Federation Matters

John Fishel is the executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.



Local vs. National

By John Fishel

A few weeks ago, Jewish Journal columnist J.J. Goldberg wrote about a “transformative” meeting in Chicago, where 150 fund-raisers and donors gathered to discuss the future of the United Jewish Appeal and the Council of Jewish Federations. Goldberg chronicled the effort to merge the two national bodies in order better serve the American Jewish community.

The essence of the debate is over the future nature of the national Jewish collectivity, the priorities of that collectivity and, most challenging, the binding impact of the decisions made by the new national organization on local communities — our community.

The UJA and the Council of Jewish Federations are now in a partnership. The structure that will govern this new partnership needs to be broadly based and representative of local, national and Israeli needs. We need to ask, How will this new national body represent the interests of Jews in Los Angeles?

The reality is that most leaders in the Los Angeles Jewish community do not actively participate in national Jewish activities. There are some notable exceptions, but the core of Jewish organizational power remains located in the coastal corridor between Boston and Washington, the historic center of American Jewish life. But is that area still the contemporary center of American Jewish life? Los Angeles, as the second-largest Jewish community in the United States, has enormous resources, including the country’s largest secondary Jewish day school, a major new museum of the American-Jewish experience and a new rabbinical school. We have two Jewish universities, dozens of Jewish schools, Jewish camps, extraordinary synagogues and service agencies. We have scores of Jewish scholars, rabbinical leaders, world-class communal leaders and successful entrepreneurs.

It’s nice that the new national structure will functionally expand its Western regional presence, with its office based in Los Angeles. But how will this body truly engage our community’s dozens of superb lay and professional leaders to assist in national Jewish communal policy-making?

In recent years, the Los Angeles Federation has financially participated in some crucial endeavors: helping Jews in jeopardy emigrate from Ethiopia, Syria and the former Soviet Union; raising consciousness and dollars to feed starving elderly Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe; making funds available to encourage a Jewish renaissance on college campuses and extending the national system of services through Hillel. Most recently, the Federation agreed to advance $3 million to the Jewish Agency on behalf of Israel — the largest single recipient of our annual campaign. It was Los Angeles’ responsibility to respond financially when the burden became too heavy for the Jewish Agency.

The Federation responded, while simultaneously expanding its support for local services to the elderly and new immigrants, assisting Jewish day schools and Jewish camps, and sending more local teens to Israel.

The Jewish Federation, whatever its failings, is the closest thing we have to a central communal organization, the one place where Jews, regardless of their religious affiliation and philosophical leanings, can come and debate communal positions and policy. The Federation raises the financial resources to provide community services in Los Angeles and elsewhere, and distributes these funds where, in its judgment, they will have the greatest impact on the Jewish future.

As the new national system is defined, we in Los Angeles must consider how its decisions will impact our funding priorities. Resources will always remain limited, and decisions require tough choices. That is why the binding nature of collective decisions now being debated at the national level is so critical. I don’t believe that this debate is solely about how much will stay at home and how much will go abroad, although that is a critical.

For me, the essential issue is not the benefit of having a national body but the limits of that collective’s responsibilities. This means allowing us to work together nationally and internationally when necessary, and also allowing our local Federation to do the job it was created to do: provide quality services and build our community.