Has Federation Abandoned Its Central Role?

Having just completed the Passover seders I realize that the attitude with which one asks the question is often as important as the question itself. The distance between the wise and the wicked child is not that great — it is the distance between “we” and “you,” between participation and alienation — but the response to the two questions is radically different.

So permit me to raise questions, because frankly I do not understand what is happening to our community, most particularly to our Federation. And everyone I approach — board members of The Federation, presidents of constituent agencies, even staff members of The Federation — can’t answer the question.

Perhaps a public airing of the question will yield a satisfactory answer. I surely hope so.

Why is a gift to The Federation this year different from all others?

In the past The Federation assumed responsibility for its constituent agencies, for their basic infrastructure and for underwriting the services they provide.

The Board of The Federation made important judgments as to the overall needs of the community and a gift to The Federation provided for the basic infrastructure — from rent to staffing, to programs and services — of such important agencies as Jewish Family Service and the Bureau of Jewish Education as well as to the overseas needs of the Jewish community through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the United Israel Appeal, among others. It also supported important national efforts and national committees, assessed the merit of claims for such support, and made the appropriate allocations.

One could quarrel with the conclusions of The Federation’s leaders, but the process was somewhat clear and somewhat transparent, and the purpose was both clear and important. A gift to The Federation was essential to maintaining the infrastructure of the Jewish community, the many essential and worthwhile — and oftentimes unglamorous — activities that a Jewish community must undertake and the responsibilities we bear for local, national and international Jews.

As I understand it, this is no longer the case.

The Federation no longer sees itself as responsible for the collective infrastructure of the community, for the constituent agencies that offer basic services. Instead, committees of The Federation will now determine priorities of their own for the services that are to be offered, either with the participation of what had hitherto been constituent agencies or in competition with them. And the constituent agencies will now be responsible for raising their own funding and covering their own basic costs.

If this is indeed the case — and it has been explained to me numerous times that it is — then I have three simple, perhaps elementary questions.

  • Who, if anyone, is responsible for determining and supporting the basic infrastructure of the community?
  • Why should one give one’s central gift to The Federation rather than dividing the funds that one had previously directed to The Federation to support the basic services of the agencies that have now been forced to fend for themselves?
  • Has The Federation abandoned its central funding role and created a void at the core of our community?

For example, if we believe in Jewish education — which we definitely should — why not give directly to the Bureau of Jewish Education and/or to the Jewish educational institutions of one’s choice rather than to The Federation, which has now established itself as another service provider alongside — dare one say to rival — the Bureau?

If we believe — which we also should — that supporting the Jewish needy is now more essential than ever with such activities as Jewish Family Service, Jewish Vocational Services, Jewish Free Loan Association, SOVA and MAZON, why not allocate the resources previously funneled through The Federation to these agencies directly?

And if The Federation is but another service provider, how are we to know how good a service provider it is and what its priorities are in order to assess where funds are to be directed? The failure of the Investment Committee of the Jewish Community Foundation that took communal endowment funds and gave them to Bernard Madoff to resign in shame or be fired for lax oversight does not give this writer great confidence.

Permit me to stress that I offer these questions NOT as an excuse for not giving — I will give and I want to give — but because I am confused not as to whether to give but where to give and how to give in this most trying of times when those of us with the resources to give must give in order to meet the growing needs of those who have fallen upon hard times.

I know that I am not the only one who is asking these questions, because every time I ask them of significant officials in both The Federation and its constituent agencies, I am given a puzzled response: “Beats me.” “I too don’t know the answer.”

What is the answer?

Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust and a professor of theology (adjunct) at American Jewish University.