Got ideas? Public tells federation how to spend new dollars

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I’ve been to plenty of federation meetings in my time, all over the country — that’s what happens when you work in the Jewish media for 25 years. But none bore any resemblance to the East Bay federation’s “community table” I attended last month in Oakland.

First, let’s be clear about what a Jewish federation is — a body that raises money from local Jews and gives it to the needy at home, in Israel and around the world. Right?

Well, that’s apparently old-school thinking. Sure, when the first Jewish federation was founded in 1895 in Boston, it focused on the hungry, homeless, sick and elderly in its own community. That was the model until the 1920s, when federations in this country joined forces with overseas agencies — the United Palestine Appeal and the Joint Distribution Committee — to help Jews in distress in foreign lands, as well as raise money for the Jewish enterprise in the Holy Land. Those twin needs coalesced during World War II when North American Jewish federations helped rescue Jews from Hitler’s Europe and, later, settle them in the new State of Israel.

But by the 1990s, with fewer Jews in distress around the world, the federation system looked outward to provide assistance wherever it was needed, pitching in with donations after hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis.

Today, needs have changed again, and so has the mission of the federation system. While still maintaining their commitment to social and human services for vulnerable populations, federations are now in the same business as synagogues, religious schools and other major Jewish institutions: building Jewish identity through engaging more Jews in Jewish life.

So that’s what about 40 of us were doing last month at Temple Sinai, at one of two community tables organized by the Jewish Federation of the East Bay (the other was in Walnut Creek). We sat at round tables with notebooks and pens, and instead of hearing from leaders what they planned for the coming year, we were supposed to tell them what we wanted the federation to do with our money. And we weren’t a group of invited machers — anyone who wanted to show up was welcome.

“In the past, federations decided from the top down,” said Steve Goldman, a federation board member and one of the evening’s organizers. “We want to turn that around and work from the bottom up.”

Now, that doesn’t mean the federation funding process is turning into a free-for-all. Monies already raised will be allocated according to protocol; any additional priorities will be used as catalysts for increasing overall donations. But the community tables were the first step in a longer process aimed at increasing grassroots engagement in this grand mission of building a better society — which is, after all, the mission of Jewish federations.

At my table, the eight of us talked about what we wanted our federation to fund. One man said we should give more money to poor Jews outside of Israel. A couple of folks wanted to see more interfaith outreach, particularly between the East Bay’s Jewish and African American communities. One younger man floated the idea of communal grants for Jewish innovation — seed money for new projects and ideas.

The more we talked, the more enthusiastic we became. The noise level in the room rose as ideas flew back and forth. Jewish education! How about book clubs? Hey, maybe federation should create spaces for people to talk about how Judaism fits into their Jewish identity. And what about the Jews of Cuba?

At the end of the night, we filled out detailed questionnaires. Over the next few weeks, staff will analyze our responses, as well as comments posted to the federation’s website, and will identify new priorities to incorporate into the next round of grant-making in the spring.

“This is just the first step in a process that will take 12 to 18 months,” said Dana Sheanin, the director of community impact.

The project is modeled, she said, on a similar national process launched by the Jewish Federations of North America. Are any other local federations doing what the East Bay is doing? Sheanin doesn’t know.

Goldman said he wouldn’t be surprised if the East Bay is going it alone. “The West Coast has a different mentality than the more traditional communities in the East or the Midwest. People here are interested in doing things more creatively. We’re more nimble. We’re open to new ways.”

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of j., and can be reached at [email protected].


Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].