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Northern Lights: Strategic Change Brings Results in Yokneam and Megiddo

After a decade of supporting social welfare, educational and people-to-people programs for the people of Yokneam and Megiddo, the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta and the Jewish Federation of St. Louis arrived at the proverbial crossroads.

They knew they were doing “good,” but they wondered: were they doing it well?

It was true that thanks to donations by the two federations, many needy individuals in their JAFI Partnership 2000 town and regional council in Israel’s North had received much support. But, it became clear that donors wanted – and needed – more than that. They needed to be able to measure the outcomes of the projects they funded. And they wanted to know that those projects were sustainable in the long-term.

“We got to the point where we knew we had to decide if we should continue the partnership or not, and we knew that if we stayed – the rules of the game would have to change,” said Yael Shapira, Federation Liaison, Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta & Jewish Federation of St. Louis.

According to Shapira, the federation turned to the municipalities for help. “We said: ‘You are on the ground; you know where the gaps are and what the real needs are,’” she explained.

A process of needs assessment revealed that families with multiple challenges as well as children-and-youth-at-risk required the most support.  The municipalities reasoned that by helping this group, they might free some of these families from the cycle of poverty. A decision was also made to treat these families as a unit, considering the role that the family dynamics can play in generating change.

The federation committed to assisting a designated number of families – 120 in Yokneam and 70 in Megiddo – with the area’s Ethiopian community well represented within those numbers. It was understood that in addition to this specific group, federation-funded programs would also impact the community in broader ways.

Municipalities reported on needs, and the federations and their municipal partners then called on social welfare and education professionals for help on strategy.

“Professionals from the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), Meyers-JDC- Brookdale Institute, Ethiopian National Project (ENP) and Branco-Weiss had a key role in the process,” says Shapira.

In an unprecedented event, professionals from these and other organizations joined a spirited roundtable discussion with lay leaders from the federations and municipalities’ staff. Aided by simultaneous translation, the group debated the merits of a potential list of projects.

“Everyone put egos aside. Instead they looked for commonalities and decided on priorities,” Shapiro said. “They concentrated on what was important – the families in need.”

Finally, they emerged with a list of projects which required funding. In an amazing show of support for this project, pledges from Atlanta and St. Louis soon covered and exceeded those requests. The municipalities saw their whole ‘wish lists’ granted with almost a million dollars pledged, plus additional endowments.

Shapira added that the mayors of the towns were encouraged to show transparency during the funding stage. While in previous years, they might not have revealed to one potential funding organization that they had already received a large sum from another source; a new move toward open communication put an end to that practice, creating a healthy sense of competition and partnership between donors. This enabled federations to see how their contributions were leveraged and meeting the needs of more people.

In July 2006, the new projects were launched, a move that marked a major change. “We moved from a focus on the 'problem,' whether that was an individual’s financial, social or employment problem, to a focus on the individual,” explained Shoshy Bagim, community social worker at the Yokneam municipality.

Modeled on a JDC “life coaching” system, the municipality matches individuals with social workers who work with them and help them claim responsibility for their lives. The plan is to work with clients until they achieve self-sufficiency and effectively “graduate” from the services provided. “My job as a professional is to believe in the client, to help him, and mostly to remind him of his innate ability to better his own life,” added Bagim.

Another key aspect of this systemic change is the more sophisticated focus on the family as a whole. For example, a parent’s chronic underemployment problem is also seen in the context of its effects on the children in the family

Funds raised by the two federations support empowerment workshops and classes that teach new skills. According to Bagim, one such class teaches people to manage their family finances. Before the class, “some just didn’t understand the banking system, didn’t know they had options,” she says. Now they are in regular contact with their teacher, who visits them at home to check on their progress and instills in them the message that “you don’t have to be well-off to manage your money well.”

Another popular workshop centers on women’s empowerment – it helps women going through crisis, easing them into the work force in a way that supports them. Special attention is placed on respecting cultural styles. For example, Ethiopian women may prefer not to put their children in full-time daycare for the first year or two of the child’s life. That’s where creative solutions and lots of sensitivity come into play.

According to Bagim, those solutions would be impossible without the guiding hand of federations. “As professionals, we can make sure we have measurable outcomes, but we need the vision and financial resources in order to give people the push to succeed. We are dealing with populations – including many from the Ethiopian community – who are in stark poverty. Generous donations from Atlanta and St. Louis enable us to teach them new skills, to place children in daycare so their mothers can help earn a living, to give students extra tutoring after school.”

For Gal Dekel, Deputy Director of Yokneam’s Education Department, federations are “a strong partner that has an impact on our policy decisions.” And that impact can already be felt. A total of 11 families have already “graduated” and 15 more have shown major improvement and are on their way to successful completion. Broad outcomes of the funding also include a highly successful youth center which caters to a large number of area youth-at-risk. The municipalities have also been able to absorb some of the ongoing programs into their own budgets – thus becoming truly sustainable.

Leaders from both the Atlanta and St. Louis federations are pleased with the new kind of relationship that has led to successful results. Patty Croughan, former Chair of St. Louis Federation’s Israel and Overseas Allocations Subcommittee, said that she is particularly proud of the degree of partnership which has been attained with the Israelis and she noted especially the high levels of cooperation and mutual support that now exist between Yokneam and Megiddo.

Harry Heiman, Allocations Chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, also noted the strong ties the communities have forged. “A big part of our strategic focus has been with the importance of collaboration with our partners. By partnering with St. Louis as well as our Partnership communities of Yokneam and Megiddo, we have been able to leverage our collective resources to achieve mutually agreed upon community outcomes.”

For Shapira, this confirms the power of freeing someone to dream. “For many of the residents of these two communities, this process represents the first time that someone has sat down with them and asked them what they wish to achieve.” She adds that this attitude can be felt also within the ranks of those who plan and organize the programs, as freer, open communication has become the regular mode.

“We didn’t realize we were going to make such a significant change in the way we act and talk,” Shapira says.“We have changed. The municipalities have changed, and so have the families. Now we are all looking toward the future.”

For more information on the partnership programs, visit the online homes of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta and the Jewish Federation of St. Louis

Comments on this article are welcome. Contact Suzanne Selengut.