Federation makes gains in E. Bay Jewish community

There isn’t much to see out of Loren Basch’s office window. Just a sleepy side street off Oakland’s Grand Avenue. But Basch can sense all around him the ever-expanding universe that is the East Bay Jewish community.

Since becoming CEO of the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay in 2003, Basch has been taking stock of that universe, trying to re-establish the federation as a key player in East Bay Jewish life.

With several newly rebuilt synagogues and day schools, a new JCC coming to Walnut Creek, the Judah L. Magnes Museum set for a facelift and federation fund-raising trending upward, Basch has cause for optimism.

“The East Bay Jewish community has really blossomed,” he says. “It’s a great community to live in, one that enjoys its diversity and has made significant growth at the core of all its Jewish institutions.”

Basch’s goal is to make the federation stronger, but to be stronger it must be wealthier. The 2005 campaign took in more than $2.8 million, slightly exceeding its goal. But Basch is not satisfied.

“We all know the federation has not been doing enough,” he says. “We have too many issues on too many fronts that have to be supported.”

Federation president Donald Brody says this year’s campaign is “way ahead of last year” so far. “When Loren first came, the campaign was at about $2.4 million, down a fair amount from when I was campaign chair. We’ve increased and should close at $3.1 million, a 34 percent increase.”

He attributes the increase to a more professional staff, energized lay volunteers and more organized fund-raising. “We are working our donors earlier in the year,” adds Brody.

But he acknowledges the ongoing challenge of fund-raising in the East Bay. “The fact is that we only have 3,000 donors,” he says. “We should be three or four times that.”

Says campaign chair Lisa Tabak, “Our greatest challenge is that people do not know what the federation is. To the extent we can put our mission and purpose out there, the dollars will roll in.”

To that end, the federation has a plan to “market to 100,000 Jews in the East Bay who do not know what the federation is,” adds Tabak. “Our goal is to have people know at least one thing that federation does.”

Though Basch would prefer to make it more than one, if he had to choose a focus, it would be the federation’s emphasis on youth and education.

Says Basch, “We doubled the dollars to Midrasha and give more dollars to day schools. But it’s nothing to be proud of how few dollars we’re giving to day schools. We have to make a Jewish education more accessible.”

Helping that effort is the federation’s in-house education department, the Center for Jewish Living and Learning (CJLL). Recently hired to run the center is Rabbi James Brandt, formerly of Congregation Beth Sholom in Napa.

Says Brandt, “The best thing I can do is reach out and hear from my colleagues. We’re looking for ways to involve more teens and increase the amount of involvement from our students.”

With its Midrasha after-school program and its annual teen trip to Israel (one of the biggest in the country), the federation has a good track record in teen programming. But Brandt and Basch concede more needs to be done for younger kids.

One way is through CJLL-sponsored teacher conferences with Jewish day schools and nursery schools. Another is outreach to interfaith couples to bring young families in the Jewish door. The “building Jewish bridges” program offers classes, discussion groups, even movie nights to entice interfaith families and, ideally, persuade them to give their kids a Jewish education.

“When we look at Jewish learning,” adds Brandt, “we’re looking at introducing the next generation to Jewish communal life, raising up Torah values and collecting Jewish memories in the lives of our young people.”

The same principle applies to young adults, a key demographic for Basch. “We have a dynamic group of young families and singles,” he says. “They have all kinds of committee structures, leadership development and social events. My job is to create a platform that will be there for them as they decide what they want to do.”

Another cornerstone of Basch’s strategy is to expand the federation’s presence in Contra Costa County along the I-680 corridor. “We know this is one of the breakthrough Jewish populations,” he says. “The JCC is on the move. There are real strong synagogues there. Contra Costa feels a lot like Palo Alto did in 1980. It’s a place you just know is going to happen.”

Of course, the core function of Jewish federations historically is the disbursement of funds, and Basch is bullish on distributions. For 2004-2005, total funds allocated for Jewish organizations topped $4.6 million (including $1.5 million for federation’s campaign operations, programs and services included).

That’s a fair sum, all going to strengthen Jewish communities here, in Israel and around the world. But Basch sees no room for complacency.

“I always compared federations to the American barn-raising experience,” he says. “We all do a little. But if enough of us do a little bit, the whole will be much larger than we could make it individually.

“It feels like we’re turning a corner, but it all comes down to results. If the federation is relevant, then we can make a difference here.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.