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Federation moves 2010 GA

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Last year, the run-up to the annual conference of Jewish federations saw their umbrella body announce a name change and install a new CEO.

This year, months before the conference, the organization is making a late change to the conference’s venue — to New Orleans from Orlando, Fla. — and unveiling five new priority areas.

It’s all part of the ongoing struggle by the decade-old umbrella organization for federations — now called the Jewish Federations of North America — to prove its value to its 157 Jewish federations and, more specifically, to help the federations cope with the challenging philanthropic landscape brought on by the economic crisis.

The decision to move the 2010 General Assembly and the annual women’s philanthropy conference, the International Lions of Judah Conference, to New Orleans was due to practical considerations, federation officials said: Orlando simply didn’t have the necessary space.

“We needed to re-evaluate the venue,” said Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations. “Unfortunately, the space in Orlando does not meet the needs that would best accommodate both events, and the alternatives in Orlando logistically would have compromised the momentum built from GA 2009.”

New Orleans, for which the federation system raised some $30 million in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, was an attractive substitute.

“In reviewing our options, it became clear that New Orleans was a community where we, as a Jewish community and family, could reflect on our collective responsibility and action together,” Silverman said.

Silverman addressed the other major change at the Jewish Federations — the announcement of its new priority areas — on a conference call Monday from Dallas, where the organization was holding its board meetings.

The five areas of focus that the organization hopes will guide the federation system into the future are financial resource development; positioning for the future; talent; the power of the collective; and Israel and overseas.

In harnessing the power of the collective, the federation system wants to figure out how to use the collective experience of its 157 member federations to do better fund-raising and programming, and share best practices and talent.

The focus areas have been developed over the past several months through discussions with dozens of local federations.

“We know we need to create a pipeline of talent both from within and outside of our federations,” said Kathy Manning, the Jewish Federations’ top lay leader. “We want to make sure we are creating a culture where federations become the place to be in the Jewish community.”

While the details have yet to be worked out, the umbrella body is considering creating a professional training program to help recruit talented recent college graduates into the federation system, Silverman said.

Silverman said he would like the program to be a collaboration of the entire system that could either funnel talent through the national office to local federations or cultivate talent on a local level.

“We have to flesh it out, put it to budget, size it, and see how we can do it — then pilot it,” he said. “We’re getting it ready for recruitment in the fall, when it is ready to rock ‘n’ roll.”

The General Assembly also will take place in the fall, with slightly different dates than originally planned: The GA will be Nov. 7-9, and the Lions of Judah Conference will take place Nov. 8-10.

The concerns with the original venue, Walt Disney World’s Yacht and Beach Club Resort, centered on whether the resort could handle the GA’s dining needs and how much it would cost to shuttle conference participants from location to location at Disney World.

The CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando, Hope Kramer, said she found out about the decision within the past two weeks. While her federation is missing out on an opportunity, she said, Kramer believes the umbrella group made a decision that it felt was best for the entire federation system.

Having the GA in town “does invigorate and engage those who have not been involved for a while or are tired or getting stressed. That is a great shot in the arm; that is what I will miss,” Kramer told JTA. “I am concerned about the way it came to me, but it was clear it was just the best decision for the federations.

“Disney can do a lot of things, but we are talking about 6,000 people,” she said. “These hotels get really booked around here.”

The federations had a contract with Disney, and the financial ramifications of canceling were not immediately clear.

“We feel we will be able to work though it with minimal liability,” Silverman said.

JTA

 
 

Opponents alarmed as Israeli conversion bill moves ahead

Opponents of a controversial bill that could give the Orthodox rabbinate the final say over conversions in Israel are trying to keep the bill from moving ahead in the Israeli Knesset after its surprise introduction and passage by a Knesset committee.

For months, Israeli lawmakers have been discussing a bill that would put more power over conversion into the hands of Israel’s Orthodox-dominated rabbinate by giving local rabbis the ability to perform conversions and giving the Chief Rabbinate oversight and control over the whole process.

The bill, sponsored by Yisrael Beiteinu Knesset member David Rotem, gained steam Monday with its approval in the Knesset law committee by a 5-4 vote. The bill now must pass three readings before the full Knesset to become law.

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David Rotem, chairman of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, pushed a controversial conversion bill through the committee by a 5-4 vote on July 12. Flash90/JTA

Opponents are desperately trying to stall the process, at least until the Knesset starts a two-month break next week.

“They have to bring it to the Knesset now for a first reading, and we have to make sure that it will not happen,” the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Natan Sharansky, told JTA.

Sharansky is leading a coalition against the bill that includes the leaders of the North American Jewish federation system and the non-Orthodox Jewish religious movements in the United States.

Rotem’s bill originally was intended to ease the conversion process within Israel and make it easier for non-Jewish Israelis of Soviet extraction to obtain conversions and marry within Israel.

Despite its intent, opponents warned that the bill would consolidate control over conversions in the office of the Chief Rabbinate and drive a wedge between Israel and the diaspora by carrying the risk that non-Orthodox conversions performed in the diaspora could be discounted in Israel. In addition, they said the bill would affect the eligibility of converts for the Law of Return, which grants the right to Israeli citizenship to anyone who is Jewish or has at least one Jewish grandparent.

The opponents urged Rotem to revise the proposal. They believed they had a deal in place with Rotem to hold off on the bill pending more discussion after Rotem came to the United States in April to discuss the bill with them and after a number of meetings between Sharansky and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Several top Israeli officials, including the justice minister and minister for diaspora affairs, had agreed to work with Sharansky on altering the bill.

But Rotem caught Sharansky and the diaspora leaders by surprise by bringing the bill to a committee vote this week; Sharansky was given only a day’s warning. The move set off a maelstrom of criticism from the diaspora.

The CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, Jerry Silverman, called Rotem’s action a “betrayal.”

In a letter of protest from the president of the Union for Reform Judaism that was signed by 14 other organizations, including various arms of the Conservative movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffie wrote, “Rotem’s actions are contrary to the assurances we received in meetings with him and with others over the last several months.”

In an interview with JTA, Rotem was unapologetic about moving ahead and said, “This bill will pass, no doubt.”

“I never promised anything,” Rotem said. “I told them all the time in the meetings that if I will see there is a majority, I will bring it a vote. No one can say I promised anything.”

In their discussions with Rotem, diaspora leaders expressed concern about an item in the bill that would have taken away the right to automatic citizenship for anyone who comes to Israel as a refugee but then converts to Judaism. Rotem removed that item before pushing the bill through the law committee.

Now, he says, the bill has no effect on American or diaspora Jews and that this is solely an Israeli matter over which non-Israeli Jews should have no say.

“I don’t know why they wanted to have discussions,” he said. “I came to the U.S. I spoke to leaders, and I explained this is nothing that touched the American community. It has nothing to with Jews in the diaspora. It is only an Israeli matter.”

Since Monday, Sharansky has engaged in a number of discussions with Israeli lawmakers, including Netanyahu. The Jewish Agency chief said he believes the bill will not come before the Knesset this week, and hopes it will not be on the agenda before the two-month recess provides a chance to alter or scuttle the bill.

Sharansky said he is pushing for Netanyahu and his Likud Party to publicly oppose it.

“If it is clear Likud will not support it, it will not pass,” Sharansky said.

The Jewish Federations say that Silverman and federation lay leaders met with Israel’s president Shimon Peres Monday. Peres, according to a JFNA press release, pressed for more dialogue on the proposed bill that would give American voices greater credence.

“More than half of our people are living in the State of Israel. Almost half of it lives outside of Israel. We should remember that those living outside of Israel are not represented by the Knesset, they have their own communal life,” Peres told the group.

“A discussion that bears consequences on the entire Jewish people should include different voices — from within Israel and from without. The legislative process should include an open public discussion that will lead to an understanding. It should be conducted with tolerance, with open hearts and open minds.”

“It is important for us, for the unanimity of the moment, that we have to keep the pressure on,” Rabbi Steven Wernick, the executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, told JTA.

“I think it would be an error to think that in the political society as dynamic and hyper-dynamic as Israel is that we are done with this,” he said. “The people who care about these issues have to constantly keep them on the agenda and explain why they are important to decision-makers.”

JTA

 
 

Federations, JCPA teaming to fight delegitimization of Israel

The Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs are launching a multimillion-dollar joint initiative to combat anti-Israel boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaigns.

The JFNA and the rest of the Jewish federation system have agreed to invest $6 million over the next three years in the new initiative, which is being called the Israel Action Network. The federations will be working in conjunction with JCPA, an umbrella organization bringing together local Jewish community relations councils across North America.

The network is expected to serve as a rapid-response team charged with countering the growing campaign to isolate Israel as a rogue state akin to apartheid-era South Africa — a campaign that the Israeli government and Jewish groups see as an existential threat to the Jewish state. In fighting back against anti-Israel forces, the network will seek to capitalize on the reach of North America’s 157 federations, 125 local Jewish community relations councils, and nearly 400 communities under the federation system.

“There is a very, very high sense of urgency in [fighting] the delegitimizing of the State of Israel,” the JFNA’s president and CEO, Jerry Silverman, told JTA. “There is no question that it is among the most critical challenges facing the state today.”

In fact, Silverman added, Israeli leaders identify this as the second most dangerous threat to Israel, after Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Under a plan approved in late September during a special conference call of the JFNA’s board of trustees, the JCPA’s senior vice president, Martin Raffel, will oversee the new network. He will be working in concert with the head of the JFNA’s Washington office, William Daroff. Over the next several months, Raffel will be putting together his team, including six people in New York, one in Israel, and one in Washington.

The network will monitor the delegitimization movement worldwide and create a strategic plan to counter it wherever it crops up. It will work with local federations and community relations councils to enlist the help of key leaders at churches, labor unions, and cultural institutions to fight anti-Israel boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaigns.

Organizers of the network are looking at the response to an attempted boycott of the Toronto International Film Festival last year as a model for how the system could work.

When the festival organizers decided to focus on filmmakers from Tel Aviv, more than 1,000 prominent actors and filmmakers signed a statement saying that the organizers had become part of Israel’s propaganda machine, and they threatened to boycott the event. In response, the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles worked together to come up with a counter-statement supporting the festival. The counter-statement bore the signatures of even more prominent Hollywood figures, including Jerry Seinfeld, Natalie Portman, Sacha Baron Cohen, Lisa Kudrow, Jason Alexander, and Lenny Kravitz.

“The partnership started last year around the Toronto international film festival,” said Ted Sokolsky, president of the Toronto federation. “We jointly produced an ad saying that we don’t need another blacklist.”

Sokolsky went on to say, “I spoke to Jay [Sanderson, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles] and said, ‘Here, there are a lot of prominent Hollywood types on the delegitimization protest. Can you reach out to the Hollywood community and find some pro-Israel leadership?’ He reached out to some key leadership in Hollywood. And it was like waking up a sleeping giant. Then we realized we can’t all fight this alone.”

He added, “It was a great lesson and set a template on how to respond because clearly, the other side is running a linked campaign with international funding and global strategy but local implementation.”

When similar delegitimizing attempts erupt, leaders of the new network plan to respond early, according to Silverman.

“If the community in Chattanooga all of a sudden is faced with [a boycott of] Israeli products in the mall, they should be able to call the [Israel] Action Network and have response and implementation within 12 hours, and not spend time thinking about how to do it,” he said. “We should be able to do that in every community.”

Toronto and Los Angeles are two of the largest federations in the JFNA system, but the smaller federations feel that the network will benefit them as well.

Michael Papo, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Indianapolis, said that Indiana has not yet witnessed a full-fledged anti-Israel boycott campaign.

“But it could happen,” he said. “It could happen quickly. It could happen on our college campuses, and it would be helpful to have that national network to call for help.”

Papo said he sees the network as being able to provide guidance when his federation has to face situations such as the one it faced several years ago, when the Presbyterian Church (USA) pursued a divestment strategy against Israel. At that time, he and his colleagues were able to influence local Presbyterian churches in Indiana to vote against the divestment campaign at their national convention.

“As a Jewish community, we have a huge range of contacts in the general community,” he said. “We are connected politically, culturally, socially, academically, and in the business world — anyplace we work and live, we have connections with neighbors.… If and when we need support, we are quite capable.”

Steven Nasatir, president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, said that federations and their local partners are uniquely positioned to take on delegitimization campaigns against Israel.

“A top-down approach cannot fully comprehend or appreciate local nuance, and after each and every incident, when the headlines recede, it is the local community that is in the best position to strengthen the community for the future,” Nasatir said in an e-mailed statement. “Over the past few years, active local federations have countered the boycott of Israeli products by buyout of those same products. They have demanded that university institutions require civility from anti-Israel protestors trying to drown out Israeli speakers. And, through ongoing contact with local elected leaders, they have sensitized public officials and institutions to the need for fairness, civility, and appropriate monitoring of anti-Israel thuggery.”

While other groups, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Zionist Organization of America, and J Street, focus primarily on influencing the political arena, and others, such as the Israel Project and CAMERA (the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America), key in on the media, the new network will aim to influence civic leaders.

The Jewish federations have agreed to give the JFNA $1.6 million to fund the project fully in its first year. In the two subsequent years, the federations will split the cost 50-50 with JFNA.

“Israel’s government has been advocating for this, especially over the past six months or eight months,” Silverman said. “It has been in dialogue within our federation movement for a while, especially following the Toronto incident and the incident in San Francisco with the film festival, and divestment movements in the Protestant and Presbyterian churches. This idea was born out of the large city executives meeting that said, ‘It is time. And time is running out.’ We have to do this quickly and we have to be armed in our community and be offensive, not defensive.”

Silverman said that he expects the Israel Action Network to be fully staffed and up and running by Jan. 1.

JTA

 
 

Local delegates laud this year’s GA

NEW ORLEANS, La. – After three days of schmoozing, sessions, and feel-good speeches, the 3,000 or so Jewish federation officials who came to the annual General Assembly may have left New Orleans feeling invigorated.

The view expressed by many top officials was that after two years of a tough recession, the worst is over.

The federations collectively raised about $900 million through their annual campaigns in 2009 and, with two months to go in 2010, they have raised $750 million — within about 4 percent of where they were last year at this time, according to the treasurer of the Jewish Federations of North America, Michael Gelman.

“We are feeling cautiously optimistic that we have pushed from out of the depths,” Jerry Silverman, the CEO of the Jewish Federations, said at a news conference Sunday, the first day of the three-day gathering.

But between the feel-good atmosphere — enhanced by the presence of Vice President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as a day of service learning that took the federation on a path outside the traditional workshop boardroom —some suggested that serious problems lurk just beneath the surface.

With an aging donor base — 90 percent of federation givers are older than 45, according to a newly released report looking at fund-raising in the last six to 10 years — the federation system must figure out how to engage a new generation of Jewish donors to survive. The impending retirement of the American baby boomers could cost the federations a significant chunk of their donor base.

The total number of dollars raised by the federations through their campaigns grew between 2000 and 2006 before falling over the past three years. Meanwhile, the number of federation donors is about 450,000, down from a high of 900,000 a couple of decades ago, federation officials often say.

The report shows that the country’s largest federations saw a 1.7 percent drop in donors between 2000 and 2003, a 3.8 percent drop between 2004 and 2006, and another 3.8 percent decline in the 2006-09 period.

The Jewish Federations would not make public the entire report, which is being put together by the Federation Benchmarking Project and looks at 34 different fund-raising areas, including agency health, per capita total giving, and board growth.

But Andrew Pailer, the organization’s director of consulting, said the other findings show that the federations cannot keep doing business as usual.

“It shows that federations have to evolve,” he said. “They can’t do the same things the same way.”

Collectively, the 157 Jewish federations in North America raise just under $1 billion per year through their annual campaigns and another $1.5 billion to $2 billion through endowments, donor-advised funds, and other special campaigns.

Pailer said the recession has nothing to do with the federations’ longstanding problems — a sentiment with which the leader of one of the country’s largest federations agreed.

“It is not a good sign,” Barry Shrage, the CEO of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston, said of the apparent donor loss. “But nobody knows exactly what to do with it. It is not related to the recession. It’s not related to the quality of the federation.”

While much of the General Assembly focused on building Jewish identity among the young and boosting the Jewish service learning movement, a number of insiders said the annual conference missed the mark by not focusing more on helping federations figure out their own identities and how to tell their stories better.

“It was a missed opportunity,” Jay Sanderson, president of the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, told JTA.

Sanderson said the federations are experiencing an identity crisis.

“What do we stand for as a system? What is our story and how are we telling it? Is it effective and clear? We don’t have a strong story right now,” he said.

Shrage agreed.

“If you call a person who didn’t grow up in the federation, what distinguishes you from the Friends of the IDF?” Shrage said. “What distinguishes you from the Friends of the IDF is that you don’t have as exciting a story that you can tell in 3 1/2 minutes.”

The GA held several sessions on dealing with the recession and growing needs, but the sessions were sparsely attended. Instead, participants chose to attend sessions focused on Jewish identity issues.

In Boston, Shrage’s federation is tackling the challenge of engaging the young with a complicated plan that will allow the philanthropy to better engage large donors with the hope that the programs they build one day will attract new donors. Shrage said the plan has been slowed significantly by the recession.

“The question is how do you use new technologies to get to the masses, the hearts and minds of the Jewish people that don’t have any idea of what you are as a federation?” Shrage said. “It hasn’t gotten worse due to the recession. I think it is a big, long-range problem, which will determine whether the federations will be mainly the domain of the people who give over $10,000 or continue to have the possibility of being a broadly based movement.”

Shrage said that if federations like Boston’s cannot get their affiliate organizations and local synagogues to help more in reaching out to the grass roots to tell the federation’s story, the federation system may not be able to sustain itself in its current form.

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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