Archive for the ‘Personal Pondering’ Category

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The Jewish Agency’s Strategic Plan: Now For the Hard Part…

November 2, 2010

“At a time when the Jewish Agency should be looking ahead to improving its role at the nexus of the emerging world Jewish polity… the Agency must complete putting its own house in order in whatever way it chooses to do so before it can truly play the leading role that it must on the world Jewish scene.” Daniel J. Elazar  z”l The Jewish Agency: Historic Role and Current Crisis (1992)

Last week in Jerusalem the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency approved its new strategic plan, one that The Jerusalem Post called “the most significant redefinition of the Jewish Agency’s purpose since the declaration of the state.”  Without question, the Agency has set off on a path that, while uncharted, is also grounded in the belief that the fundamental challenges of the Jewish future require fundamental changes in the strategic direction of the Jewish Agency.  If the past 81 years of the Jewish Agency has been about helping the development of a state, the new direction of the Agency squarely focuses on helping the development of a people that, in turn, can continue to help build a nation. In sum, just as the history of Israel and the Jewish Agency are testaments to the power of nation-building by aliyah, the new strategic plan is an experiment of nation-building 2.0 by identity.

This experiment has a substantial amount of risk, especially since it proposes to not only transform the Agency, but also to transform the nature of Israel-Diaspora relations. By staking its future on the engines of Israel experience that impact Jewish identity and deepen the relationship between the Jewries of the Diaspora and Israel, the Jewish Agency has chosen not just to refocus its efforts, but to redesign its very purpose. It is a bold move by an organization with a history of bold moves.

But in truth, the Agency is also an entity that has struggled with organizational shortcomings, ranging from bureaucracy, inefficiency, misdirection and missed opportunities. Notwithstanding its historic success, it suffers from an organizational design that needs substantial reimagination and a governance structure that requires a significant updating. Equally, the Agency needs to quickly begin implementation while facing the challenges of managing internal politics, external relations and, of course, a need for increased resource development.  Alone each of those challenges requires outstanding execution, together they demand the highest level of administrative excellence. With that in mind, a few suggestions:

  1. Reorganization. Without question, the new strategic plan requires a redesign of the administrative and programmatic structure of the Agency. The reorganization is not just needed to align functional responsibilities, but also to create a structure that is adaptable to change. If the past of the Agency has been one of silos, the future must be one of transparency and integrated execution. The leadership must not only have core capabilities, but also must have clear confidence in the future of the plan; this is not a time for half-measures or half-heartedness.
  2. Governance. There is no question that the Agency’s leadership is deeply and passionately earnest about the present and the future of the agency. Equally, there is no question that the very same leadership is keenly aware of the need or substantial changes to its governance structure.  The Jewish Agency can and should maintain its unique forum for Jewish leadership to interact, but it must take substantial measures to redefine who that leadership is and how they interact. A board structure that is representative of the partnerships that comprise the historic relationships of the Jewish Agency can exist while also bringing new leadership that also reflects the future foci of the Agency; the key is to develop new pathways to leadership and reduce barriers to participation. There is room for WiseGen and NextGen at the future governance table of the Agency, but first that table needs to be set by existing leadership.
  3. Partnerships. The strategic plan calls for new tactics to achieve new goals, including deepening a sense of social activism by under-35 Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora. But these goals cannot be achieved solely be looking inside the organization, they can only be realized by engaging new partners with relevant experience in new ways. There are far to many organizations that have either a skeptical or critical (or both) view of partnering with the Agency; one of the key tasks of the Agency is to create new confidence that partnering with the Jewish Agency will be an experience of excellence.
  4. Resource Development. Last, but by no means least, funding the new strategic plan will require a fundamental reorientation of the way the Jewish Agency partners with Keren Hayesod and the Federation system in North America. Equally, it will require a level of engagement with foundations and individual donors that has eluded the Agency in the past. This is a complicated strategy – the future of the Jewish Agency depends on energizing new resources to support new endeavors, while also realigning existing financial resources to meet changing goals. Redeploying existing funds will not be enough to achieve critical success, but waiting for new sources to fund new initiatives will be equally unsuccessful.

The Jewish Agency’s new plan is a reminder of an old fact: nothing worth achieving is easy. The coming weeks and months will be a clear reminder that making a shift of historic proportions requires an effort that is equally historic. During its great history, the Jewish Agency has helped bring more faces to Israel and now it is endeavoring to change the collective face of the nation and people of Israel. But first it must change itself –

and with that, the hard part begins.

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Dispatches From Jerusalem: The Jewish Agency and the Future Face of Olim

June 22, 2010

“After a certain number of years our faces become our biographies. We get to be responsible for our faces.”  – Cynthia Ozick, American author

In the midst of running back and forth among business meetings in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem earlier this week, I was happy to have the rare treat to spend time connecting with a young post-collegiate daughter of a friend from back home.  Mara, a recent olah from Atlanta, has decided to make her life in Israel, finding love with a new fiancée and satisfaction with a new job with an Israeli NGO. A daughter of Young Judean alumni and a product of Jewish day schools in Atlanta, Mara is deeply rooted in her family’s and people’s history and values, and their shared love of Israel. Stepping out of the heat of the day, we met for coffee in a small café within a used bookstore, a perfect setting for sharing a little bit of old biography, a some of discussion of the ongoing drama in the world and even a few words of childhood stories. We sat together, sharing the texts of our lives, each looking from our different vantage points, but nonetheless facing one another.

And that is when, looking at Mara, I realized something important, not only to me, but also to the way we all should look at Aliyah in 2010  – while the need to attract olim has remained the same, the face and biography of the typical olah has changed.

Yes, we still live in a world where aliyah of necessity remains a constant possibility (consider the newest olim from Kyrgyzstan that arrived this week), but the truth of the matter is that necessity is less of likelihood than it has been for generations. As Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky shared with the Agency Assembly earlier this week, 94% of Jews live in countries with relative freedom and prosperity, with little need to leave these countries under duress or for lack of tolerance. Instead, the majority of the new olim are making ‘aliyah of choice’ – a personal desire to be living in Israel and Israeli society at this unique and extraordinary time in Israel history. These olim come with a different face than the waves of recent olim, they are not fleeing a totalitarian state or an economically devastated area, they are coming because of a sense of pride, an aspiration of change and inspired sense of their Jewish selves. In short, they are coming to Israel because of who they are, not where they are.

So this, in a nutshell, is the changing face of olim – where once it the face was of Jews uprooted from their homes, now it is the face of Jews deeply rooted in their identity. They can make it anywhere, but they want to make it here – here in the homeland of their people and an axis of their identity.  With this change comes an important question: will we meet these changing faces with a new face of the Jewish Agency grounded in helping reinforcing identity and inspire aliyah, or will we look for the faces no longer coming with a face of an Agency that is grounded by unchanging ways? The truth is, it would be responsible to do the former, and wasteful to do the latter.

With that in mind, it is time for the Jewish Agency, as part of its new strategic plan, to look closely at its aliyah operations and make not only strategic decisions regarding the operation of the department, but also the overall strategy of inspiring aliyah. There must always remain a basic ability to assist olim, especially for Jews in need, but the Agency must not only react to the needs of the current olim, it must inspire the future olim – by helping give root to individual identities and then strengthening those roots so they grow all the way back home to Israel.  This will not be easy, and it will take a reimagining of the very way the Agency operates, the way the government of Israel views the role of the Agency and the way the Diaspora Jewry embraces the strategies of the Agency.

Possible? Yes. Achievable? Hopefully. But it will take more than lip service to identity to change the face of aliyah, it will take political courage and new approaches to the Israeli-Diaspora partnerships; and it will take many more biographies and faces…

just like Mara’s.

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Dispatches from Jerusalem: The Jewish Agency and the Myth of Collective Bargaining

June 21, 2010

In recent days, as I have shared with my communally-engaged friends that I would be in Jerusalem for this week’s Jewish Agency meetings, the response has been consistent and all too predictable. First the person expresses jealousy that I get to spend some time in Israel (even in the heat of the summer) and second, they express complete confusion and condolences regarding my involvement in, as they call it, the quicksand that is the modern Jewish Agency. Others also wonder why I (or they) should care about an organization that is purportedly a relic, an instrument of a Jewish time long past. They ask, tongue firmly planted in cheek – isn’t the Jewish Agency something that the leadership of big organizations like Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) should be addressing on behalf of all of us?

The truth of the matter is this: my friends are right to be jealous of my time in Jerusalem, underestimating the possibilities embodied by a reinvigorated Jewish Agency, and dangerously wrong regarding the abdication of their own personal involvement in the Agency’s future.  In fact, I firmly believe many of my friends and many others make two false assumptions: (1) that we, as communities, individuals, local organizations, donors and foundations, don’t have a stake in the future, and (2) that organizations such as  JFNA have the true ability to represent the overall Federation system (much less North American Jewry as a whole) in shaping the future of the Agency.

Having spent time in the leadership of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, including as chair of its Allocations Committee, I know this first hand. Several years ago Atlanta and St. Louis started engaging the Jewish Agency directly with respect to outcome based funding for respect to programs in Israel and Minsk, Belarus. In the intervening years, more and more communities like Atlanta are structuring independent relationships with the Jewish Agency, and based on the success of initiatives like Partnership 2000, local leaders have been able to interact with Jewish Agency professionals and programs on a more individualized basis. The more they disintermediate JFNA with respect to their overseas funding, the more these communities become direct (as opposed to indirect) funders, and accordingly their voices must be heard in direct, not just indirect, ways.  In this spirit, the Jewish Agency’s future is not some theoretical issue to be debated in the halls of Jerusalem hotels by JFNA leadership, but is an issue of vital interest to individual Federations and throughout North America.

And that leads us to the myth of collective bargaining vis a vis the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Agency.

One of the first lessons taught to attorneys in contract law is the limits of agency and due authorization – the rule that a person representing an interest must have actual, or at least implied, authority to represent the interests of others. Many years ago, JFNA (then known as UJC) had the apparent authority to represent the interests of the Federation movement in the Jewish Agency, and in most cases had actual authority. Now, the nature of local Federations funding strategies has diminished the ability of JFNA to collectively bargain with the Jewish Agency on behalf of those local Federations – becoming more of a myth than a matter of fact.  Make no mistake, JFNA is still a vital voice at the table, but the table isn’t the same shape it once was, and the guest list has changed.  Yes, JFNA expresses the voice of the Federation movement in North America, but only so much as that voice is in harmony, which it is increasingly is not. So we must recognize this diminished ability of JFNA has left us not only with significant issues (whose voice to listen to) but also an opportunity: inspiring increasing numbers and types of people to invest their time and efforts in the Agency. Of course this can’t be done unless the Agency develops new ways of engaging those individuals in the future work of the Jewish people – this is, and must be, its imperative.

As we will see and undoubtedly read this week, the Jewish Agency is on the cusp of its most significant and necessary redefinition in decades. But the future of the Agency will not be changed if we all rely on the myth of collective bargaining, it will only be truly reimagined if we increase and inspire a mix of people who feel they have a vital interest in its possibilities – a mix that can transform the quicksand of the present into the concrete of the future.

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A Chanukiyah of Predictions for 2010

December 13, 2009

December is the time of the secular year where we look backward and forward – making best-of lists and summarizing our prognostications for the future.  While many faiths join together for revelries related to the secular new year, for Jews it is also the season to recall the value of perseverance and faith in collective Jewish endeavors, as well as the unexpected miracles that we encounter along the way.  So in the spirit of the new year but nevertheless inspired by how one ancient prediction regarding a small vessel of oil gave rise to the miraculous tale of eight nights of luminescence, here are eight predictions for the coming twelve months of 2010:

1.   The new “I” word is… Imagination.  If 2009 was the year when the newness of Jewish innovation became more widely discussed (or perhaps, debated) as a substantial aspect of Jewish communal development, it was also the year where innovation as a term became, well, old news. Yes, there are important discussions to be had about the role of entrepreneurs and ‘in-treprenuers’ in the world of Jewish organizations, but innovation alone cannot change communities.  Imagination, however, can create new ways for communities to collectively view their futures without getting bogged down in semantics.  I predict that in 2010 we will find more and more local communities leveraging the imagination of their members out of both necessity and desire, and that as we give our communities permission to imagine, we will create futures burning even brighter than we can anticipate.

2.   The Overseas Case Goes into Overdrive. For people who expect to only hear about the budget challenges facing primary overseas partners of US philanthropy – the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, my prediction is that while people might hear some of what they expect, they will also hear the unexpected.  Both organizations are in the midst of engaging new generations of leadership and deploying new tactics to engage supporters. JAFI’s Global Leaders Forum,   impactful foray into tweeting, and re-energizing initiatives like the new Jewish Peoplehood Hub created in partnership with the Nadav Fund and UJA-Federation of New York give reason for great optimism for the future of JAFI.  Similarly anticipate great ideas being implemented by JDC’s nextgen professional leadership in 2010, continuing that organization’s vital role in helping Jews worldwide in new and impactful ways.

3.   The Educational Affordability Crisis. The past eighteen months have given those who care about Jewish education a great amount of concern, and for good reason.  Enrollment has declined as parents who were already struggling to meet high tuition costs decided to opt-out all together in the wake of the Great Recession; and unfortunately statistics tell us that families drop out, the generally don’t come back.  Even though organizations like PEJE have already been proactively convening discussions on the issue of the changing economy,  I predict in 2010  we will be forced to squarely face one of the greatest and most urgent challenges of contemporary Jewish life – making a high quality Jewish day school education affordable to every Jewish family who wants to provide that education to their children. It is time for bolder local and national solutions, and I believe 2010 is when our realization of the crisis will inspire great solutions.

4.   Jewish media continues to transform… for the better.  In addition to the ancient content of our heritage, there is great new Jewish content emerging, from sites about arts, culture and education (Tablet Magazine and MyJewishlearing.com), to thought-provoking online journals and magazines (such as Sh’ma and Lilith) and of course philanthropic resources such as eJewish Philanthropy. While different in content, all of these resources and countless others have the potential to continue to transform national and local Jewish dialogue. I predict that in 2010 as we see more and more local Jewish newspaper come under financial pressure we will see a substantial migration of eyeballs to online media and resources. Moreover, we will find that those resources rise to meet the challenge of delivering high-quality content. 2010 will a defining year for online Jewish media, and you will read all about those transformative changes… online.

5.   J Street, AIPAC and AJC: Separate, but Civil. Some predictions are more aspirational than others, and perhaps this is one of those predictions. But I believe that in 2010 the Iranian crisis will force J Street, AIPAC, AJC, and others to recognize that even with their differences, their coordination on some issues will be important to strengthening an securing the US-Israel relationship for the challenging days ahead.  I predict (hope?) we will see high level leadership and dialogue that builds bridges in relationships and influence to achieve results.  To do so however, J Street needs to continue to mature as an organization and AIPAC and AJC will need to recognize that their big tents may need to get a bit bigger. 2010 is not the year for deepening division among advocates for Israel; it must be a year for closing those divides as much as possible.

6.   Microfundraising goes… big. The patterns of how people contribute online will change more in 2010 than the past several years combined.  As more and more local organizations provide opportunity for online giving, donor designation and project funding, more and more donors will choose to make their charitable contributions in more specific ways.  In addition, organizations like JGooders will enable local initiatives to have more direct pathways to global donors. I predict what once was a concierge service for wealthy donors with philanthropic funds will become the conventional wisdom in 2010, leveraging technology to make that wisdom reality.

7.   Emphasis on Outcomes. Given the new focus on microfundraisng, organizations will need to be more focused on measuring and communicating results. While many larger organizations have already invested heavily in outcome measurement strategies, there will be a real push in 2010 for all non-profit organizations to become outcome-focused by understanding the taxonomy of their outcomes.  As resources stay scarce, results will be the key differentiators.  Those organizations that can demonstrate their effectiveness quantitatively will have the edge.  Expect to see more and more organizations retooling themselves both with board resources and technology to enable them to get that edge… and ultimately get those elusive dollars.

8.   There will be magic in the Magic Kingdom. Even though the 2009 General Assembly just recently concluded, I predict that the 2010 General Assembly of Jewish Federations of North America (to be held in Orlando) will truly be one of the most significant gatherings of American Jewry in the past 20 years. With new leadership now in place and new energy percolating across the system, I predict that GA10 will bring together more people in more collaborative discussions than ever before, and that before, during and after the GA people will recognize the impact that that conference will have on the next 20 years of Jewish life.  A successful GA will also cap a year where a reenergized Federation system emerges as a renewed force in modernizing Jewish philanthropy… and that is no Mickey Mouse prediction.

So there you have it – eight predictions for the next twelve months. While some of those predictions may very well require miracles, I think that we will find 2010 is a year that exceeds our expectations. And just like the shamash is the service candle for each of the other candles in the chanukiyah, in 2010 each of us will have the responsibility to be the shamash in lighting our own predictions and aspirations for the days ahead. Let us be those shamashes together, and may 2010 be even brighter than we imagine. Chanukah Sameach!

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Good for the Jews?: A Few Thoughts on the Debate About Aliyah (Israel 2009 – Day 3)

October 22, 2009

Today, in the last quarter of the twentieth century, the survival of the Jews and the survival of Israel are the same; and whether Israel can survive depends, among other things, on the numbers and talents of Diaspora Jews who will come to it – which means it depends on you… –  Hillel Halkin, Letters to an American Jewish Friend: A Zionist’s Polemic (1977)

When visiting Israel one generally encounters an inquisitiveness of where you came from and what reason brought you to Israel.  While those questions are standard for almost any person visiting any place in the world, it is the question that generally follows that is unique in the Israeli context – and that is the question of whether one plans to move to Israel and make Aliyah.  Indeed, how the question is formulated and in whatever tone it is spoken it can be more than a simple inquiry; it is often a suggestion, a complaint, a possibility or a prayer.  In a nation filled with all types of olim, Aliyah is still a notion that fills the heart, the mind, and the discourse like few other ideas do.  In 2009, the debate about Aliyah has in many ways overshadowed the encouragement of Aliyah, and unlike when Halkin wrote his strongly worded essay on the its urgency thirty-two years ago, we now more often speak of Aliyah as an ideological aspect of the Jewish State as opposed to an answer to the existential question of the Jewish State.

During the second day of the Facing Tomorrow: The Israeli Presidential Conference in Jerusalem, the complexity and the passion of the Aliyah debate was fully evident in a packed and provocatively titled panel discussion that asked  – is Aliyah good for the Jews?  Moderated by Alisa Rubin Kurshan, the Vice-President for Strategic Planning and Organizational resources for UJA-Fed NY, the panel included Matthew Bronfman, Rabbi Ricardo Shmuel Diesegni – the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Meir Kraus, an expert in the field of Israeli/Diaspora relations, Rabbi Michael Melchior, former Minister of Diaspora and Social Affairs, and Jay Sarver – co-chair of the Aliyah and Klitah Committee of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors.  Each member of the group expressed insightful and often strongly worded positions, and certainly those in the audience looking to understand the contours of the Aliyah debate were not disappointed. From Rabbi Melchior’s frank and forceful assertion that there is a total abscess of support for encouraging and sustaining Aliyah in the Israeli political establishment to Matt Bronfman’s personalized and optimistic assertion how Aliyah is being refined in this area of interconnection and the “living bridge”, each panelist brought to the table a voice that authentically expressed the challenges and opportunities of Aliyah at this point in history. And they were not alone, members of the audience too expressed their opinions (under the guise of questions) regarding the challenges not only relating to Aliyah, but of the challenges of absorption and integration into Israeli society. Were there agendas and opinions in the room?  Of course. But there also was genuine interest and concern, and that was what made the discussion so powerful.

For my own part, I walked away from the discussion with a few key observations.  First (and as usual), I found the debate among an academics and professionals to be of distant relevance to the debates I hear back in my own community in Atlanta.  For a vast majority of North American Jews, Aliyah is a concept to be understood, but not an opportunity to be examined.  Certainly there remains the possibility to encourage North American olim, but just because there is a possibility does not mean there is a substantially realistic outcome to be expected.  And while the concept of redefining Aliyah and reframing Israeli-Diaspora relations within the context of the “living bridge” certainly sound like imaginative approaches in an era that depends on increased Jewish creativity, we cannot lose sight of the fact that certain concepts lose their integrity when we casually begin to change their meaning.  Lastly, I was reminded by the discussion that although Americans often think of Diaspora relations as North American relations, there are other communities that have vital stakes in the debate regarding the future of global Jewry and their relationship to the State of Israel and we are myopic if we don’t recognize the entirety of the participants in this truly global discussion.

Aliyah perhaps is no longer just a strategy to respond to an existential need of an Israeli future, it is now more so a factor in the evolutionary nature of Jewish existence. While there can be little debate that historical the essence of Aliyah has been of a physical nature, the continuing assertions of spiritual Aliyah challenge us to think harder about what it truly means to encourage personal and communal commitments to Israel.  We also can’t lose sight of the impact on Israeli society  (and the correlative impact of global Jewish communities) when considering what role Aliyah can and should play in the future of the Jewish People.  So, in the spirit of Mr. Halkin’s thirty-two year old polemic and in response to the question of whether is Aliyah good for the Jews, I respond with a different question – if Israel still truly depends on Jews (whoever and wherever they are), are thoroughly modern Jews good for Aliyah?

Now that is a panel discussion I would like to see.

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Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow: Key Questions on Jewish Innovation, Interruption, and Sustainability

June 14, 2009

In preparing for a recent flight to New York for some meetings that included discussions regarding the state of Jewish social innovation, I compiled a stack of recent ‘want to read, but haven’t yet read’ materials on the topic. But much like the rest of life, my best-laid plans were interrupted when I stopped at a newsstand in the airport to pick up the day’s newspaper. There on the shelf was a BusinessWeek headline too hard to ignore: “Innovation, Interrupted: How America’s failure to capitalize on innovation hurt the economy – and what happens next.”

How’s that for serendipity?

So rather than methodically review the stack I compiled, I boarded the plane and dove right into the BusinessWeek article with fascination.  It raises some key observations and questions regarding the last decade of commercial innovation and how the slowdown (or an evening out) of the nation’s innovation curve may have contributed to the current economic environment.  Focusing on the technology and biotech sectors, the article raises the question of whether innovative development really slowed down at all, or whether the barriers to the commercialization of those developments were the true culprits of stymieing innovation.  Certainly these are questions that are equally applicable to social entrepreneurs as well as those in the for-profit sectors.

The second article was the recent white paper titled The Innovation Ecosystem: Emergence of a New Jewish Landscape. The paper, based on the 2008 Survey of New Jewish Organizations, undertaken by Jumpstart, The Natan Fund and The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, raises several key findings and recommendations, several of which are precise observations that require much deeper consideration.  In reviewing a landscape of over 300 Jewish start-ups then in operation, the paper provides some compelling statistical information supporting a belief that the Jewish innovation is on a growth curve that reflects the underlying changes in 21st century Jewish life and that leverages developing social media and communications technologies.

Finishing the Jumpstart paper, I couldn’t help but think back to the BusinessWeek article I just read and wondered – Jewish innovation is important and seemingly fast-growing, but how do we ensure that this very important Jewish innovation isn’t interrupted?

Certainly we need to make sure that the question of sustainability is considered and anticipated thoughtfully, and not just by those who are active participants in the innovation ecosystem (or what I have previously referred to as the Zera’im movement).  But even more importantly, we need to make sure that the discussion is substantially outweighed by action. Action in developing Jewish innovators, developing models of financial sustainability, encouraging innovation in underrepresented areas of need (i.e. the Jumpstart survey finds that only 2.9% of Jewish start-ups self-identified as primarily social service organizations; a very small percentage given the size of the need), and reducing barriers for success.

Action should trump discussion, for sure. However, for the action to be meaningful, there needs to be some consideration of key questions raised (in my mind at least) by both by the BusinessWeek article and the Jumpstart paper. I don’t have answers to these questions (and I certainly welcome input from those that do), but I list them below as helpful suggestions for you to talk amongst yourselves. They fall into the categories of What, Who, Where, Why and How?

1.     What? First, we need to ask the tricky question of whether we are investing in true innovation that can have a sustainable impact on Jewish life, or are we investing in very niche areas of Jewish interest that are fashionable but not forward-thinking? Is there a difference?  How we answer these questions may very well determine how well we can develop even greater amounts of investment in Jewish innovation in the coming years.

2.     Who? The Jumpstart paper focuses on the ratio that many innovative efforts are independent entities (80%) as opposed to independently operating subsidiaries of larger organizations (20%).  But the question remains, by motivating innovation outside of established organizations, are we dooming those established organizations to an innovation deficit?  Rather than creating an accretive aspect of Jewish communal life, are we inadvertently creating an abscess that may actually damage it?  How can we balance the locus of innovation so that we get maximum benefit with minimum harm?

3.    Where? Are our existing community-based funding organizations  (as opposed to national foundations) sufficiently focused on funding regional and micro-regional Jewish innovation? The Jumpstart survey reinforces the belief that Jewish innovation  (on a percentage basis of surveyed organizations) is greatest in New York and California (57% of surveyed organizations are located in those two states).  Certainly those states have some of the largest population centers, but how do we create a broader national environment of Jewish innovation in places like St. Louis? Charlotte? Houston?

4.     Why? If so few organizations in the innovation ecosystem are focused on human services, how will we balance the legacy needs of existing infrastructure that primarily focus on servicing those needs; especially when those needs will be rapidly escalating as the baby boom generation shifts into an age where they may more frequently need those services?

5.    How? Assuming we believe that greater investment in Jewish innovation is essential to continuing the maintenance of a strong Jewish community, how do we inspire entrepreneurs to innovate in areas of greatest need?  Is that a fair question?  And if we succeed in motivating a shift of substantial regional and micro-regional investment in innovation (i.e. Federations invest more in innovative initiatives and start-ups as opposed to legacy areas of funding) what are the metrics by which we measure the impact of innovation against the cost? Is it the number of entities? Web-clicks? Participants? Or are there more general longitudinal metrics we need to identify and begin to measure?

As the BusinessWeek article suggests, experiencing a few years of innovation does not necessarily forestall great crisis.  We may all be quick to praise the current state of Jewish innovation (and rightfully so), but not without critically assessing what comes next. Also, pointing to characteristics of previous eras of commercial innovation, the BusinessWeek article notes that “no industrial revolution in the past has been based on a single technology” and points to the combination of railroads, electricity, telephone and telegraph as the fuel of the Industrial Revolution, and the confluence of several technologies in the era of innovation that seemed so dramatic in the 1990s.  Accordingly, innovation in one particular area of Jewish life may not be enough, we may need innovation in lots of areas, including inside existing centers of Jewish life. Otherwise, we may find that our innovation is interrupted and – for a people concerned with its survival –  we need innovation that is sustainable.

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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?