E. Bay federation revamps board, involves synagogues

Moving to forge a new partnership with synagogues and Jewish community agencies, the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay is re-engineering its governing structure.

For the first time, presidents of every synagogue and non-profit Jewish agency serving the East Bay are slated to sit on the federation's board of delegates — one of three new federation governing bodies.

"Our goals are changing from physical survival to spiritual survival," said Ami Nahshon, executive vice president of the federation. "To address different goals, we need different approaches. Traditional `civil' Judaism, the trademark of the federation system in the past, is not capable of responding" to younger Jews, whose attraction to Judaism is based primarily on spiritual concerns and social values.

Julian Wolf, incoming federation president, said the changes are designed to "broaden the entryway to Jewish community participation," creating a partnership between the community's spiritual and philanthropic forces — and a forum for each to implement goals, separately and together. "Because we're gift-driven, we want to keep the major donors involved, but we also want to reach out to the rest of the community," he said.

For this reason, at its June 6th annual meeting at Oakland's Claremont Resort Hotel , the current 52-member federation board of directors is slated to vote itself out of office. It will be replaced by a three-chamber governance system of up to 112 people.

*The executive board, composed of up to 36 people, will serve as the central governing body.

*The board of trustees, also composed of up to 36 people, will represent the community's philanthropic leadership; this body will set fund-raising goals and shape major policy.

*The board of delegates, composed of some 40 people, will represent the concerns of synagogues, organizations and service providers; it will collaborate with the federation's volunteer efforts, taking steps to address the underserved and unaffiliated.

*Four representatives of the board of delegates and two representatives of the board of trustees will serve on the executive board, which will also include officers of the federation and its bodies, as well as a Council of Rabbis representative.

In addition, Todd Stettner, recently appointed associate director of the federation, will take on increasing managerial responsibilities while Nahshon devotes more time to working with the federations' philanthropic and institutional leadership.

The most critical change in the new organizational structure is that synagogue and Jewish agency lay leaders will play a greater role in setting goals and implementing policies — a change that is "on the cutting edge" nationally, according to Wolf.

"Just a few years ago, the idea of the federation cooperating with synagogues on this scale was almost unheard of," he said. "Now we have a cooperative venture that should benefit both the federation and the synagogues for the betterment of the Jewish community. We're not sure one can exist without the other. Together, we can become even stronger."

Rabbi Mark Diamond, spiritual leader of Oakland's Temple Beth Abraham and past president of the East Bay Council of Rabbis, agreed.

"I can remember the day when federations and synagogues barely spoke to each other," said Diamond, who worked for United Jewish Appeal before becoming a rabbi. "One of most exciting possibilities is that they are no longer separate worlds."

Diamond, who served on the task force that drew up the "Year 1" plan to lead the federation into the 21st century, said the process brought together Jews of all movements, ages and income levels. "The restructuring has the potential to continue that process. We need to bring more people into this fight for Jewish survival."

Gary Tobin, the San Francisco-based director for Brandeis University's Center for Modern Jewish Studies and Institute for Community and Religion, served as a consultant to the federation in its "Year 1" plan.

The three-board governance, he said, is "an attempt on the part of the Jewish federation to be as efficient and as democratic as possible at the same time, [broadening its base through] different ways of doing business, different ways of connecting to the Jewish community. It's a bold step on the part of the federation. It may or may not work."

Some people have raised concerns about the efficiency of three boards, Nahshon said. "In fact, it would be much more efficient to have a small and compact board. Twelve people sitting around a table could make decisions more quickly."

However, "Our goal is not making quick decisions," he emphasized. "Our goal is making good decisions for the world in which we now live. That will require making decisions in partnership with a more diverse array of players. The risk we're taking is perhaps giving up something in efficiency in an effort to become more effective."

The federation will evaluate whether the changes are making an impact within one to three years. But "so far," he added, "the response from the community has been outstanding.

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].