Thursday, June 14, 2012
Why We Need a Mega-Federation in Fairfield County
We know that redemption is at hand when we read about the Bar Mitzvah of Muhammad Ali's grandson. We also celebrate Father's Day this week, plus the graduations of many of our students (and join us on Friday evening as we honor our Middle and High School graduates, sending them off with books, blessings and Men's Club scholarships). But despite that good news, there are many challenges facing our local Jewish community.
This week marked the release of the landmark Jewish Community Study of Greater New York. The study itself is fascinating (and the growth of Westchester Jewry bodes well for us). But the mere fact of the study screams out to us that we need such a study too. Why can they do it and we can't?
Because they are huge and we are not.
New York's UJA-Federation's catchment includes the five boroughs, plus Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester. That's a lot of Jews. The local UJF includes Tresser Boulevard, Newfield Ave. and a few exits up the Merritt. Fairfield County has five - count 'em, FIVE - separate and distinct Jewish federations: Greenwich, Greater Stamford, Norwalk-Westport, Bridgeport and Danbury. This pointless splintering has denied us the chance to understand the needs of our Jewish community and forge a cohesive county-wide alliance with the ability to draw from our vast reserves of financial, organizational and visionary resources.
Fairfield County needs a mega-federation NOW. Community leaders (like me) need to speak out about it. The merger, involving staffs, campaigns and lay boards, could be complete or partial. But now is the time to do it!
It has been shown that consolidation works in a federation world that has been staggered over the past decade by economic and demographic downturns and the rise of foundations and mega-agencies. Consolidation would allow for greater sharing of funds and expansion of vision. This is being seen in communities like Tampa and Orlando, which have recently formed an alliance. Just last week, the Metro West and Central New Jersey federations announced a merger. The Boston area has also undergone significant consolidation.
Go to the listings of North American federations and find one state that has more federations per square mile than ours. No state comes even close. Our current system simply makes no sense - it's sort of like every city in Fairfield County having its own major league baseball team. It wasn't supposed to be "two Jews, three federations," but in Fairfield County it almost is. It's as if, back a half century ago, someone in Greenwich, someone in Stamford and someone in Norwalk decided that they would never get along, so why bother? Let's agree to permanently disagree and start three federations! Frankly, it's an embarrassment. Where is it written that Greenwich and Stamford Jews won't mix with their compatriots in Westport and Fairfield? Are we that snobbish? If the Upper East Side can co-exist with Brighton Beach, then Greenwich can talk to Bridgeport. Are our machers that selfish, requiring so small a pond in which to be the big fish?
No. In fact many of our largest donors are taking their philanthropic dreams to federations like New York's where even in that huge ocean their money can make an enormous difference. A county-wide Fairfield federation, one that dares to dream, could lure them back home.
New York, Boston and L.A., along with other large federations, have led the way in pioneering and promoting grass-roots efforts to revolutionize education, marketing, social services and inter-agency partnering. Check out jewishboston.com and you'll see degrees of federation-synagogue partnership that we've never seen. Look at New York's Synergy program. Only a large federation can forge such partnerships, one that is much bigger than any of its agencies, one that can bridge communities, one that can stand above the day schools, JCCs and welfare agencies and help us share our toys.
Large federations can afford demographic studies, strategic plans and marketing campaigns. Large federations can coordinate and adequately fund successful Hebrew High School programs (see my alma mater, Hebrew College Prozdor) that individual synagogues will line up to embrace rather than compete against. Large federations can excite young leadership and have the funds to nurture their growth. Large federations can afford snappy marketing, thought-provoking social media outlets, newspapers and top-notch websites. The websites of the Fairfield Five are uniformly unspectacular - I give Danbury's my highest grade, a gentleman's C.
Large federations can bring Jews together for Israel in ways that will force the community to stand up and take notice, and enable our children to swell with pride. The federation used to be THE address for all things related to Israel. Now that position has been assumed by groups like AIPAC, ADL and the NIF. We have what's called a "consortium" of federations aligned to our sister city of Afula. Each community helps Afula-Gilboa, but rarely do we come together in order to do it and because of that the assistance is diluted. The "March of the Living" is the closest we come to a mega-mission. There are no county-wide parades. No mass rallies. Federations like Boston's are able to lead the entire community toward a mature Israel advocacy, one that helps diverse groups listen to one another, embracing a pluralism of perspectives, while also sending Israel the political, financial and moral support she needs. Having a mishmash of federations limits the impact of Israel advocacy here. When large communities speak in one voice - as Jews can do in a crisis - the media listens. The Jewish community of Fairfield County never speaks in one voice.
In fact, the Jewish community of Fairfield County, as a unified entity, does not exist.
Educationally, there are no Limmud retreats with hundreds of people sharing ideas; no Me'ah seminars clustered in synagogues region-wide. Here in Fairfield County, each community has done fine adult educational programs, but even Stamford's successful 3-hour annual "Tapestry" night doesn't come close to matching the power of a weekend-long Limmud. And our Bureau of Jewish Education, arguably the best thing our federation has accomplished over the past decade (full disclosure: I lobbied hard for it), is constantly under threat of being cut. The Bureau, with all its courses, teacher training and special ed programs, can only be sustained by - you guessed it - a larger federation.
Large federations can support day schools and supplementary Hebrew Schools as well, encouraging innovation and partnership. They can find the unaffiliated and steer them toward involvement, becoming a prime gateway for groups that all too often have found themselves on the fringes of the community. We've tried to reach them, but our success has been far from complete. Pooling resources would help us immeasurably. Having the federation become a true central address, bigger than any local agency, will reverse the dysfunctionality that plagues our communities.
The Jews of Fairfield County have much in common. Many share roots in New York or New England. We work in the same offices. We meet at AIPAC, ADL, Jewish Home, JFS, JHSC or UConn dinners - those organizations belie the myth that we can't act on a county-wide basis. The rabbis talk to each other, though not often enough. We watch the same cable TV channels and read the same (lousy) local newspapers. Many of us send our kids to the same day schools. We share a Jewish High School. We love Israel and have met there, at Hadassah conventions, the G.A. or on the "March of the Living." We love Israel so much that, if we pooled our collective resources, we could raise much more money for it.
We could raise much more money for everything and save money as well. That's why they are joining forces in central Florida.
These words might seem jarring and harsh. On occasion I've been known to speak my mind, but I must confess, with regard to this matter, I've been far too placid. I've felt this way for far more years than I'm willing to admit, and I know that many others have expressed similar feelings to me. But no one wants to upset things. I guess that's my job.
This is the moment to act, for Stamford's federation certainly, but for the others as well. To the credit of our local UJF leadership, the merger option is being considered seriously, but I also know that at times like these, inertia is a dangerous narcotic. It is too easy to table hard questions. I also hear from rabbinic colleagues that neighboring communities are interested in exploring greater collaboration. But all too often, egos get in the way. And if there's one thing this county has in abundance, it's egos. I hear this process will require years of study and negotiation. I don't agree. It will take a lot of work, no doubt, but if the sense of urgency is there, that work can be compressed into a relatively brief amount of time. National federation leaders can't wait to help us. If just two or three of the Fairfield Five could come together and make it work, the others would follow, egos notwithstanding.
But first we have to agree on this path. If we want to be part of a larger, relevant Jewish world, I see no other choice.