East Bay federation letter raises alert

It was Amnon Rodan’s Scarlet Letter.

Only this one had nothing to do with prurient Puritans. Instead, in a letter sent to 1,500 East Bay Jewish families, Rodan issued a red alert over what he sees as a community in crisis.

Newly appointed as volunteer campaign chair for the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay, Rodan didn’t choose his words lightly. His May 7 letter, mailed to federation donors and others in the Jewish community, read in part:

“It is our responsibility to ensure [the Jewish community’s] survival. We are a community at a crossroads — we can chose to stay the course at our current levels of involvement and eventually cease to remain active and relevant, or we can unite to enlarge all circles of our community.”

And a few paragraphs down: “Talk with your Jewish friends who are not involved and ask them why they are not engaged with the community.”

The Piedmont resident admits his in-your-face letter is not a typically upbeat appeal, but he believes it contains a message East Bay Jews needs to receive. He defines the crisis as one of a “shrinking community,” with the number of federation donors down significantly since the 1990s.

“We have fewer people actively involved,” he says. “Campaign dollars have been rising nicely the last few years, but adjusted for inflation we’re collecting fewer than years ago. The East Bay, relative to other federations of similar size, is consistently ranked at or near the bottom for dollars per donor, dollars per Jewish population. I would call it an acceptance of mediocrity here. Why would we accept that kind of performance, when in our personal lives we would never accept that?”

He asserts he’s not alone, saying others among federation professional leadership share his sentiments. “I’m trying to be provocative here without being a Chicken Little,” he adds. “I try to come up with statements that are supported by facts. The federation has not really marketed itself. It is misunderstood and underfunded. Donors are not buying its products.”

While it may shock some to hear such bluntly self-critical language from a federation leader, considering Rodan’s track record, it shouldn’t come as a surprise.

A native of Israel, Rodan led last summer’s highly successful East Bay federation campaign to raise emergency funds for Israel during the Lebanon war. Without having to twist any arms, he brought in more than $1 million. That fundraising prowess will come in handy in his new federation role.

This year’s federation campaign target totaled $3.4 million. Federation CEO Loren Basch said last fall his organization was on pace to reach that goal. That’s still true. Moreover, Basch fully supports Rodan’s aggressive style.

“He’s unusually candid, but we all appreciate it,” says Basch. “There is a tremendous number of unconnected Jews in the East Bay. It’s probably the last great frontier in terms of the Bay Area Jewish community dramatically expanding. We have the most Jews that nobody knows about. We’re not discouraged. We’re challenged by what [Rodan] is saying.”

And that is: The East Bay federation can — and must — do better.

“There is no sense of criticism of anyone in the past,” Rodan says. “It’s the reality of looking at the circumstances and need for change. A crisis demands a complete re-look at what has been done and doing a revamp or transformation, not just a gradual change.”

Rodan says he was prompted to write his letter after returning from a recent AIPAC mission to Turkey, Greece and Cyprus. In meeting with Jews there, he heard a common refrain: Their communities are dying.

“They had one consistent message,” he says. “‘We’re here today, but we can all see it’s not going to continue. Our young kids are leaving, there’s no Jewish center anymore.’ It’s not at that stage here, but if there is less involvement, less financial support, if Jewish day schools have declining enrollment, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to see where it’s heading.”

His concern is that East Bay Jewish institutions may reach a point where “there is not enough critical mass to support them, both in terms of dollars and leadership.” Unless more Jews participate, he fears continued decline.

Which is why he wrote his blunt letter.

“Not everybody is going to feel comfortable with it,” he says from his Piedmont home, “but I am optimistic that enough people will get involved to get the ball rolling. You share your concerns, and hope more and more people will get involved.”

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.