Q&A with Federation head Jay Sanderson
At the Jewish Federations of North America’s annual General Assembly (GA), held this year in National Harbor, Md., Nov. 9-11, thousands of Jewish professional and lay leaders filled a conference center and hotel to listen to famous and powerful Jews, including two Supreme Court justices and the Israeli prime minister (via telecast), sit through breakout sessions and, most important, network with one another and share ideas that have been tested at Jewish Federations across the country.
Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles President and CEO Jay Sanderson came here this year with seven staff members and 17 lay leaders; for him, this year’s GA caps a year in which the L.A. Federation’s leadership predicts it will reach its fundraising goal of $50 million and its outreach goal of 20,000 donors by Jan. 1.
In two interviews with the Journal during the GA, Sanderson spoke with his usual candor about what the GA does and doesn’t offer, about the L.A. Federation’s successes and shortfalls in 2014, and his frustration at the inability of Israeli Americans in Los Angeles and the local Federation to create a partnership that will help further integrate Israeli Americans into the local Jewish community.
Jewish Journal: What do you see as the goal of the GA?
Jay Sanderson: This is the one time that the Federation system can tell its story to national and international lay and professional leaders.
JJ: What’s the story?
JS: There’s no organization in the world like the Federation system. There just isn’t. There hasn’t been. You’re talking about billions and billions of dollars. You’re talking about the establishment of the State of Israel, the rescuing of Soviet Jews, of Ethiopian Jews. That’s done through the Federation collective.
JJ: Is Federation losing relevance as Jews become increasingly disengaged from Jewish communal life?
JS: There are more Jews involved in Federation in L.A. today than there were 10 years ago. OK? That’s factually correct, not anecdotal — based on number of donors and number of people in leadership, and meaningful leadership. Those are things you can measure, and we have a dramatic, and growing, increase in engagement and involvement.
Now that doesn’t mean that the vast majority of Jews are not — in your generation for sure — are not disengaged; they are disengaged from institutional life, not Federation life. They are disengaged from synagogues, they are disengaged from the Anti-Defamation League and [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee] — they are disengaged. We have a majority of Jews disengaged in institutional organizational Jewish life. That is a communal challenge, that’s the Pew [Research Center] report.
I can say in Los Angeles that we are focused on addressing that. I’d say most organizations say it, but we have strategies to do it. So the GA is — right now you’re going to meet mostly the people who drank the Kool-Aid, some of the people who make the Kool-Aid, some of the people who bathe in the Kool-Aid. You’re not going to see a lot of people here who think there’s too much sugar in Kool-Aid.
JJ: Changing topics: 2014 is almost done. What’s a goal L.A. Federation has accomplished that you’re proud of, and what’s an area where you came up short?
JS: One accomplishment was we wanted to make the Federation a better place to work. We’ve started all these programs for people to feel more engaged, and we’ve given a lot of people opportunities to do other things. So there’s been a lot of people that work at the Federation that are moving into new opportunities within the building.
JJ: Where have you come up short in 2014?
JS: NuRoots, our initiative for young adults, is behind — timing-wise — where it should be. I thought we’d be further along in NuRoots. We launched the fellows program, we had four engagement fellows working in the community, building micro-communities in four geographic locations, and we are moving in other directions. But I think we are six to nine months [behind] where I thought we would be now. It’s gone slower than I had hoped in terms of development of the project.
I wish we were further along in our relationship with the Israeli-American community in Los Angeles. We’ve had a lot of fits and starts trying to work with the [Israeli-American Council], and they are growing nationally and they are very successful, but I feel like there’s not the kind of partnership with the Jewish community that I was hoping for when I started this job. I think some of it is cultural challenges between the two institutions, and I don’t think it’s a big enough priority.
JJ: For either side?
JS: Maybe for either side. I think it needs to be a bigger priority for both sides.