Time to Write a Check to Federation

New York
November 9, 2011 / 12 Cheshvan 6772

The period from the end of the Jewish holidays (i.e. now) till the end of December (the end of the tax year) is peak season for non-profits raising money. That’s no less true for Hazon than anyone else: we’re doing important work on a relatively shoe-string budget, and we need your help. Despite that, this email isn’t a request to write us a check: it’s a request that you write one to your local Jewish Federation. That’s especially true if either A. you’ve never written a check to Federation before or B. it’s a few years since you last did so and you got out of the habit. In this email, I want to say why I think this is important, and I especially want to address critiques that are made of the system in relation both to Israel and to issues of diversity, democracy, and inclusion.

The Jewish Federation system accreted gradually over time. The first push was in the late nineteenth century; then again around the First World War; and then a different high-water mark happened in 1967 and 1973 around the time of the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War. At each point the central argument was that A. we were needlessly replicating ourselves, and needed to be more efficient, and B. that the whole was in some sense more than the sum of the parts.

In terms both of inflation-adjusted dollars raised, and the total number of donors, 1973 was probably the peak. In all sorts of ways, the system has been declining for at least the last decade and in most places longer.

It’s right to adjust to changing times. I don’t use a Sony Walkman any more. The three legacy national TV networks are in secular decline. I don’t wear a dark suit when I go to work. Life goes on. The Jewish community, like America itself, is more fragmented than it was a generation ago, and fragmented also means – in this case – more diverse, more inclusive, more varied, more vibrant. Geological monoliths erode over time and so too do their cultural analogues.

But the erosion of the Federation system is not inevitable, and even if it were inevitable it’s not good. On the contrary, those of us who most believe in the evolution of America’s cultural ecosystems, including its Jewish community, should be putting our weight, individually and institutionally, behind the renewal of the Federations. Here’s why:

First, there’s no other entity that’s capable of doing the range of good that a Federation does, with one single check. Hazon is part of a cohort of groups that have been involved in renewing Jewish life in powerful ways in the last decade. Hadar, JDub, Storahtelling, the Six Points Fellowship, Moving Traditions, Dor Chadash, Panim: all of whom have received material UJA-Federation support. Creating healthier and more sustainable communities, within and beyond  Jewish life? Jewish Farm School, Teva, Eden Village Camp, Adamah, Jewish Greening Fellowship, Wilderness Torah. A tremendous number of the key innovators have received significant support from their local federation – and that includes in the Bay Area and LA, and elsewhere. (Kayam, doing incredible work, is supported by the Associated in Baltimore.)

(Double disclosure: yes, Hazon receives support from the Federations in New York and in San Francisco, and now also in the East Bay and in Portland, OR. But in New York we applied five years running for a multi-year grant, and five years running we were rejected. I feared we’d go bust before we ever got a penny from the Federation. We finally received that grant in year 6. In San Francisco we talked to Federation – and tried to apply for money – for about four years and only recently received a multi-year grant for the first time. We are supported by the Federation system, and/but we have had our share of frustrations with Federations along the way. But here’s the key thing: despite imperfections, I understand what they’re trying to do, I know that they’re important, and I empathize with their challenges. My respect for the system has only increased over time – and not only, and perhaps not even, because Hazon has subsequently been funded, especially by UJA-Federation of New York, in significant ways.)

But the world that Hazon is most part of is only a tiny part of the system.  Separate from the organizations involved in renewing Jewish life or creating a more sustainable world for all, is a whole different set of organizations: day care centers, senior homes, programs for those in need. A slew of anti-poverty initiatives. The Kosher Food Net. The All in Need Kosher Food Pantry. The Passover Food Outreach Program. The Village Temple Soup Kitchen. Community advocacy. The disabled. People with AIDS. Spiritual Care as Part of Oncology Supportive Care. Many of us pay lip service to these sorts of needs, but America today is more and more unintegrated. There’s hidden poverty in our midst – but it is often hidden. There’s a whole universe of people and institutions at Federation that I don’t know, don’t overlap with, don’t see socially, don’t work with. But when I write a check to Federation, I’m supporting all of them, and rightly so.

And then so too with Israel, and Jewish people around the world. We’ve gone full circle on all this. For a century or more Jews in this country worked hard for Jewish people in need around the world. In recent years that’s somehow, in certain circles, become blasé or uncool, or too particularistic, or maybe less cool than supporting non-Jews in need. These of course are not either/or – I write a check to AJWS also, and to New Israel Fund as well for that matter. But I do care about Jewish people around the world – in Israel and elsewhere. The Gilad Shalit story is about the sheer wonderful irrationality of treating a member of one’s people as being also a member of one’s family. His redemption – at extraordinary and painful cost – makes no sense unless we accept an extended notion of family, and I absolutely do.  It’s a similar wonderful seeming irrationality that has led the Federation system to start to put resources behind supporting Israeli Palestinians (languaged by most Federations as “Israeli Arabs”) – since we care about Israel, we’re serious about Israel being an inclusive democracy, and so Jewish peoplehood resources stretch in new and to some unexpected ways. One perspective sees this as tokenism and argues we should do more; another would say, why do Federations do this at all? You can argue both positions, but if you do so, argue l’shem shemayim – believing in the renewal of philanthropic endeavors, and the complexity of the world we live in.

So: writing one check to your local Federation does incredible good, locally, nationally, and internationally. It does it at low-cost (as large organizations, their fundraising costs are proportionately lower than most other non-profits), and with strong infrastructures and deep systems of lay/professional partnership and transparency. So how come they’re on the ropes in so many ways?

First: people accuse Federations of being unrepresentative. I don’t think that’s fair. They’re a money-weighted and sweat-weighted democracy. People who are actively involved have a bigger say than those who are peripherally involved, and those who write bigger checks have more say than those who write smaller checks. You know what? –  that’s true at Hazon also, and it’s true in almost any non-profit you could care to name. The biggest check doesn’t give you the right of veto, and the smallest one (especially if you work hard, and you have good people skills, and you’re smart) doesn’t mean that your voice won’t be counted. Attacking Federations for being undemocratic is about 180 degrees off: they’re often slow-moving because they’re so participatory, and over time they’ve evolved complex governance cultures. If in doubt: volunteer in good faith, be patient, and I think you’ll find that most Federations would love to involve you in their work.

That leads me to my next point: let’s stop using Federations as a punchbag on Israel. In 1967, and even more so in 1973, the unifying secular religion of American (and British) Jews was “support for Israel.” Rightly or wrongly that’s not so today. We know it’s not so, and we see evidence of it every place we look. As the central structure of American Jewish life, Federations across the country support Israel, and a range of projects that connect in some way with Israel, in a staggering number of ways. That’s as it should be. My own views on Israel will be slightly different than yours; and yours from his, and his from hers. Yes, we should care, and yes we should express our views. But – and this is a key but, in the year 2011 – we need to have the maturity to support the system even if, in some particular respect, it does something that’s not exactly in accordance with our own views.

Do I have criticisms of the Federation system? Of course I do. My main one is a relatively unusual one: I think Federations have made an understandable but nevertheless significant mistake in focusing on dollars-raised to the exclusion of number-of-people-donating. Federations are very focused on numerical targets, especially dollars raised. I think a clear public goal needs also to be established of raising the number of people who donate to Federation, year-on-year, for at least the next decade. That’s a scary number for a Federation to focus on, because it looks like it’s fighting against the tide, and thus bound to fail. But I think it’s important in two different ways. First, the number of donors adds to the moral legitimacy of a Federation – and the diminution of that number is correspondingly problematical over time. And secondly, looked at through a different lens, I think that focusing on increasing the number of donors would actually help Federations tell their stories better – it would focus them, systematically and culturally, on moving outwards in various ways, including publicly.

Here’s the last image I want to share with you: it’s the photo over my desk; a photo, given to me by Andy Blau, of Jack Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy. Of all the photos I might have put there, I chose this one because of the famous words of Bobby Kennedy: some see what is and ask why; I dream of what might be, and ask why not? The word Hazon means vision, and that photo most sums up for me the possibility of bringing new vision to fruition in the world. But in this context it means something else as well: it means imagining what American Jewish life, and the future of this country and of the Jewish community, would be like, if we didn’t have a Federation system. It would be more chaotic, more expensive, less representative, less coordinated, less thoughtful, and it would expose many of the weakest in our communities even more than they presently are. It would damage central connective tissue in our communities, and it would remove a central support for innovation. And I make this observation in the week of parshat vayera. It’s the beginning of the story of Jewish responsibility and, yes, acceding to larger calls to give of ourselves in profound ways, and, clichéd though it may sound, the next chapters of that story are written by each of us, this day and this week.

So as I say: if you want to write a check, here are some links to help you find your local federation.

We gratefully acknowledge support from the Federations in New York, San Francisco, the East Bay, and Portland, OR.  Find your local Federation, anywhere else in the country.

Shabbat shalom


14 Responses to Time to Write a Check to Federation

  1. Adam Weisberg November 9, 2011 at 6:48 pm #


    Well said. You hit on all the critical points and do it in your usual cogent and compelling way. The Federation system is lucky to have you as an advocate and spokesperson — albeit unpaid and unofficial.

    Best and blessings.


  2. susan friedlieb November 9, 2011 at 8:33 pm #

    Why not have someone from Federation speak at Limmud NY?

  3. Jeremy Rosenthal November 9, 2011 at 9:02 pm #

    Agreed – I have been a nominal supporter of the Federation for a long time, but you make a compelling case for increasing that support to further the broader benefit to the community that the Federation enables.

  4. nina November 9, 2011 at 9:02 pm #

    Well said. I’d also add that you can limit your donations to once per year if you like (I was very put off by the multiple solicitations from my local federation, NY). I asked that they only send one solicitation per year that I would respond to. Five years in, that system is still working. I’d also add, as someone who works in the (secular) philanthropic world, and has served on nonprofit boards, that while it’s great to support that boutique interest of yours–spiritual yoga, Hazon, recycled building materials programs, etc.–there are complex, ongoing needs that aren’t sexy, and might not “speak” to you. But while you’re congratulating yourself on the organic farming collective you joined, remember that basic hunger, basic education, hospice needs, etc. etc. march on. And Federations respond to those needs and more. They step in with support for divorced parents, special needs children (I have an autistic child), unemployed adults, camp programs, etc. etc. and lend their funds to many, many worthy endeavors. Without the umbrella of Federations, the Jewish community would get soaked. And yoga won’t be nearly as much if you’re drenched… 🙂

  5. Baruch November 10, 2011 at 1:16 pm #

    The Federations are like the rotary phone. They worked for your grandfather, but there are better solutions now. You can direct your giving now through the internet to charities that you can review yourself. You don’t need a bloated and slow organization.

    Birthright, Presentense, ROI, JCorps, Moishe House, and others have all grown DESPITE lack of (at least initial) support from the Federations. The Federations lack vision, creativity, and efficiency. Donate directly to causes you support. Use the internet. Your grandfather would have.

    • Boaz November 10, 2011 at 5:38 pm #

      Birthright has 50,000 applicants can only allow 25,000 to go each year. Who is following up with the other 25,000 that only 12% of them will apply again? Is it Moishe House?
      Did Birthright solve the intermarriage problem, or is it MASA which is funded by the collective Federations of North America through the Jewish Agency? Who got the Israeli Government to match your donation to MASA? It was the Jewish Agency, which is the expert of the ground in Israel for the Jewish Federations or is it Rabbi Cohen from Temple Beth-El?.

      Who is the one organization at the community that everybody can call home? Is it the reform shul? Is it AISH? Is it the Yeshiva? where do we all become a community, a family? At the Federation!
      If we all give to nothing but these small organizations, what about the community? What does the average Moishe House donor know about Jewish Family Services? And what is the follow up with those that never went on Birthright? Is the YAD of the JCC keeping them engaged?

      While the Federation system may need a tune up; and while other organizations seem so “sexy”. I suggest you learn a lot more about the millions of dollars that are going into what the whole community finds important rather than just to what you, as an individual, thinks is important.

      Keep up the good work,

    • HD November 11, 2011 at 6:51 pm #

      FYI, federation is a HUGE supporter of birthright as well as the backbone and catalyst behind hundreds of other innovative programs. Federation has the resourced and insight to allocate funds where it’s needed the most.

  6. Marc Blattner November 10, 2011 at 6:52 pm #


    As the President and CEO of the jewish Federation of Greater Portland, I am delighted by your post. Your thoughtfulness about the “good” of the federation system is appreciated.

    At the same time, we here in Portland are delighted to have funded a project with Hazon to benefit the Portland Jewish community through our Community Impact Grant process. We look forward to a long and lasting partnership.


  7. David November 13, 2011 at 10:08 pm #

    This is an excellent post, but it leaves out one key detail: Federation must maintain its image as a trustworthy agent for the community’s money. If the community does not trust that its dollars are spent properly (meaning that no money is wasted on inappropriate programs or given to non-deserving organizations) then the community will not give.

    In San Francisco, the Federation is dealing with a historic lack of transparency which is only now being corrected. It was involved in a situation with a local film festival. It made potentially offensive t-shirts and banners at a local event reading “jew got impact?” (I will not explain why these t-shirts have never been seen in public outside of that one event – a massive potential publicity failure.) In other words, it has a publicity problem.

    Furthermore, Federations must convince donors (such as me) that they actively fundraise in scalable ways. This means moving beyond parties, to teaching a lifestyle of giving to its members. Here, before I suggested it, the lowest “club” giving level was $1000 per year for young adult members; I asked that they lower it to $365 the first year, and create another tier at $118 the following year. Federation must be accessible first, and can then work from there. This is where the focus on number of donors is most important. When too much money comes from too few people, especially in a bad economy, one person’s changed giving habits in one year can be devastating.

    I could go on, but the bottom line is simple: While Federation is, in theory, a superb place to donate, each Federation must remember that its first priority must be to gain – and maintain – the community’s trust.

  8. Aaron November 14, 2011 at 5:04 pm #

    I couldn’t agree more with David with his comment that:

    This is an excellent post, but it leaves out one key detail: Federation must maintain its image as a trustworthy agent for the community’s money. If the community does not trust that its dollars are spent properly (meaning that no money is wasted on inappropriate programs or given to non-deserving organizations) then the community will not give.

    My biggest gripe against the Federation (and the reason why I only give them my money begrudgingly) is exactly this. Too much money is wasted on non-deserving organizations and programs. An example of one such non-deserving program was mentioned in this very article: The Kosher Food Pantry. Why do we not need a Kosher Food Pantry? A needy kashrut-observant person can walk into any food pantry in any town in the United States with a blindfold on, grab an item off the shelf, take off her blindfold and discover that–six times out of ten–the item in her hand is kosher. In our day and age, Kosher products are ubiquitous (Thank God!). The OU alone certifies more than 400,000 food products. The Jewish community does not need to reinvent the wheel by supporting our own Kosher Food Pantry. Doing so only wastes precious dollars on overhead that could be going to more pressing Jewish needs like intensive Jewish education. We instead, need to be donating kosher products to the local secular food pantry.

    Worse than the Kosher Food Pantry (and other services that can easily be provided for through Federal, State, or Municipal, goverments or through secular federated charities like the United Way) is the JCC. My local JCC is a seven-day-a-week, for-profit gymnasium/natatorium that only pays lip service to the Jewish endeavor. So not only is my local Federation’s 15%-of-allocations support of the JCC a reinvention of the secular wheel (Moshe and Yosef can schmooze and schvitz just as well at Planet Fitness) but it is also support of an agency that actively shuns the Jewish religion and therefore the Jewish future.

    Until the Federation regains my trust that it is acting responsibly with the money I give it, I will be giving it less and less of my money.

    • David November 15, 2011 at 8:19 pm #

      Aaron, thank you for writing, but I think you have missed the point completely – not only of what I said, but also of the original article.

      The Federation has reasons for donating to certain organizations. It is not for us to question that, unless those organizations run directly against Federation values (e.g. an anti-Zionist film festival). You may not like the Kosher Food Pantry, and if you want none of your dollars to go there and you feel strongly enough, then perhaps you should not donate to Federation. But giving to a food pantry has nothing to do with a Federation’s public image.

      There is no easy rule for saying which funds recipient is unworthy, but I think it is difficult to say that a Federation should not support a JCC or a food pantry. (And never mind that your logic in not supporting the pantry is flawed; you have strong feelings about it, so I won’t attempt to convince you otherwise.) Other recipients are easier to criticize.

      But I was more referring to a Federation’s image. It must be seen as a worthy arbiter. Most have achieved that (I have personally seen Chicago Federation do so much to maintain its image and to promote increased giving from the community.) but some have not, such as San Francisco’s JCF.

      Umbrella giving when run by the right people is the most efficient and effective way to support the entire community. Indeed, quibbling over specific recipient agencies is exactly what we should not do as members of that community.

  9. Aaron November 18, 2011 at 11:29 am #


    I agree with you for the most part. However, I beleive that we–as donors to the Federation–have a responsibility to see that the money that we donate is allocated responsibly. I back up this assertion with a quote from the Gemara: “Rebbi Elazar ben Yakov said, ‘One should not give a Perutah (i.e. a penny) to the community charity fund unless a person as honest and as wise as Rebbi Chanina ben Teradyon is appointed over it’.” (Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Avodah Zarah, 17b) The reinvention of the wheel that is the Kosher Food Pantry only wastes money on overhead. This money would be better spent on uniquely Jewish organizations that only the Jewish Federation can support (as opposed to universal programs that can be supported by universal federated charities like the United Way). I don’t disagree with the Federation taking seriously the Jewish imperative to feed the hungry, I just disagree with the way that they go about doing it. I believe that a lot less money would be wasted by giving kosher food to existing food pantries. Of course, you are free to argue that the overhead is miniscule and is worth the price for the food pantry having a Jewish face and I would agree with you.

    Where I will not agree with you is your assertion that it is difficult to say that a Federation should not support a JCC. It is actually quite easy to say that. The JCC (or at least the vast majority of JCCs in North America) fall into the category of organizations that run directly against Federation values through their disregard of (among other Jewish things) Shabbat and Kashrut. In this way, the JCC is much like the anti-Zionist film festival.

    Umbrella giving when run by the right people is indeed the most efficient and effective way to support the entire community. However, the leaders of my Federation are by no means anywhere close to Rebbi Chanina ben Teradyon.

  10. Cari November 20, 2011 at 2:58 pm #

    Dear Friends, If what you are referring to as “anti-zionist” film festival, the showing of the film about Rachel Corey…
    I am a Zionist. And I believe it is very important for Jews to see and think about what is going on in the West Bank.
    And, David, you said “it is not for us to question…”
    Our tradition is all about questioning!
    I, personally, have become very wary of donating to any Jewish organization that I suspect of supporting any and all expansion of the settlements beyond the “green line” (with appropriate land swaps).
    I, personally, believe that anything standing in the way of a peaceful 2 state solution to the ongoing conflict is the biggest impediment to the survival of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
    As a Jew I believe it is essential that Israel survives as our homeland. However, if it doesn’t maintain it’s democratic nature, Israel will no longer reflect my Jewish values.
    So – if the Federation decides that the showing of Rachel Corey is anti-zionist – then I can no longer donate to any Jewish Federation. I, instead, will only donate to the many Jewish organiztions that support my values: Hazon; Urban Adamah; Isabella Freedman; The Shalom Center; New Israel Fund; Partners for a Progressive Israel; Just Vision; Eden Village Camp; Aleph; etc.
    B’orech v’shalom,

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