Seven years ago, I began the interview process that led to my appointment in June of 2012 as CEO of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. As I enter two weeks of vacation before starting my new role as President of HUC-JIR, I hope to post a series of essays that reflect on the past.
Part personal and part professional, they are in any case my own perspectives and not a statement of Federation or other organizations. I hope you’ll join me and would welcome your feedback as I work through a first draft of some of what I learned.
Part One: The challenges of being an outsider to a closed system.
On June 27, 2012, the Federation announced my appointment as its next CEO. The news surprised many people, as I had been following a pretty conventional and reasonably successful academic path.
Following the announcement, I sent an email to my colleagues at Washington University in St. Louis where I was a tenured faculty member explaining my decision to take a leave of absence. Among other things, I wrote,
“My interest in this position [at the Federation] came not from any dissatisfaction with my research and teaching, both of which I am passionate about. But as many of you know, I’ve long been interested in cultivating my administrative skills in more substantive ways…though I had not considered moving outside of academia, my involvement with the St. Louis Jewish community, and my longstanding commitment to Jewish life, made this opportunity too exciting not to follow up.”
Expressing my expectation that at some point in the future I would return to academia, I nevertheless ended with this:
“The skills I will develop in this position should be of great benefit were I to return to academic administration in the future. But I am taking this job [as Federation CEO] because of my commitment to *its* mission: the potential it has to shape conversations about human rights, justice, and decency; to build dynamic healthy communities that help define what it means to live meaningful lives; and develop the resources to support these and its other social service commitments. In short, though I envision a return to academia sometime in the future, I go into this embracing the position for its own sake and fully aware that my future may now move in other directions.”
The news of my appointment was greeted with similar surprise (and even dismay) within the professional Jewish world. In a critical essay in eJewishPhilanthropy on June 29, 2012 Lou Feldstein used my appointment to pose important questions about what my appointment said about the state of Jewish professional development.
Here’s a characteristic paragraph from Lou’s essay: “Over the past several years more and more of the top local Federation and agency positions have been filled with people whose career trajectory traveled the road of volunteerism – not professional communal service. Is this because more and more committed Jewish professionals have decided they know too much about these jobs and have determined they are just not worth the trouble or headache? Or is it instead a reflection of a far more nefarious perspective – the continued devaluation of the expertise, wisdom and experience that comes from a lifelong commitment to professional Jewish communal service.” (https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/the-times-they-are-a-chang…/)
Although the tone of the essay was perhaps more antagonistic than necessary, Lou was raising really important questions for the field of Jewish communal service.* It was also the first warning I had that the North American Jewish communal service world was plagued by a dangerous insularity that viewed people through the lens of “insiders and outsiders” rather than through the lens of skill sets, life commitments, and mission alignment.
[* Though some were concerned, this was never personal for me: I have a lot of respect for Lou as a professional and a few years later I hired Lou to work with us at a Federation staff retreat. Ironically, he and I will appear on a program together in my first week as HUC-JIR president, and I will look forward to working with him there.]
Insularity creates a warm sense of family within our agencies, congregations and communities. But it can also create a mentality that inhibits professional growth–both for communities and employees. I have seen this on the other side, in the angst that some Jewish communal professionals have about leaving “the field.” Matthew Freedman wrote eloquently about this in eJewishPhilanthropy when he left the Jewish communal world after 20 years. (https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/the-changing-nature-of-a-j…/)
I believe we need to do more to maintain the sense of closeness that is a real virtue of our institutions without the sense of “closed-ness” that is also a part of them.
Closed-ness keeps us from having important conversations with our staff about their professional development because it might mean they aspire to growth outside of our organizations.
Closed-ness promotes informal coordination among community CEO’s and between Federation CEO’s about their employees that wind up being detrimental to the growth of our staff’s career.
And closed-ness keeps us from welcoming outsiders who need support as they learn the culture so that they may fertilize our organizations with new ideas.
The St. Louis Community was, however, more open and willing to accept me as an outsider to a new position. Nevertheless, even St Louis Magazine focused on the novelty of the appointment as much as anything (see attached link). The article was based on an interview with me in November of 2012 but published about 6 months after.
In the last 7 years we have worked hard at the Federation to build an agency that provides professionals the opportunity for growth–hopefully within the agency but also outside when we do not have leadership positions available. Rather than fearing or penalizing those who look outside our walls we encourage regular conversations about 3, 5 and 10 year goals.
The up side of this strategy is to watch as we have found pathways for growth within our organization for those who have desired them. The down side is of course that we have lost a number of really good staff who found terrific and more expansive leadership roles that we did not have for them at Federation at the time. Amy Pakett Bornstein is one good example of this – part of our marketing team for a few years, Amy now is the director of the JCC’s community Book Festival, one of the largest in the country.
These losses are costly for us as an agency for sure. But we have to think of them as success stories–because we were able to resist our fears of losing key staff with a view to how best to promote our community and their professional development, our losses speak to the success of the approach. I believe it has and will continue to build a sense of trust and support among our staff as long as the practice is continued. It depends on developing a culture that nurtures through “closeness” without inhibiting through “closed-ness.”
So that’s the start. Next up, a reflection on the challenges we faced.
Part Two: We are not a fundraising organization.
In my first post, I spoke about the perceived challenges of being an outsider to a closed system. Those challenges were real. I knew from the start the importance of listening to staff, lay leadership and our community who were tremendous guides. I like to say that I went from “studying politics” to “doing politics,” which was true, and I certainly still had a lot to learn.
One benefit of being an outsider is that you can look at the same data with different eyes. During my first year I spent a lot of time listening, learning and then drawing sometimes very different conclusions from what others were seeing.
The best example of this was the data I was shown about our fundraising results.
Like most Federations (and most federated campaigns like the United Way) our Federation was struggling. Although we had developed an impressive endowment program, the bread and butter annual campaign was about the only metric by which the community judged our success. And that was also true for many Federations.
And the results were concerning enough. if you looked at the dollar amount we were raising in our annual campaign, our Federation like most was more or less “flat.” We were merely “sustaining” ourselves. The hope was to find a path towards growth.
Now I’m no economist (trust me, political science and political theory is not economics) but I looked at the same data saw something other than stability and slow growth. I saw deep decline. What was I seeing that others were not?
When non-profits look at income trends they tend to focus on the nominal dollars raised each year, rather than the value of those dollars between years. Donors are excited to give and be part of a winning team. Boards are giving their all. Staff is working to the bone to secure needed resources. It is understandable that we celebrate whenever we have an “up” campaign without asking whether the “up” was far enough “up” to beat inflation.
Inflation matters because a dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow. And the inflation rate expresses how much more we have to raise today simply to keep up with what we raised yesterday. “Up” campaigns are surely better than “down” campaigns. But they aren’t really “up” if they don’t beat inflationary growth.
So we ran the numbers for our annual campaign controlling for inflation (different ways to do this, I used a CPI). We generated the graph below that shows the campaign results for the 25 years from 1989-2013. The red line shows the nominal dollars we raised. The green line shows the value of those 1989 dollars in 2013.
The graph demonstrates that our Federation annual campaign had lost about 1/2 its value even though we were raising more dollars. Put differently, the $9.2million or so we were raising in 2013 could purchase about 1/2 as much as the $8 million or so we had raised in 1989.
During the 25 year period our campaign grew in value in only 1996 and 1998. We were not in fact sustaining ourselves. We were not in fact “flat.” We were in steep decline.
I remember the gasps when I showed that graph to our board.
And so I tried to understand why it was that people were not giving as much to the Federation. Part of the reason tied to national trends with which we all are familiar.
Lack of Jewish identity.
Lack of connection to Israel.
Lack of Jewish Education.
But again, as an outsider, I saw another issue as well: people thought of us as a “fundraising organization.” Indeed, as I listened to our community people kept describing Federation as the community’s fundraising body.
And thus I saw a different problem: who wants to give to a “fundraising organization” without understanding what they are raising money for?
Just to put this in perspective, there are many organizations that raise more money each year that we would *never* describe as fundraising organizations.
I’m about to begin a role at an organization that will require me to do at least as much fundraising as I have been doing for the last 7 years. It has a larger fundraising staff than we have at the Federation in St. Louis. Yet no one would think of HUC as a fundraising organization. Nor do they think of Washington University, or the Art Museum or the Symphony as fundraising organizations.
And that’s because the fundraising that non-profits do is usually in service to a mission that inspires people to invest.
The challenge for Jewish Federation of St. Louis was that we could not explain our mission besides being a fundraising organization.
And so we asked a different set of questions: what is our mission, what is our vision, what do we hope to achieve that we are asking people to give to? We started talking about ourselves in a different way and operating in a manner that reflected the change.
Rather than a top-down, command and control model, we built a “community-development” organization that was dedicated to providing for the Jewish Public Sphere, the broad network of Jewish institutions that provide the platform upon which lives to dignity, meaning and purpose could be realized.
Rather than asking what people should be doing for us, we lead by asking what can we do to help our community and its synagogues and agencies thrive.
And we became clear about our vision for our work: to promote an engaged, vibrant and flourishing St. Louis Jewish community, in which individuals live with dignity, meaning and purpose, and a sense of belonging to the Jewish People, connected to our region, as part of a life well- lived.
Rather than the model of donate first–then engage–then lead, we engaged first, before asking for support. We even eliminated most “minimal gifts” from our events. (We probably went a bit too far on this one!)
We developed a “needs-first” model that would produce a case for giving so that we could tell people what our needs were during our campaign, rather than asking them to give to “trust us” that we’d make good use of the funds (more on that in the next post).
The approach was perhaps optimistic. These were all ideals, aspirations. And like all ideals and aspirations, we fell short of the mark on many occasions. But ideals and aspirations are what motivate and guide us, and I believe we effected signifiant cultural change around these issues.
Of course community change was hard, and it was met with snarky cynicism, particularly from those who were deeply bought into the old model.
I was asked by a former community leader, “how’s that Kumbaya approach going?!” In a similar vein Misha Galperin, using incorrect data, mocked our approach in a back and forth that appeared last summer eJewishPhilanthropy, provocatively asking “See how it works out for you.”
Well the truth is, the results far exceeded our expectations. In a city that struggling economically with declining population and with a donor base that is losing hundreds of donors a year to demographic attrition, we managed to *increase* our donor base by 5-7% last year. That compares to an average of 7% *decline* of donors across the system. Similarly we had real growth in our campaign for three of the last 4 years, again beating system trends.
(We had an “up” campaign in 2018, raising again more dollars than we did in 2017. But we did not beat inflationary growth: it was hard to move beyond three consecutive years of real growth, a mark that we believe was last achieved in the 1970s.)
Most important, by gaining clarity about our mission–as a community development organization–we were able to effect a more meaningful change in our approach to the community. We sought a new vocabulary for our work with these words as descriptors: Open; Transparent; accountable; collaborative; trust building. Looking for alignment across agencies. Seeking on-ramps for anyone into our Jewish community. Partnering with our region for the good of all.
Asking not what can you do for us, but based on service leadership, what can we do for you? As donors. As agencies. As partners in the building of vibrant Jewish communities.
And I believe it is this fundamental cultural change that more than anything helps explain a new sense of our purpose within the community.
Next up tomorrow: developing a strategic plan based on community collaboration, data and impact.
For more reading on this, see my back and forth with Misha Galperin: https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/the-jewish-confederation-o…/
Part Three: Strategic Plans: Data and Impact
In my first two posts, I reflected on coming into this role as an outsider, the challenges that we identified, and the broad cultural changes we took to change the practices and perceptions of the Federation in the community. Those broad changes–moving to an open, transparent culture, asking how we can help others succeed, and recognizing that our success should be measured only by the success of the community–would require a new strategic approach. And that meant undertaking a strategic planning process.
Our last strategic plan had been adopted less than 2 years before I began. As an outsider it was helpful to have an expositing plan within which I could learn. But as I came to understand, the plan was less of a strategy for the organization than a statement of our funding priorities. And so, during the first three years of my tenure we were simultaneously trying to create a strategy without starting a new process altogether.
Ultimately we began a new strategic planning process at the start of 2016, led by Gerry Greiman who was then the Vice Chair of Strategic Planning and would become the Board Chair in 2017. But we still found strategic work that needed to be accomplished. And first among them was the need for community data.
Our Federation lacked basic data about our community beyond the anecdotal. We had not done a community study since 1994 and St. Louis had changed dramatically since then. Any strategic plan would require far more data than we had available, and even our funding priorities were operating in the dark.
During my first year we laid we worked to gain support and mounted a community study that was released in 2014. It was based on solid social-scientific sampling principles rather than a marketing study and catalyzed our efforts. I am grateful to the professionals who executed the study and the plan: Susan Scribner, Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz from JFNA, and Ukeles Associates. And with many thanks also to Wash U Professors Betsy Sinclair and Andrew Martin who were external advisors to the process. (Andrew became the Chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis only 5 years after the study’s release; a coincidence…?!)
I know that government and non-profit leaders are resistant to investing in data, but I was still surprised at the level of resistance to the study.
A number of prior leaders within the organization had opposed the expenditure. They shared with me their feelings that the study would be a waste of time and effort–primarily because they “knew” everything we needed to know about the community and where all the donors were anyway.
That reflection represented exactly the culture we were trying to change. The point of the Community Study was not to identify *new donors*. The point of the study was to assess needs and gaps within our community that Federation would need to address to strengthen our community.
To make sure we did this without our thumb on the scale as it were we put together an advisory group made of lay leadership with expertise from throughout our community. Les Sterman led the committee.
And–brace yourself gentle reader–we even had people on the committee who disliked Federation and did not give or did not give much to our organization! Rather than involving people based on their actual or potential to give, we invited people into the process who would actually *add value* to the study and would help us produce useful analysis. It was a good example of our “engagement” model and leading based on the value of Federation to build healthy communities.
In my view, the resistance to the study because “we knew the community already” also represented a gross lack of understanding of how we form opinions about the world around us. I mean “gross” in its two primary senses of “large” and “distasteful.”
Dismissing an investment in real data reflected significant hubris towards the our own understanding, and a lack of reflection of our knowledge about the world. And it distasteful for me as a social scientist to see major leaders in our community and elsewhere in North American more generally reject the investment in data, even was we spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year on meeting our purported needs.
Community studies cost a lot of money. Ours cost about $325,000 not including staff time to manage it. This is admittedly expensive if looked at as a single expenditure. But community studies should be done every 7-10 years. When that cost is spread over a 10 year period, it represents less then 1/3 of 1% of the dollars we allocated each year.
Let me put that differently: we were asking to spend the equivalent of one-third of one-percent of the roughly $10 million we spend trying to make an impact in our community in order to make sure we were addressing real needs and in fact making an impact. (In order to prepare going forward we set up a standing fund into which we now allocate 1/2 of 1% for “research” to help our Federation prepare for our next community study, and have resources to measure impact based on data on an ongoing basis.)
The publication of the Community Study in 2014 had a catalyzing effect even beyond the use we have made of the data. It formed a terrific way to highlight the needs of our community and tell the story of our work–allowing us again to lead with our mission of community development and engagement (and not fundraising). It also allowed us to create metrics and measures that we can use to measure impact. And it created a new culture within the Federation to talk about the importance of impact which would be central to the new plan.
We also made the study available to our community agencies, and Susan Scribner and I went on a road show to meet with agency and synagogue boards to help them get the most out of the study.
The link below is to the study that was published. It presents only the tip of the iceberg of data that we collected and rely on internally as needed. If there is a gap that we still have and that I failed to address is finding a way to invest in a community data manager to help our agencies get the most out of this treasure for their own use. Something for the future, perhaps.
Next up: Establishing our core commitments.
Part Four: Strategic Plans: Core Commitments
As I mentioned in my last post, our 2010 Strategic Plan provided more of a set of funding priorities rather than a strategic plan for our organization. When we started our work in 2016 on a new process we wanted to create a document that expressed our values and role as a community development organization, and provide a strategy to guide the organization into the future.
The document that resulted focused our work on four “Core Commitments.” It established a “needs first” approach. And it created two clear lines of business for our work: as a community development “foundation” that plans and supports the Jewish Public Sphere; and separately as a direct service provider of education and social services. Gerry Greiman drove our work in 2016 as Vice Chair of the Strategic Planning committee through to its adoption in 2017 as he became our current Board Chair.
(Note: this post relies heavily–with direct cutting and pasting from–my previously published article in the Jewish Light, “Jewish Federation wants to hear from you,” Nov 16, 2017. A copy of our 2017 Strategic Plan is linked below.)
The plan begins with an affirmation of our mission, a new vision statement and our four “core commitments” towards which our work aims. These statements explain the “why” of Federation.
Our mission remained unchanged:
• “The Jewish Federation of St. Louis mobilizes the Jewish community and its human and financial resources to preserve and enhance Jewish life in St. Louis, Israel and around the world.”
New to the plan was a statement of our vision:
• “An engaged, vibrant and flourishing St. Louis Jewish community, in which individuals live with dignity, meaning and purpose, and a sense of belonging to the Jewish People, as part of a life well- lived.”
(The triad “dignity, meaning and purpose” represented to me three key ideals of our work. “Dignity” referenced our social service work. “Meaning” connected to our work connecting individuals to our tradition, our people and our culture. And “Purpose” referenced to our role in inspiring people to give to others–whether philanthropically or through their time and service. And the source of this triad “dignity, meaning and purpose” came from a post that I saw on Joel Frankel‘s Facebook page some years ago. I’m not sure if he authored it, but it certainly was where I first saw it.)
The plan established our four “core commitments” that keep us focused on our mission and help us achieve our vision. These are:
• Expand and strengthen an engaged, vibrant and flourishing St. Louis Jewish Community.
• Secure the wellbeing and safety of individuals within the Jewish community
• Strengthen our connection to Israel and the Jewish people worldwide
• Develop the financial and human resources, and infrastructure, needed by our community
These four “core commitments” form the basis of our funding priorities in a process that is being developed with community input.
These were developed through extensive community input.
One surprise of that input process was that many people argued *against* including Israel and the Jewish People as a separate item. This was NOT a partisan issue but a conceptual one. Some of our community’s strongest supporters of Israel were among those who said that we should not separate out Israel and the Jewish People from a “Vibrant Jewish St. Louis.” It was important to the committee that we clearly enumerate Israel/JP as a separate item because of its importance to our work.
I was also opposed to including the fourth core commitment for similar reasons: I thought it was captured already in a “vibrant St. Louis.” But here, it was important to many leaders that we make clear our role to support resource development, tying it as it did to our historic role. I got that, and frankly in retrospect I am glad that we included it: we may not be a fundraising organization, but part of any community development work must include resource development.
The strategic plan also articulates two important structural changes that help us achieve these aims.
The first structural change is creating a process of funding and fundraising that is taken from the most successful foundations in the United States. This “foundation model” begins by establishing communal needs before raising funds to meet these needs.
Why is this a change?
In the past, Federation’s model was based on obligation, in which individuals were asked to give and trust in us to invest the funds wisely to serve the community. That model only works if people feel a sense of shared obligation to keep the system running.
Connection to Jewish life and the Jewish people has been weakening for decades, and with it many community members no longer prioritize a vibrant Jewish community.
Despite our successes of the last few years, we need to inspire people with a clear vision to guide their Jewish philanthropy. The foundation model that we adopted allows the Federation to do that more effectively for the greater good.
Here’s how it works. First, the board sets strategic priorities relative to each of our core commitments. Second, our staff and lay leadership assess the needs relative to those priorities and then develop plans to meet them. Those plans have a price tag associated with them and thus add up to a total “case for giving” that the Federation will be able to bring to the community. Once we have the funds raised to do that work, our staff and lay leadership then invest the funds based on the planning work we did, and finally evaluate the impact of our investments based on pre-established impact metrics.
This process takes a long time to establish and implement. One of the last acts of my tenure here was to finish the strategic priority setting for each of our core commitments. The team will not start on the needs assessment and planning and is hard at work on a case for giving.
The second important structural change relates to programs and services that Federation operates itself.
Federation has been providing programs since at least the 1980s. They include the Brodsky Library (1983), the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center (1995), the Naturally Occurring Retirement Community (2004), and the Millstone Institute for Leadership (2011). In 2015, the former Central Agency for Jewish Education integrated with us, and we have now created a Center for Jewish Learning and operate PJ Library as a result of that integration. We added a Community Security Coordinator and “RAVE” emergency notification services to strengthen the security services that we provide for any agency, synagogue and organization in our community—most at no cost to them. (This is a small part of what the annual campaign supports.)
There are clear cost benefits to the community for the Federation to run these programs. However we recognized that they may seem to compete with other organizations. The strategic plan establishes principles to create greater transparency about the funding of these programs and to hold us accountable to our community.
These three changes—clarity of the “why” of our work, the establishment of a new foundation model to inspire Jewish philanthropy, and greater transparency and accountability of the programs we operate— marked a new beginning for the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. It provides the plan to establish the Federation as a true community development organization.
Next up: Implications of the Strategic Plan for our agencies and community partners.
Part Five: On the Jewish Public Sphere: The Millstone Doctrine and our beneficiary agencies.
But first a preface on the history of the Federation:
The Jewish Federation of St. Louis was founded in 1901 to meet the needs of our local German Jewish community that was being overwhelmed by immigration from Eastern Europe. St. Louis was the 4th largest city in the United States and had one of the larger Jewish communities as well. Like Cincinnati and other significant mid-West communities it was overwhelmingly Reform and differentiated itself from the American Jewish communities in California and New York in multiple ways.
As a large Jewish community at the turn of the century, St. Louis had vibrant institutions that were created to help integrate the German Jewish population into the broader region. At the same time, Jews faced barriers to integration (until after WWII, we were generally considered “Jewish” as a race, not “white” per se). Institutions like United Hebrew Congregation, the Jewish Community Center and Jewish Family & Children’s Service of St. Louisbegan in the late 1870s to meet our community’s spiritual, social service and recreational needs, and also provide a pathway into the broader region. Other institutions, most notably Jewish Hospital, was created in order to accommodate Jewish individuals as doctors and patients.
As anti-Semitism plagued Eastern Europe in the late 19th Century, a new wave of immigrants found their refuge on America’s shores. From roughly 1890-1925 2.5 million Jews from Eastern Europe fled persecution to come to the United State. Those 2.5 million overwhelmed existing communities. And so beginning in 1895 in Boston, American communities began to “federate” their approach to meeting their community’s needs.
Creating a “community-chest” approach to philanthropy, on the basis of collective responsibility, Federations took on the role of assessing communal needs, making plans to meet the needs, and then allocating the resources to partner agencies to make sure our community was fed, housed and clothed. (This was in the days before FDR’s New Deal, the Great Society programs of the Johnson Administration, and the AHA which collectively created a safety net for millions of Americans.) The American Jewish community provided a model that relied on collective responsibility to take care of its own.
The model that created the Federation system was so successful that in the 1920s the United Way was created based on the same model for the general community.
(Irving Howe has a terrific account of this period of Jewish history in his classic “World of our Fathers.” Highly recommended.)
With a working model of “providing for our own,” Federation leadership joined with other American Jewish organizations during WWI to create the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). The “joint” as it was affectionately called, provided international relief to the millions of displaced persons during that first World War, furthering the idea of collective responsibility that was at the core of the Federation’s mission.
In the United States, Federations worked to meet the urgent-existential needs of the Jewish people during the horrors of the 20th Century. In addition to immigration relief during the first World War, Federations mobilized our communities to care for Holocaust survivors. They were at the forefront of helping create and sustain the State of Israel as a democratic and Jewish state. And it was the Federation movement that mobilized our American Jewish communities in the 1970s and 80s to free Soviet Jewry.
These were big chapters in the story of the Jewish People. And the Federation “system” was critical to them.
During this period Federations did relatively little “direct service” to individuals, but worked instead to support and nurture a network of agencies and organizations.
In other writing (see the link below) I have called this network the “Jewish Public Sphere”–what my colleague Gil Preuss from Washington calls an “ecosystem”– of Jewish institutions that help sustain and nurture our communities. The Public Sphere is the canvas on which our lives play out, helping us articulate the values that drive us, turns our attention to the beautiful and the good, nurtures the art and ritual that inspire us, and provides the basic infrastructure to help others live lives with dignity, meaning and purpose.
The agencies with which Federation partnered became known as “beneficiary agencies.” Over time the supplemental dollars that were given to them became foundational to their budgets and programs.
By the 1990s, the situation for American Jews, and really global Jewry, had changed dramatically. Intermarriage had become a fact of Jewish life, geographic density had weakened as housing covenants the kept Jews out of neighborhoods were relaxed, Israel had established itself as a great military power and a robust economy. Jewish identity and knowledge became a weak echo of what it had been.
By 2013 there were very few Jewish communities at risk in the world in the same way they were at risk in 1913. And about 85% of all Jewish people lived in the United States and Israel. This was, and remains, an unprecedented Golden Age in the history of the Jewish People–something that Yehuda Kurtzer continues to contemplate in important ways.
Despite these changes, our systems and institutional arrangements remained the same. That’s understandable because there was no one moment where suddenly things changed. And it was understandable because despite the shift from the urgent existential crises to the slow-existential crises (more on that in the next post), our communities still faced hate and Israel was still targeted by double standards and missiles.
Nevertheless, 2013 was far different than 1913 for the Jewish people.
No better indicator of the change existed than the idea of a set of “beneficiary agencies” with which the Federation was supposed to maintain special relationships.
The idea that there would be a single partner organization that would provide, say social services or recreational activity was fine in a world where Federation was providing the bulk of their budget. But by 2012 we were providing a fraction of the total budget for our key agencies. It was still significant and important, but seldom was beyond 7 or 10% of the budget of the organization. (This, along with the dramatic decline of the *real value* of the annual campaign I spoke of in an earlier post is another reason the Federation had lost significant influence in our communities since 1989).
More importantly, as we looked to a community-wide approach we had to ask, why are we funding the agencies that we are funding? They were certainly doing great work, but so were other agencies.
The answer that came back was usually, “because we have an historic partnership with them.” That’s just another way of saying, “it’s just the way it’s always been done.”
In St. Louis we began to take a different path that we are now deploying. It is based on something that Bob Millstone articulated when he hired me in 2012 (Bob was Federation Board Chair from 2011-13, and also the grandson of the great I.E. Millstone.). Bob put it this way: we should not think of ourselves as funding agencies; we should think of ourselves as funding the work that our agencies do.
The idea that we should be funding the work that agencies do, rather than agencies themselves, was a dramatic departure from the past. But the “Millstone Doctrine” as I came to call it, was critical in some of the key cultural changes that we made at the Federation since 2012.
First, when you stop funding agencies as such, and focus on the work they do instead, your shift your gaze from an existing historic relationship, to impact and results. This led directly to the idea of creating shared metrics and a culture of partnership and accountability, rather than entitlement and demands (going in either direction).
We are not there yet, but the 2017 strategic plan set us up on the course that our staff and lay leadership are now fully implementing. We eliminated the designation of “beneficiary agencies” this year, even though we maintain significant unrestricted allocations to our partner agencies. And we are on track to “impact based” approach of funding in the future that ties future funding to measures of impact.
Second, when you realize that the Federation is here to fund work in the community, as a community development organization, we develop a more expansive sense of what “community” means.
When I first started in 2012 I inherited a quarterly meeting with the executives from our “beneficiary agencies.” These were amazing partners and dedicated Jewish communal workers. But there were only about a dozen agencies at the time.
I began to wonder why was I only meeting with those 12 people? After all, we were all trying to asses our communal needs, all trying to work within the broader Jewish Public Sphere. If the Federation was aspiring to be a community development organization shouldn’t we be having a community-wide discussion?
And so after a few years we began to convene quarterly meetings with the executive directors from our entire community, 50 agencies–including congregations–for a quarterly conversation. It was (at least for me) transformative as we could start to have a collective conversation.
Importantly, we also removed two anachronistic cultural practices along the way.
Our Federation like many in North America used to require board members of our beneficiary agencies to give a personal gift to our annual campaign. I was told that we required them to give to us because we were giving to them.
Yet that response struck me as odd: we are giving to the *agencies* for the work that they do, not to the board members! From a formal perspective if they are doing good work that achieves our communal objectives, we should be indifferent to whether their board members contribute to our annual campaign.
More importantly, if we could not inspire the leadership of other boards to give based on our work, then shame on us for failing to make the case. So we stopped arm twisting other boards in this way about 4 years ago.
The second practice we formally stopped was a little more unsettling: the practice of quietly informing one another when we were interviewing a member of another agency’s staff.
Here’s the story.
One Saturday afternoon soon after starting my role as CEO I received a call from an agency executive. She had interrupted a Shabbat nap so I was a bit groggy. She started talking to me about “Susie” (not her real name) an employee of mine at the Federation. The exec was asking me about her and I began to say a few nice things.
But as I woke up a bit more I asked the exec why she was asking me about Susie. ”
Oh,” said the exec, “Susie is applying for a position here at our agency.”
“I see,” I replied. “Susie did not mention that to me. Did she give you permission to call me?”
The agency exec was surprised: “Oh absolutely not, she does not know I am calling.”
I was stunned and asked why, then, was the exec asking me, her boss, about her? Might Susie not expect a degree of confidentiality as she explored a new possible job that she decided not to speak with her boss about? Might she not feel concerned and exposed if her boss knew she was applying without having shared that with him first?
“Oh yes, of course, all of that is true,” the agency executive shared with me. “But we have been told that we are required to follow this practice in order to create a strong professional community. We don’t want to jeopardize funding, but I agree, it’s kind of a cruddy requirement.”
(Not surprisingly, the requirement was a practice not formally written down anywhere.)
So I thanked the Agency executive for letting me know. And I told her that that practice would end immediately. I later communicated that to the other beneficiary agencies. And just last week shared that story with our entire community of agency executives in the hopes they would not revert to it again.
If we are to strengthen our Jewish communal professional world, we have to create strong sustaining partnerships that are respectful of individual professional aspirations and create the kind of mature, professionalism that I believe is now part of our St. Louis communal culture.
I believe that our historic beneficiary agencies in St. Louis will remain our close partners to whom we turn to achieve the results we are setting out in our strategic plan. And I also believe that they become stronger when they recognize that the Jewish Public Sphere (or Gil Preuss‘s ecosystem) is far wider and deeper than the historic legacy upon which they are built.
Next up: The role of Education in building a vibrant Jewish St. Louis.
Part Six: On Jewish education of kids: Not such great results.
Our 2017 Strategic plan articulated four “Core Commitments” that focus and drive the work our Federation now does. For most of my remaining posts I plan to reflect on our work through the lens of these Core Commitments, beginning with Core Commitment 1: creating a vibrant Jewish St. Louis. And no better way to start that discussion than with our abiding commitment to Jewish education.
If the Jewish People are the people of the Book, we are not reading as much as we used to.
The Pew Study of American Jewish Life was published in 2013 and confirmed what many people had suspected: engagement and affiliation of individuals in Jewish life had significantly decreased. Where Jewish education once was built into the fabric of the family, synagogue, and Jewish schools, today our kids are receiving fewer years of formal Jewish education.
The usual response to this problem is to approach Jewish education as an issue of “continuity.” This means that most efforts focus on the issues of educating our children.
And sure enough in St. Louis in recent years we have invested significantly in school aged education. This included Federation’s leading the Day School task force in the years just before I started which supported the merger of two legacy liberal schools to form the current Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School.
The subsequent success of Mirowitz is due primarily to the dedication of school head Cheryl Maayan, her dedicated staff, teachers and parents that have made it among the very best of our region’s independent schools. It also depended on the willingness of supporters of the two legacy schools to see the value in overcoming ideological and cultural differences.
Day school is of course not the only way to support Jewish education. In fact, most kids in our community go to supplemental schools run by our Conservative and Reform congregations. Here the challenges are well known and not much different in St. Louis than in the rest of the Jewish world–including the fact that kids are too busy with extracurricular activities to take after-school religious education seriously, and that parents do not prioritize religious education as much as they used to.
But there is a structural problem as well, and I learned this from speaking with congregational leaders.
We have many very good teachers, but we are spread too thin: in a community the size of St. Louis, we simply don’t have enough local talent to ensure that every class in every school is taught by an inspiring, trained teacher. Further, religious schools often lose money for their congregations.
If we all know the problems of the supplemental school education, why is the model continued? Congregations tend to operate them because they attract the members they need to sustain their institution for decades into the future.
Congregational sustainability is an important issue today for most liberal congregations, and it has to be taken seriously. Yet the calculus seemed backwards to me–we were willing to run sub-optimal supplemental schools that compromised our kids’s education–for the sake of sustaining our congregations.
I wondered whether we could develop a different mode that (a) would improve the quality of supplemental Jewish education; and (b) not compromise congregational sustainability.
So I had a crazy idea : what if we created a powerful, community-wide school experience for 3-4 hours on Sunday mornings. St. Louis–with 60,000 Jewish individuals–was small enough to make this possible, and large enough to create a dynamic school. Thousands of kids, K-8 would attend each week, perhaps on our community campus, and build a critical mass that would be taught by only the best teachers, and creating dynamic sacred community experiences each and every week.
That might solve the educational quality problem. But how would we deal with the congregational membership challenge?
So I proposed a different model: what if Federation funded the entire school, but families were simply required to join a local Congregation–any congregation–in order to attend? If we made membership a requirement (and perhaps stipulated a minimal required amount to avoid) then the community-school approach would have been neutral towards congregational membership. Educational quality and experience would improve by leveraging shared resources. And Congregations would be left unharmed. In the aggregates.
Now if you’re reading this in St. Louis you already know, this never happened.
Had Federation pioneered this initiative by opening our own school we’d compromise all the culture change I have written about in the last 5 posts. The only way this could work in a manner consistent with a collaborative, partnership approach would have been if our congregations had led the way themselves, collaborated and brought to us the proposal to fund.
I’m not sure Federation leadership would have supported it, mind you. But I am sure without our congregations leading the effort, it would be a non-starter. Despite suggesting it to many of them many times, I was unable to really inspire key leadership to take the chance.
I think the initiative never took off for three reasons.
First, we got derailed by the “we’ve tried that before” blocker. Yes, indeed, we tried a community school years ago in St. Louis, but not of the scale I was proposing. Also, if the Wright Brothers took that approach, we’d still be riding bikes today.
Second, there was understandable fear. The model would have no change on total congregational membership, but families might have made different choices about where to join. The plan would have thus created “winners and loses” relative to our current congregational membership structure. And that made people understandably nervous about trying.
Finally, the initiative never took off because truth be told there are some outstanding supplemental school programs in our community and congregations with them–and with exceptional teachers driving them. If you are a strong congregation with a better-than-average school (or even a very good one) why risk your own kids’s experience for an innovative approach with a higher risk of failure.
So all in all, in terms of children’s education–day schools and supplemental education, I have to say I don’t think we really changed the trajectory during my seven years. That was a disappointment to me. The heavy lifting on the merger that created Mirowtiz was completed before I started, and it was a struggle to significantly increase investments in it. Our Modern Orthodox day school continues to struggle to attract members. And our supplemental day schools over all continue to deliver underwhelming educational outcomes even if we have some real stars in our community.
We did however stop funding a number of educational programs that were not working, including one day school and some CAJE programs. From a “stewardship of communal resources” those count as successes. But in terms of Jewish education of kids, not so much.
Next Post: Jewish Education is not just for kids.
Part Seven: Jewish Education: Turning our wagging fingers around.
In the last post, I discussed our work on Jewish education for kids in day schools and supplemental education. That’s the natural starting point. But I think part of the challenge that American Jewish communities are facing when thinking about Jewish education is that children are the wrong place to start.
A concern with Jewish Education is often motivated by Jewish continuity, a concern with the “next Gen.” Others have written about this, but it has struck me as ignoring the role and responsibility we have as communal leaders–and communal adults–to continue our own education and build out the infrastructure necessary to support robust Jewish education–for adults. We have to model the behavior we seek in our kids. And if we are not reading, if we are not learning, if we are not making our own continued education as adults a priority, then we are not communicating to our kids that it is a value.
I like to say that our approach to Jewish education is often a lot of finger-wagging: we (crusty adults, you and me) wag our fingers at our kids that they should learn, they should prepare to lead meaningful Jewish lives. But perhaps, gentle reader, we should turn our fingers around first and ask ourselves: what are we doing to demonstrate our own commitment to Jewish learning. What behavior are we modeling for our “next Gen” to follow?
Adult Jewish education takes significant investments to create the depth and offerings that inspire learning. And here I think we have moved the needle over the last 7 years.
The key development occurred in 2014 when Sonia Dobinsky and leadership of our Community Agency on Jewish Education (CAJE) proposed merging into the Federation. The opportunity to work collaboratively to create a new approach to Jewish education provided us some pportunities to change the narrative around adult education .
From CAJE we created the Center for Jewish Learning (directed by Cyndee Levy) that deepened our community’s opportunity to learn on a secular framework (more on what that means in the next post). The CJL made a number of key changes early on including sunsetting educational initiatives for kids and teens that were underperforming and competing with our congregations. (Follow this link to the CJL Webpage: https://www.jfedstl.org/community-e…/center-jewish-learning/)
My most significant concern about adult Jewish education was the same as I expressed for kids: we did not have enough quality teachers in the community to deepen serious Jewish learning in our community. And so I was eager to figure out how a community like St. Louis could bring in more outside talent–trained, substantial teachers– into our region to help our community learn.
The first solution to the problem was provided by Rabbi Jim Bennett at the same time CAJE was merging with us. Jim noted that our congregations were regularly bringing in talented teachers but did not have the resources to advertise their talks to the general community. Was there a way, he asked, for Federation to “get the word out” to generate interest beyond a congregation’s walls?
The best ideas are the ones that seem obvious in retrospect. Out of that suggestion our team put together the idea of the Sh’ma/Listen! Speaker Series. At its core the Sh’ma series is simply a marketing campaign. Congregations let us know when they are hosting an outside speaker and we publicize it. But by creating a dynamic logo and consistency of messaging, we were able to turn it into something far more: a catalyst for continued adult education.
In exchange for publicity we’d ask our partners not to charge non-members any different price than members. And we ask them for at least 8 weeks of notice to adequately publicize their talks. Finally, we raised some modest funds to invest in organizations to bring in speakers of a high caliber than what they might otherwise have thought to do.
The Sh’ma series represented the best ideal of leveraging limited resources. Congregations and agencies were able to get their programs out to a list well beyond their own at very low cost to the community. And this has had a dramatic impact on attendance, vibrancy and learning for our community.
In addition to the Sh’ma series, the Center for Jewish Learning has now developed a similar approach to adult education, creating dynamic course catalogues that make it easy for adults to find educational opportunities in our community with scholars and experienced teachers. This initiative, spearheaded by Rabbi Tracy Nathan, continues to grow and expand. By inviting our community clergy to be part of the teaching core, the CJL provides a platform both within and outside of their congregations to connect with the work they do. (You can view a copy of the catalogue here: https://www.jfedstl.org/…/our-prog…/adult-education-classes/)
These were relatively small initiatives but the impact in terms of adult engagement have been significant and far exceeding my own expectations. Community vibrancy–our first Core Commitment–has to begin with a commitment
We were in the midst of exploring a major next step in developing the CJL when I announced my departure for HUC. But I remain hopeful that the importance of investing in adult education continues to be recognized. For the best way to demonstrate our concern for the next generation, is to model the very behavior we seek to inspire.
Next up: Pluralism and what it means to be secular without a capital “s.”
Part Eight: Pluralism and Sababa
I believe it has never been more important for us to approach Judaism from a pluralistic perspective, one that honors the validity of all three approaches to Jewish life. In my view there are three general ways to think about Jewish life: Halachic Judaism (following Jewish law because it was believed to have been given by God to Moses at Sinai); Enlightenment or Liberal Judaism (in which our confrontation with the Transcendent is mediated by reason and free will); and Secular Judaism, in which the literary, cultural and historical components of our traditions shape what it means to be part of the Jewish people. Last October, St. Louis demonstrated its commitment to Pluralism by convening an arts festival that celebrated all approaches, with celebrations of all three approaches to Jewish life. On the link below my own reflection on what pluralism is some challenges we are seeing in both local communities and Israel.
Part Nine: Anti-Semitism and Security
Over the last 7 years or more, our community has faced the scourge of anti-Semitism. Four years before the Tree of Life Massacre in Pittsburgh, three people were killed on the Jewish Community Campus in Kansas City by a man who went there, as he told police, to kill Jews. The rise and acceptance of White nationalism in particular may be the single biggest threat to our communities, if not our nation.
Our Federation responded by creating a position of community security director and hiring Scott Biondo to coordinate and strengthen security throughout our community. We invested in an automated mass alert system that was activated a number of times in the face of bomb threats over the last few years.
In February 2017, Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery was desecrated. As we said at the time, the likelihood of this being a hate-act was rather low. And in fact it was later shown to be an act of rather ordinary (if profoundly insensitive and traumatic) vandalism. But at the time, without knowing the cause, and in the midst of political speech that had vilified the immigrant, and raised the specter of a return of White nationalism, our community and region rallied.
In the midst of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim, rhetoric, the seeming acceptance of While nationalism, and the use of anti-Semitic tropes by a candidate who had won the Presidency, our community rallied with thousands demonstrating against hate. We called on those to “name it, condemn it, and do something about it.” And on the heals of that attack and those times, we initiated a project that will create a new Holocaust Museum for our community, a platform on which we remember the past, honor our survivors and use it as a platform for fighting hate in our world today.
Some pictures from the rally at CSE Cemetery, and its aftermath. I received a lot of heat for standing with the Vice President and Governor of Missouri at the time. I also received a some heat for willingly partnering with Tarek El-Messidiand Celebrate Merci whose efforts raised $40,000 to help repair and secure our community. (The video below captures the moment the check was signed.) Heat from both sides is of course part of any leadership. You don’t build community by refusing to stand with people, you build community by finding places of alignment, even when it is difficult. I am glad we did both, and in doing so celebrated the values upon which our country truly stands. Some pictures that reflect an amazing moment for our community, with thanks to our partners Rori Picker Neiss director of the JCRC of St. Louis, Anita Mandel Feigenbaum of CSE Cemetery and Marie Griffith director of the @Jack Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis for their wonderful partnership.