating aspects of writing a blog is the nature of the comments that one receives after a post.  Generally after I post a new essay I receive several comments, some of which are publicly posted to the blog and some of which are emailed to me directly. Oftentimes the comments via email are done in such a manner because the commentator for one reason or another would prefer a direct conversation (or observation) as opposed to a more public contribution to a discussion I am proposing. In each of those cases I have kept (and will always keep) those email conversations confidential. I also have not (and will not) share feedback I receive without permission.  My feeling is that I am not a reporter with anonymous sources, nor is this blog a conduit for me to refract or reframe the comments of others in a manner of my choosing.  This blog reflects my own thoughts;  those who choose to join a conversation can do so publicly via the comment function or with me directly.

However, just as I respect the desires of those who wish to remain confidential when they contact me, I do not provide a forum on my blog for “anonymous” comments. When I receive comments that come from a source that is identifiable, I post them regardless of content and without edit.  When the comment comes from an anonymous email address or a disguised one, I do not post it publicly.  However, since I have not made this practice clear, I have posted the one recent anonymous comment I have received (since it was intended to be public), but going forward I will not post anonymous comments.

The first (and last) anonymous post on my blog is from a commentator named “Itta Dozntmatter” who wrote from an anonymous email address.  Itta (for lack of another name) posted an anonymous comment to my recent Federation 2.0 post and the comment (in its entirety) is as follows:

“Seth –

Are you working with anyone to accomplish this or are you just sitting back spewing ideas and waiting for someone to ask you to actually get your hands dirty? Stop writing, stop pontificating and actually produce a product and put your words into action. You are beginning to sound like the boy who cried wolf!”

Itta – as I do with everyone who contacts me about the blog, I want to thank you. First for reading the blog (I still marvel that people take the time to do so), and second for taking the time to comment. But moreover, you raise a good question, an interesting suggestion and a much-appreciated observation. I will address all three via the blog (since I don’t have your email to contact you directly).

1.    “Are you working with anyone to accomplish this or are you just sitting back spewing ideas and waiting for someone to ask you to actually get your hands dirty?” Itta – the answer to your question is yes to the first part and no to the second part.  As my peers here in Atlanta know (and as a cursory review of my bio would suggest) I am actively engaged inside the “established” Jewish community advancing many of the ideas that I suggest on this blog. I am always careful to note that the ideas in this blog are my own and are not intended to reflect the views of any particular organization. But make no misstate, as while serving as Vice Chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta and as an engaged member of the Atlanta Jewish community, I actively speak about and advocate many of the ideas I discuss here.  I think there are numerous change agents in my own community (and elsewhere) that also share many of my same views, and as they contact me we begin to develop even more coordinated discussions about some of the actions I propose. So yes, I am working with others, but not nearly as many as I need. There is a reason I openly post my email – I welcome others to contact me to join a very important discussion in process.

As to the second part of your question, no I am not waiting for someone to ask me to get my hands dirty, I am asking others to get their hands dirty with me.  Contact me and be willing to be part of a group in Atlanta that helps create Federation 2.0 in our community (because I believe the Federation professionals are willing to create that vision hand in hand with local change agents).  But for those not in Atlanta, also contact me and be willing to be part of a national working group of change agents that work in support of a renewed Federation movement (as oppose to working to only eulogize it). And Itta, I would be delighted to have an open conversation about what “getting our hands dirty” means – even if we have different views, I am certain we would agree that the more hands getting dirty the better.

2.    “Stop writing, stop pontificating and actually produce a product and put your words into action.” So I am not certain that stopping writing is the best suggestion, and I very much try not to pontificate. But the idea of producing a product is one that I very much agree with, which is why I wrote and published Federation 2.0: Reimagining the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.  It has plenty of observations, but plenty of actionable steps too. I continue to use that document as a blueprint for many of the actions I believe we need to take locally and nationally, and Itta – I welcome you and others to take that paper, find a piece of it that resonates with you, and lets’ get to work. A committee of one is not very productive, and a voice with no chorus is not very loud. As I now work to develop the local and national working groups that I propose, I am hoping that many of my words and ideas do get converted into actions. But as I am fond of saying, in this kitchen we need more chefs, not less.  Yes, I would like to see the changes I am proposing, but not to the exclusion of change others are seeking. Federation 2.0 isn’t intended to be only my vision, it is intended to be a model in which my vision, your vision and other individuals’ visions of the Federation movement are all shared, evaluated and implemented.  But before we implement tactics, we need to develop a strategy, and before we develop the strategy we need to identify some common principles of what our renewed movement will look like and feel like. The development of those principles comes from a discussion.  And a discussion is the very first action we need to take, but it needs to be an expeditious and inclusive action.  Sometimes I feel like I am having a one way conversation, I would be delighted if you joined me in this first action step, and then each of the action steps that follows.

3.    “You are beginning to sound like the boy who cried wolf!” Itta – thank you, that is good feedback. One of the hardest parts about writing a blog is the development and refinement of voice. To who am I writing and why am I writing at all? These questions vex me often when I sit down to write. Equally challenging is knowing how my voice is heard and interpreted – am I seen as a thoughtful critic that believes in the Federation movement but concerned that it has been transformed into a “system”?  I hope so. Am I a person who likes combining my experiences (good and bad) with ideas in my head in a thoughtful way then transforming those thoughts into action?  I am.   Do I always get the balance right?  Probably not. In the words of Whitman, I contain multitudes, and this blog reflects many (but not all) of them. You are telling me I am beginning to sound shrill, and that is important to know. Even if that opinion is not universally shared, I am certain it is shared by others. And it is a good reminder to me that I need to continue to develop my voice, and balance my thinking with doing.  But one disagreement – unlike the story about the boy that cries wolf, I am not lying – there really is a wolf. It is called apathy and it is already scattering much of the flock.

Lastly, I am fascinated by the anonymous name you chose for yourself.  As it is written, the name we make for ourselves says a great deal about who we are, what we do and how people perceive us. I write this blog under my name because I am hopeful of change I propose and I believe that my thoughts and words matter in helping create change, as will my actions.

I don’t know what your name is – you say Itta Dozntmatter.

My name is Seth Cohen – and I say it does.


Good Decisions in Bad Times: In Praise of Federation Community Allocations

May 27, 2009

In the words of Thomas Paine (or depending on your musical taste, the Kingston Trio) – these are the days that try men’s souls. With the economy in tatters, jobless numbers swelling, and pocketbooks suffering, charities all over the country are facing decreased campaigns and increased needs.  And of course in the Jewish community, the campaigns of federations have not been immune to this swift and painful downturn. Even those campaigns got an early start before the full onslaught of the economic retreat was felt have suffered substantial drop-off in contributions. In addition, there is the broad impact of Madoff, shrinking endowments and reduced government grants. Yes, these are trying times that can freeze us in the face of the challenges presented. But they are also times where we must nevertheless make decisions on how to confront those challenges. In the federation world, those decisions are often made by community allocations committees.

The good news? Even in bad times, these committees are making good decisions.

Taking my own community as an example, this week the Jewish Federation of Atlanta concluded its allocations process by accepting and approving the thoughtful and balanced recommendation of the local allocations committee. Paradoxically, even in these troubling times, the allocations decisions gave us all something to feel good about. Now make no mistake, nobody felt good about the decreased resources – notwithstanding the heroic efforts of the campaign team it is natural for everyone to wish there was more money to allocate to worthy affiliates and grantees. But what felt good was our collective understanding and appreciation of the way the allocations committee deliberated and decided how community resources should be allocated to meet community needs. The process was thoughtful, inclusive and exhaustive – and even though it resulted in reduced allocations for all, it balanced those reductions with targeted allocations to areas in which need is greatest. Painful decisions perhaps, but smart decisions nevertheless. And the best part? The tough decisions were made not by professionals or hired consultants, but the very members of the community that will be impacted by those decisions.

Now it is popular these days to bemoan how Jewish philanthropy is changing, that the sovereign donor is making more of his/her own choices independent of communal campaigns. In addition, the generosity of individual philanthropists lulls us into a false sense of security that foundations will always meet the targeted needs of the community. But there is an undeniable fact that a community allocations process, run effectively and inclusively like the one in Atlanta, results in broader, more sensitive and more balanced impact than independent decisions by individual donors and foundations. While foundations can be myopic in their focus, federation community allocations decisions must be based on a wide view of community need and consensus.

There is a reason why allocations committees have endured in our communities for so long – because they work.

So now, whereas for many years we have praised foundations at the expense of federations, in these trying times we should be thankful that we have our fellow community members making community decisions. Indeed, in many cases like today in Atlanta, these decisions seem imbued with the wisdom of King Solomon. Balancing local needs with out commitment to Jews overseas, weighing core human services needs with the need to provide education scholarships, maintaining infrastructure while also supporting outcome-focused initiatives – all of these balancing acts can only be genuinely conceived and decided by people who genuinely feel a part of the community they are serving.

Our challenges in these difficult days are great, but not unprecedented. We are reminded that, like now, there once was a time recorded in the Book of Judges (Nevi’im) that there was no king in Israel and everyone did as they pleased. These days we too have no king, and many times it seems like everyone is doing what pleases him or her. Nevertheless, we should not lose sight that in each of our towns and cities we have a kinship of community that demonstrates the wisdom of kings;  wisdom expressed by making community allocations decisions that give us all a reason to be proud – even in times that try our souls.


(Not) Waiting for Godot: Five Steps Toward Federation 2.0

May 25, 2009

“ESTRAGON:  (giving up again).  Nothing to be done.

VLADIMIR: (advancing with short, stiff strides, legs wide apart). I’m beginning to come round to that opinion. All my life I’ve tried to put it from me, saying Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven’t yet tried everything. And I resumed the struggle.”

Any fan of Samuel Beckett (or individuals with a passing knowledge of theater) will know those lines as the opening lines of “Waiting for Godot,” one of the most intriguing (and debated) plays of the modern era.  Notwithstanding its acclaim and endurance, questions continue to be asked about the message Beckett was trying to convey. Who was Gadot? And in the event he arrived (which he never does), what would happen?

Over the past few weeks the “Godot” question has plagued me, but for a different reason. As the conventional Jewish communal calendar comes to its summer recess, there is still a substantial question raised by many (including me in my previous posts): what is the future of the Federation movement?  For much of the Jewish world, this is a marginal question (at best) and increasingly an irrelevant question (at its most dangerous); but for those who have busied themselves with wondering about this future aloud, there tends to be a recurring and Godot-esque response: “let’s wait and see what the next leadership does when she/he arrives.”

Here is my suggestion: let’s not wait for Godot.

If we are truly in the window of opportunity to reframe and renew one of our most central, enduring, and impactful modern Jewish movements, then we can’t rely merely on the arrival of a professional CEO or the engagement of new volunteer leadership. We need to take significant, broad-ranging and constructive actions (not just budget cuts) to bring Federation 2.0 into being.  And we need lots of participants in this endeavor, participants that are not satisfied waiting for change, but participants who want to create change.

We have not been at such a fundamental inflection point in the Federation movement for decades. Not to slight the many years of merging, restructuring and strategizing, but those were inflection points tied to reorganizing the Federation system. What I am writing of is reimagining the Federation movement. Once the movement is reimagined, we can then begin the process of converting our system to meet the vision of a renewed movement.

However, to look forward, we can use wisdom by looking to our past. At one of the our movement’s great moment of inflection, at the 1969 General Assembly, Rabbi Hillel Levine, then a student, spoke of being part of the “children of timelessness” who nevertheless want to “participate in building the vision of a great Jewish community.”
In what could easily pass as something being heard in 2009, Levine said in 1969 “we don’t want commissions to ‘explore the problems of youth.’”  Rather, he stated, “we do want to convert alienation into participation, acrimony into joy – the joy of being possessors of a great legacy – a legacy which has meaning for today.”

In similar spirit, it is time again to bring forward the great legacy of the Federation movement in America to have relevance today. And we don’t have time to wait. We need to act, and act swiftly.

In personal hindsight, eighteen months ago when I first started circulating the white paper titled Federation 2.0: Reimagining the Federation of Greater Atlanta, I made (at least) two mistakes. One, I relied on thoroughness over brevity, making the action plan too lengthy and detailed to make it actionable. And second, I encouraged talk rather than action. Learning from my experiences I now propose, in brief form, specific action steps for bringing Federation 2.0 into reality and helping us all take possession of the great legacy that awaits us.

1.   Refrain from placing blame about the status of Federation 1.0. There are many who would be quick to compose a laundry list  (privately and publicly) of all those who are to blame for the current state of the Federation system and constituent Federations. Where does that get us?  It is an empty endeavor that does not hasten the development of Federation 2.0, and traffics more in institutional memory than impassioned creativity.  The blame game is destructive and dividing, and our endeavor to move forward is weakened by both. Regardless of how our opinions may differ, our endeavors should be based on kavod and the language we should use with one another should be language worthy of our endeavor. Let’s leave the ‘I and thou’ to Buber and focus on the “we and us” While actions matter, language does as well.

2.    Engage our legacy. How many smart women and men have been engaged in the Federation movement only to eventually find their passion and engagement waning for one reason or another?  Locally and nationally we need to reach out to the disaffected and disenchanted, we need to harness their memory to help create a different future. And not only people, we need to remember some of our texts. Not just religious texts, but communal texts. Levine’s speech, Rabbi Herb Friedman’s book, Heschel’s essays on radical amazement – the history of our movement and the ideas of our people should inspire us to recall our mission even as we reimagine our approach.

3.    Open source our ideas. In the few short years I have been engaged in Jewish communal leadership I have been amazed at the insight and creativity inside of both career social workers and emerging social entrepreneurs. In reimaginging the Federation movement, we cannot engage only those that meet certain experience levels and donor status, we need to engage passionate Jews at in all stages and interests. We need to open up the discussion broadly, energetically, imaginatively, and audaciously. We need to use social media tools, virtual town halls and in-person listening tours we need to move swiftly, but not by being exclusive in our discussions. Yes, there is always a place for focused discussions of our most generous supporters, but as I discussed in the Federation 2.0 white paper, we need to make sure that we do not forget that the base is broader than the pinnacle and our movement is one of many, not few.

4.   Create a national Federation 2.0 working group. This is not just a New York City project, and with apologies, it is not just Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, and Los Angeles’ project either. It is not just a “Big City” project and it is not jut an executive committee project. It is a national project. It will require input from Seattle and Savannah, Providence and Pittsburgh.  We will need engaged leaders from all over the nation to commit to a discussion where we frame a national agenda for the Federation movement. This working group is not inside out or outside in, but a true partnership between those inside the system and those outside of it.  An agenda should be set for discourse, but with a goal towards answers. This working group should be self identified immediately, and begin its work immediately, with substantial discussion having occurred by November.

5.    Utilize the 2009 General Assembly as a forum for the debate and adoption of a renewed agenda and approach for the national Federation movement. Forty years have passed since that 1969 GA, and it is time that we engage in a discussion and debate of the magnitude we had then.  UJC should reframe the GA in the context of a great national debate, and rather than recognizing ribbons we should look to rigorously debate a national agenda for our movement. Call it “GA 2009: Reframing, Reimagining, and Renewing our Movement.” Cut the attendance cost and bring people of all backgrounds and ages to be part of the discussion.  Create nationwide conversations during the same days for those that can’t come to Washington (and nationwide plenaries via national teleconferences and webcasts).  Then, at the conclusion of the GA, adopt an agenda and national approach that is bold and imaginative. Create working groups for that agenda to continue the national dialogue and to keep us accountable regarding our approach. And let our movement once again spread across the country energetically from the bottom up, not the top down.

So there you have it, five actionable steps for the development of Federation 2.0. Yes, we still need leadership to arrive and yes, we should have high expectations of her/him.  But we cannot wait for Godot.  As that play ends…

“VLADIMIR: Well, shall we go?
ESTRAGON: Yes, Let’s Go.”

We too must go – go forward.  Who’s ready?


History, Facts, Faces, and Faith: The Case for Maintaining Overseas Allocations

May 2, 2009

It is that time of year again, the time of counting. I don’t mean just the counting of the Omer, which we do, daily in our synagogues and temples; I mean the counting of dollars and cents raised by our communities as part of our various Jewish community fundraising campaigns. It is the time when we make our final estimates and declare our final projections; the time when we begin to make decisions about where the dollars we raise will go, and how they will be spent.

And this year, more so than any in recent memory, there are fewer dollars and there are harder decisions.

Our communities at home in the United States are all suffering from the unprecedented economic hardships – the ledger of financial resources is short and the list of people in need is long. Our day schools are suffering attrition at rates that are alarming and emergency assistance requests are increasing at a pace that is dismaying.  With all this in mind, there is an increasing sense across American Jewish communities that we need to make sure that before we send too many Jewish dollars overseas to Israel, to the JDC, to the Jewish Agency for Israel, that we must take care of our needs here at home first, at the expense of our overseas allocations.  Not without hand wringing and hearts breaking, we argue and posture that ‘just this year’ we can reduce our overseas allocations to keep more money in our communities.

But after seven years of serving as a volunteer in local Federation planning and allocations decisions, and notwithstanding my involvement in many local Jewish organizations, I am convinced more than ever of the following:  in this time of economic crisis, we should not and cannot disproportionately sacrifice our overseas allocations for our local needs.

There are four reasons why we must honor our commitment to Jews across the world, most substantially in Israel and the Former Soviet Union: History, Facts, Faces, and Faith.

History is significant threefold  – the history of combined philanthropy, the recent history of our local communities, and the history our children and grandchildren will learn. As we sit around our board rooms in our Federations and Jewish Welfare Boards, we cannot and should not forget that much of the history of combined philanthropy was to efficiently and powerfully address the needs of Jews around the would.  That is our history, and that remains our mission. Certainly recent economic history challenges perception of our past, we more viscerally remember our much more recent local history of retraction and need.  In the midst of this recent history, we cannot help but momentarily forget how we got here when we are overwhelmed of the question of where to go in the future.

But we should not forget we are making history too – how we respond to this crisis will be recorded for our children and grandchildren to know. And they should know this – even when we suffered at home, we never forgot our obligations abroad.  Our history should show, it must show, that in time of our greatest need, we still honored our past – we remembered the places of our history and the needs of Jews that still remain in those places.

The facts and faces of overseas needs are critical factors to remember in our allocations decisions and oftentimes are the most easily forgotten. Our local needs confront us every day, we feel their impact, and we know the people who suffer the loss. We are also inundated with data and information that build the case for keeping dollars at home in our own communities.  We are overwhelmingly persuaded by the facts and faces that surround us when we are making our decisions – we know what we will feel when we walk out of our boardrooms, and even more so, we know what we will hear.

That is exactly why we must not sacrifice our commitment to helping Jews overseas. The facts are no less compelling – in these economic times the need is even greater in Israel and FSU.  The pain is even higher. The danger of losing Jews is even greater, and the other networks of support are even weaker. We know, factually, that the need exists. Butt we don’t see there faces everyday – we don’t know their names.  When we walk out of our boardrooms, we won’t hear from them; they won’t call to complain.

They will be the silent cuts – and the faces we do not see. And while our local community needs will be more apparent to us over the coming year, and motivate us to dig into our pockets even deep in the coming year, the needs of our brothers and sisters in Israel, FSU and elsewhere will still be far removed from us.  We can’t forget them now, because we may not remember them later.

Lastly, our overseas allocation is a matter of our faith. Not just our faith in one another, but our faith in G-d as well. As a Jewish people we are in a great partnership – not just in communities and not just with our “overseas partners,” but we are partners with G-d in acts of creation, of sustenance, and of compassion for G-d’s people.  That partnership not only includes those partners we see day-to-day and live in our towns and neighborhoods. We have partners all over the world that have joined with us in G-d’s acts of creation throughout history. We cannot choose to recognize that partnership in part; we must recognize it in whole. And this partnership, this holy partnership requires us to make holy decisions – decisions that require sacrifice of ourselves.

So there it  – history, facts, faces, and faith. The four legs of the table on which we must do our counting; the four factors we must consider when doing our deciding how we will protect and preserve our support of our fellow Jews overseas. It is my case for preserving our overseas allocations this year, and it is my plea.  But my questions remain:

In this time of counting – how will we count? And who?