Board Chair Reflections: Federation is Closing

The Jewish Federation of San Diego County is closing its doors - it will exist no more.

Lest I repeat the mistake of Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast of a Martian invasion of earth that created widespread panic across America, Federation is NOT closing.  But…what if it did?  What if the decades of leadership, programming, services and financial support locally and around the world ended? What if the critics in our community were right in their perception of Federation’s decline and lack of relevance, resulting in its ultimate and complete demise? What if…?

This column is my last as Chair of Federation’s Board of Directors.  Today, I share with you the very root of why I proudly served this organization and this community for the past four years.  Simply put, I did it because I fear that the future of the Jewish community as we value and cherish it, would disappear if Federation closed its doors.  Yes, I literally mean completely disappear.  And that scares the hell out of me.

Frankly, as an institution per se, I don’t care if Federation survives or not. I do not see the value in its mere existence as an entity. My deep commitment centers on the Community (big C) – the entire community – and the unique value that the Federation has brought to ALL of us over the decades, donors or not, and the essential value it continues to provide. With growing disengagement from our Jewish communal core, growing anti-Semitism and unending needs, the Federation is not merely relevant but critical if we expect future generations to maintain a Jewish heritage that has existed for millennia – a heritage from which we all derive great pride. As history has demonstrated, it is only Jews that help Jews, and continuing to do so requires the Federation to complement the many organizations who currently do so pursuant to their defined missions. To fulfill our most sacred obligation of Tikkun Olam – repairing the world – the Federation remains the most effective and pervasive Jewish organization to fulfill that standard unique to our people.

The Roman Empire, one of the most powerful in history, fell. Times change, and the future of the Federation is not guaranteed. Nor, frankly, are the Jewish people as a people. I expect that most all Jews derive some benefit from their heritage, engaged or not, and the Federation continues to ensure our existence as a community, particularly in these modern times. To do so, adapting to novel, and complex giving paradigms is essential. In response, HOW Federation achieves its objectives is changing, not the what, and these changes are difficult and confusing. These challenges should not serve as rationalizations to abandon Federation but require support and patience throughout our community to ensure that it will continue to build a strong Jewish future, take care of Jews in need, and support Israel’s existence and that of its citizens (The WHAT we do). 

So, what does San Diego look like without Federation? I have no doubt that the incredibly effective organizations that serve our community will endure: Jewish Community Foundation, JFS, JCC, Seacrest, day schools, ADL, Leichtag, synagogues, and so many others. They will serve their constituents. But what about the Community (big C, again)? What about the overarching issues outside the purview of any single organization? Only Federation is uniquely positioned to address these broader community and overseas/Israel needs, to help convene and mobilize the entire community. And if that function ceases to exist? That’s what scares me.

Even in recent years when Federation has forged a new path to accommodate new giving patterns, it performed critical functions for our collective good and, more importantly, for our collective future. Those activities are not always flashy, nor urgent, nor novel, yet they are necessary and, unfortunately, we have all begun to take them for granted. Just the impact that Rabbi Dalin has on countless lives in San Diego through Federation’s chaplaincy inspires my giving.  The Federation focuses on what we value: community, caring for each other, Israel, Tikkun Olam, the next generations. No other organization assumes this broad responsibility.

Federation’s greatest failure (and San Diego is not alone) is its inability to effectively communicate its impact. Be it strengthening the Jewish community (PJ Library and parent connector program; camp subsidies; Teen Initiative; teen travel subsidies to Israel, etc.), providing for those in need (Holocaust Survivor Coalition; desperate, solitary Jews in the former Soviet Union; our east county community social worker pilot for isolated Jews, etc.), our dollars have incredible impact. Addressing community wide leadership development and innovative programming around young professionals are two new areas where Federation will demonstrate its value through collaborations to ensure the holistic needs of the community are successfully addressed. 

Cries of irrelevance emanate from those to whom we have failed to communicate or those who are angry at some differences in approach, ignoring those areas of commonality that are critical to us all. Not everyone agrees with every decision Federation makes, but why do we focus on those differences to the complete exclusion of the many areas in which we undoubtedly agree? My wife does not always agree with me. My kids certainly don’t. I am certain you do not agree with every position of your boss, or your preferred politician or political party. But we don’t walk away because we know that we share far more values than those on which we differ. When you look at what Federation does, the IMPACT it has, I guarantee that you will find ample reason to support our work, but not because I say so – because it helps you make a real difference in the future of the Jewish community we all hold so dear.

My term started with community-wide division around the Iran nuclear deal and ended with the tragic bigotry at Chabad of Poway. In between, we made some difficult decisions around day schools, although never abandoning our support for next generation Jewish content. We cannot agree on everything, but we need to agree and support the many issues that will dictate our Jewish future in San Diego. Frankly, Federation was not my first choice for organizational involvement in the Jewish community, as I found it difficult to relate to its declining state. In discussing the topic with my father years ago, he said to me to “go where you are needed, not where it is easy.” So, I did. It was not easy. But these four years only fortified my belief in the value of Federation’s role and the difference that I can make. A real difference.

What would happen if Federation closed? As someone once said to me, “If there were no Federation, we would have to invent one.”  

We don’t need to invent Federation.  It exists and it merits all of our support, ESPECIALLY in this time of change.  Join me as there is work to be done for our community.  Our Community.  If WE allow Federation to fail, to close its doors, we do so at our own peril - at the peril of our children and their children.  Me? I’ll stick around.  Federation’s work is too important not to. I hope you choose to invest in our Jewish future as well through the critical work of Federation.


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