Time for a merger: East Bay Jewish leaders push for new relationship between federations

Twenty-nine rabbis and Jewish community leaders from across the Bay Area have signed a letter urging closer ties between the East Bay and S.F.-based Jewish Community Federations. They even threw in the “m” word: merger.

The March 18 letter was sent to Rabbi James Brandt, interim executive director of the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay, and to that federation’s board of directors.

Menachem Creditor

The letter calls for “a new relationship between the East Bay Federation and the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation, including the possibility of a merger. We are writing in strong support of engaging in this urgently needed trans-bay discussion.”

The letter goes on to cite the sagging economy, as well as unnecessary duplication of fundraising campaigns and community services as reasons to explore a new federation structure.

“The impetus was the economic situation and the limited funding available for any federation system,” said one of the letter’s signatories, Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Berkeley’s Congregation Netivot Shalom. “We’re trying to push forward the conversation with a lot of determination.”

Brandt says that conversation is already in full swing. He has been speaking regularly with S.F.-based Federation CEO Daniel Sokatch and with Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley CEO Jyl Jurman, seeking ways to cooperate more closely.

Avi Rose

“This is a challenging time for federations and, for us regionally, a time of great promise,” Brandt said. “I’m feeling in my conversations with [Sokatch] a great willingness to work together. While the dialogue is not focused on a wholesale merger, it is focused on what we want federations to do.”

For his part, Sokatch welcomes the discussions, and encourages finding points of congruence and common ground.

“There is a certain artifice to having two [federations]  for what is essentially one big Jewish community up here,” Sokatch said. “We would all like to see a community structure that reflects that and serves most effectively the greatest number of people in the community.”

Among recent collaborative ventures, Brandt cites the LGBT Alliance, a S.F.-launched initiative that now has an East Bay branch. He says the two federations are also working together on early childhood and interfaith initiatives.

“Our federation has just established a strategic planning task force,” Brandt added, “and we’re going to be convening our top lay leaders and professionals to see how we can work better together in concert with our agencies and synagogues, as well as develop a relationship with federation partners in Silicon Valley and San Francisco.”

Rachel Biale

He is not prepared to advocate a merger at this time. “Let’s start with vision,” he said, “and not with structure.”

Added Sokatch: “I don’t think there is a ready-made prescription. How to make the Bay Area Jewish community more effective has to go hand-in-hand with the process of clarifying and honing what the missions are. It doesn’t make sense to merge just for the sake of merging. Let’s take a good hard look at the needs out there not being met, and what’s the best way to meet those needs. Let’s make the structures meet those needs.”

Creditor thinks the parties need to talk about it, nonetheless. “Institutions prize stability over all,” he said, “but ultimately status-quo leadership in a moment of crisis is not the healthiest of responses. It’s important not to close the conversation just because it’s scary.”

Talk of a merger between federations has largely been conducted in the pages of j., with this newspaper editorializing on Feb. 6 in favor of a merger, and a spate of letters to the editor endorsing the concept.

East Bay rabbis who signed the March 18 letter are: David Cooper of Kehilla Community Synagogue (Piedmont), Michelle Fisher of Congregation B’nai Shalom (Walnut Creek), Dan Goldblatt of Beth Chaim Congregation (Danville), Stuart Kelman, Dorothy Richman (Berkeley Hillel), SaraLeya Schley of Chochmat HaLev (Berkeley), Judy Shanks of Temple Isaiah (Lafayette), Bridget Wynne of Jewish Gateways, and Creditor.

Agency directors included Avi Rose, Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay executive director; Jehon Grist, Lehrhaus Judaica executive director; Sally Flinchbaugh, JCC of the East Bay acting executive director; and Rachel Biale, Progressive Jewish Alliance regional director.

Absent from the list of signers are representatives of the Orthodox community, as well as rabbis from several leading East Bay congregations, among them Berkeley’s Congregation Beth El, Alameda’s Temple Israel and Oakland’s Temple Sinai.

Creditor denies any hidden meaning to these absences.

“It wasn’t a comprehensive e-mail that went out to every community leader,” Creditor says of the effort to round up signers. “Some rabbis were out of the country. The truth is I wouldn’t know the rationale for those who didn’t sign.”

Meanwhile, Brandt and his board have the letter in hand, and must now consider how to respond.

“Before we push two federations together,” he said, “let’s see what we would want a federation to do to serve our community. We have every intention of engaging the community with this conversation.”

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.