Reimagining a Strong Jewish Future

Earlier this week, I was privileged to lead my first board meeting as chair of the Board of Trustees of The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA)—an event I was well prepared for thanks to the work of my predecessor Richard Sandler (Los Angeles). Nearly 200 Jewish leaders from across the continent gathered in New York City, representing 147 Jewish Federations and more than 300 independent communities, to consider a critically important agenda.

Sitting on the dais with our team of officers, I was not only humbled by the incredible opportunity granted to everyone in the room but also inspired. In the 24 hours we were together, I witnessed the passion, humility and bonds of community that we often speak about in Federation meetings. I am convinced that decisions made by this group could very well change the course of our collective Jewish future. Over the past six months, a committee of lay and professional leaders, led by Cindy Shapira (Pittsburgh), has been working with Bridgespan, a leading nonprofit management consulting firm, to develop a set of recommendations regarding how JFNA needs to change to help the Federation Movement realize its potential. They based their theory of change, which was overwhelmingly endorsed by the Board, on data gleaned from hundreds of surveys and interviews and a widespread analysis of the non-profit sector.

At our opening session, members of the committee championed a vision that was inspired by some of our system’s finest moments: helping build the State of Israel, fighting to free Soviet Jewry and building a religious and ethnic philanthropic network in North America that is the envy of other communities. If we can do all of that, they reasoned, these new goals are certainly within reach.

The approved changes involve four core ideas:

  1. Developing new rigor and capacity to collect and share benchmarking data so that Federation can be an accountable world-class business philanthropy that is data-informed in its decision-making. A richer business intelligence capacity will not only enable and propel learning across the Federation network but will also enable us to better tell the story of the Federations’ collective impact.
  2. Reinvesting in talent, especially the professional and volunteer leadership resources that drive our system, so that Federation becomes a place to which the best and brightest Jewish professionals and lay leaders gravitate.
  3. Undertaking a marquee collective impact initiative focused on engaging the next generations of Jews with Jewish life and community, building on the $60 million that the Federations already invest annually in such efforts and galvanizing our system to deepen its impact in this crucial area.
  4. Rethinking JFNA services and applying the same business models used by the most successful companies to help Federations access up-to-date resources, leverage expertise across the system, deliver top notch services in key functional areas, especially financial resource development, and break down silos that stymie innovation.

Together, we reimagined a strong Jewish future, and I have no doubt that together, we can achieve it. To that end, the Board also approved the recommendations from JFNA’s Global Operations Review Committee, led by Harold Gernsbacher (Dallas). Focused on a more efficient use of resources across our Israel and Overseas Department and the United Israel Appeal, the report proposes changes in how we establish and reach our overseas goals. As with Bridgespan, the implementation phase will make these changes real.

Given that the focus of our conversations was about our ever-evolving relationship with Israel, it wasn’t surprising that passions were high. I have tremendous respect for those lay volunteers who delivered thoughtful comments and remarks. I promised from the podium that we will work together as partners as this process moves forward.

With regard to the future and Bridgespan’s recommendation to launch a marquis initiative, we were presented with the findings of a new study completed by JFNA’s Education and Engagement Office on the Federations’ investments in Jewish education and engagement. The presentation, which focused on the extensive scope of Federation resources already committed to this area, emphasized utilizing the groundbreaking work being done in the field as a basis for greater collective impact. You can read more about it here.

It is an exciting time to be a part of the Federation Movement. Today, nearly 100 members of National Young Leadership Cabinet representing 27 Federations arrived in Birmingham, Alabama for a Civil Rights Mission. And earlier this month, when I was at the 2019 International Lion of Judah Conference (ILOJC), I marveled at what I witnessed. More than 1,400 attendees from 87 Jewish Federations and 6 countries raised over $35 million for the annual campaigns in their local Federations (almost a 17% annual campaign increase from last year)—just the beginning of the more than $200 million that National Women’s Philanthropy (NWP) raises each year.

Together, Wendy Abrams (Chicago), National Women’s Philanthropy chair, along with Marcie Orley (Detroit) and Joan Lubar (Milwaukee), ILOJC co-chairs, and Judy Altenberg (Colorado), who is leading the Rosalind Goodman LOJE25 Legacy Leadership endowment, are the esteemed force behind this powerful part of our Movement. Congratulations to Shelly Kupfer (Washington, D.C.) who became NWP chair designate this week.

At the ILOJC, I had the opportunity to speak on the plenary stage with my wife, Jane. I spoke about legacy and the lessons passed on to me by my grandmother. She used to say, referencing her experience as a survivor, “It is not enough that we just endure and survive. We must thrive. We must not stop working—using everything in our power—to sustain and build a better future.”

Mark Wilf is Chair of Board of Trustees of The Jewish Federations of North America.