Black-Jewish Passover not about blame


I am disturbed, not by the content, but by the direction, of the entire discussion regarding the relationship between blacks and Jews, and particularly by the discussion about comments supposedly made at a recent awards ceremony here in Los Angeles.

I am Jewish, of European ancestry; my wife is black, with Chinese and Native American ancestry included. What shall we tell our son this Passover, when we retell the tale of how his Jewish ancestors were freed from slavery in Africa?

Shall we trade accusations against each other? The statement reputed to have been made at a fraternity event, that some Jews in the entertainment industry exploited and profited from black performers, is probably true. It is also true that Jewish union leaders, lawyers and agents in the entertainment industry have fought for better wages and working conditions for blacks and others in the industry. Many Jews played crucial roles in the struggle for civil rights, and undoubtedly there were some on the other side as well. We can go back farther to trade accusations. Were there Jews who owned slaves and were involved in the slave trade? Probably so; and yet there were also Jews fighting for abolition. Does it matter whether those on one side outnumbered those on the other?

To be honest, I must tell my son that his African ancestors were on both sides as well. How else did Africans become African Americans? Did a few Europeans (perhaps including some Jews) march into Africa and march out with tens of millions of slaves? Actually, it was their African “brothers” who sent them into slavery. Whether it was for small reasons like personal squabbles, or large reasons like tribal warfare, it was primarily Africans who sent other Africans into slavery, just as Joseph was sold into slavery in Africa by his own brothers.

So is the point of the Passover story that the Hebrews were the “good guys” being held in slavery by “evil” Africans? Emphatically not. And neither should the point of the current discussion be to lay blame on anyone.

What I will tell my son is how his ancestors woke up to their oppression in Africa, and joined together to claim their freedom. I will also have him dip 10 times from his cup to diminish his joy of celebration by the Ten Plagues suffered by the Africans to allow us to be free. I will tell him of his African ancestors dragged in chains to this country; how a violent war was fought to end the slavery, and a nonviolent struggle fought to gain some of the civil rights he now enjoys. And again, I will have him dip from his cup to diminish his joy by the suffering that was the cost of those advances.

Why was I commanded to tell the story of Passover to my children? I do not believe it is to exchange blame, as I see being done today. No. I believe it is to remember that his ancestors, on both sides, suffered from oppression, and must oppose oppression whenever they see it again. It is my duty, which I must pass on to him, to stand up against such oppression today, whether against my own people or others.

I will tell my son of one of my own heroes. Not Moses or Jesus or the Rev.Martin Luther King Jr., but someone very few people ever heard of: Sigismund Danielewicz.

Danielewicz was a Jewish barber from Poland who became one of the most prominent leaders and organizers of California Labor in the 1880s. His downfall came at the convention called in 1885, which was the forerunner to the current California Federation of Labor. The main issue on the table was a resolution to drive the Chinese from the state within 60 days, by force if necessary. Danielewicz alone spoke out against the resolution. He pointed out that he was a member of a race still persecuted, and challenged each group there to say whether the persecution of the Chinese was more justifiable than the persecution they had suffered themselves. His call for unity among labor was jeered, and he was declared out of order. The resolution passed, and was the justification for a virtual pogrom of deadly violence against the Chinese in the months that followed.

Danielewicz sank into obscurity. He was last seen homeless and on foot toward the East Coast in 1910. Why then do I idolize a man who was driven from the podium and doomed to obscurity? Because he had the chutzpah to stand up against oppression, no matter what the cost, simply because it was the right thing to do.

This is what I will tell my son on Passover: It does not matter what color your skin is, nor even what faith you profess to hold. What matters is what you do; which side you choose to be on. The question we must face is not who is to blame for injustice and oppression of the past, but what can we do to fight injustice and oppression now. We should not exercise moderation in this regard, as some have suggested. We must be forceful and as persistent as our ancestors who fought oppression were. We cannot change the past, but we must remember it. We must look up from our own oppression to the light of freedom. We must not look away from the oppression of others, but confront it directly. We must be brave enough to stand up against the tide as Danielewicz did and cry out against oppression, no matter what others say about us.

Even if we do not see the Promised Land ourselves, as with Moses, and even if our words seem to fall on deaf ears, as with Danielewicz, our words and deeds are not lost. The words of my real Jewish barber hero were heard again in Charlie Chaplin’s fictional Jewish barber, with which I conclude my Passover story:

“Let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give youth a future and old age a security. The soul of man has been given wings and at last he is beginning to fly.”

Noteworthy sessions and events at the G.A.


SUNDAY, NOV. 12
10 a.m.-1:30 p.m.
Tour of the Skirball Cultural Center
Note: Tour leaves from Westin Bonaventure and returns to the L.A. Convention Center.

2:30 p.m.
Opening Plenary: “One People, One Destiny, One Great Day in November”
Greetings: L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa
Keynote Speaker: Israel Foreign Affairs Minister Tzipi Livni

4:30 p.m.-5:45 p.m.
Breakout Session: “We Are Not Alone: Allies in Making the Case for Israel”
Speakers: Joe Hicks, vice president of Community Advocates, Inc., and former executive director of the Los Angeles City Human Relations Commission; Randy Neal, California regional director, Christians United for Israel; and Nancy Coonis, superintendent of Secondary Schools for the L.A. Archdiocese

4:30 p.m.-5:45 p.m.
Breakout Session: “Jewish Learning: Activism and Social Justice”
Speaker: Rabbi Miriyam Glazer of the University of Judaism

MONDAY, NOV. 13
8:30 a.m.-9:45 a.m.
Plenary: “The Jewish Future: Where We Are as a People”
Moderator: Dr. Beryl Geber, associate executive vice president of policy development, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los AngelesSpeakers: Rabbi Norman Cohen, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; Dr. Arnold Eisen, chancellor-elect of the Jewish Theological Seminary; and Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University in New York

10:15 a.m.-11:30 a.m.
Plenary: “Emerging Global Realities and the Challenge of Radical Islam”
Speakers: Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International; and Bernard-Henri Lévy, author of “Who Killed Daniel Pearl?” and “American Vertigo: Traveling in the Footsteps of Tocqueville”

2:15 p.m.-3:30 p.m.
Breakout Session: “Media Lessons Learned From the War”

Speakers: Aviv Shir-On, deputy director general for media and public affairs, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Jeffrey Goldberg, New Yorker staff writer and author, “Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide;” and Irit Atsmon, former Deputy IDF spokesman

2:15 p.m.-3:30 p.m.
Breakout Session: “Anti-Zionism as the New Anti-Semitism”
Moderator: Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center
Speakers: Steven Emerson, executive director of The Investigative Project; Aviva Raz-Shechter, director, Department of Anti-Semitism & Holocaust Issues, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs; and Charles Small, director, Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism, Yale University

3:45 p.m.-5 p.m.
Plenary: “Challenges of the Jewish People at the Beginning of the 21st Century”
Speaker: Likud Chairman and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Dr. Irwin Cotler, Canadian MP

8:15 p.m.- 10 p.m.
Event: “A Once in a Lifetime Evening at Walt Disney Concert Hall”

Background: The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles and the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music will co-host a concert of Jewish music at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The program will include selections by Leonard Bernstein and Kurt Weill. Performers include Theodore Bikel, Leonard Nimoy, Cantor Alberto Mizrahi, an 85-member chorus and members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, led by conductor Gerard Schwarz.

TUESDAY, NOV. 14
8:30 a.m.-10 a.m.
Plenary: “Challenges and Opportunities: Israel 2006”
Moderator: Judge Ellen M. Heller, president, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee
Speakers: Israel Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog and Israel Education Minister Yuli Tamir
Special Guest: Moshe Oofnik, Sesame Street Workshop

2:30 p.m.-4 p.m.
Breakout Session: “Understanding Islam: Current Trends”
Speakers: Menahem Milson, professor of Arabic studies, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and chairman of The Middle East Media Research Institute; Norman Stillman, professor and chair of Judaic history, University of Oklahoma; Irshad Manji, author, “The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith”

2:30 p.m.-4 p.m.
Breakout Session: “Working to Save Darfur”
Speakers: John Fishel, president, Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles; Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, co-founder, Jewish World Watch; and Ruth Messinger, president/executive director, American Jewish World Service

4:15 p.m.-5:45 p.m.
Plenary: “The New Frontlines: Facing the Future Together”
Keynote Speaker: Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

WEDNESDAY, NOV. 15
8:30 a.m.-Noon
Meeting: “Translating the GA Into Action: Open Board of Trustees & Delegate Assembly Forum”
Goal: Coming up with an action plan based on issues addressed at GA.

L.A. gets ready to be the center of Jewish universe


In just three weeks, more than 3,000 leaders of the international Jewish community, including the prime minister of Israel, are coming to Los Angeles.

What, you hadn’t heard?

This season’s best-kept secret among L.A. Jews seems to be that the 75th annual General Assembly (GA) of the United Jewish Communities is being held in Los Angeles — the first time in 26 years this city will host one of the largest annual gatherings of Jews in North America.

“This is a great opportunity for Los Angeles to participate in this national convention, where we don’t always have a critical mass participating,” said John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “More importantly, we have some extraordinarily talented Jewish human resources and some extraordinarily creative programming in L.A., and this will be an opportunity for us to highlight those individuals and programs.”

But while some locals have already signed up, and hundreds have volunteered, a mention of the GA is more likely to elicit a blank stare than an excited nod in most Jewish circles.

“Never heard of it,” said Marlene Kahan, a teacher who lives in Beverlywood. “But it sounds interesting. I’d love to read about it and find out what happens there.”

The GA is one of the largest Jewish events on the North American calendar (the Reform movement’s biennial conference surpasses the GA, with about 5,000 attendees), with thousands of lay and professional leaders from hundreds of communities gathering to explore the state of the Jewish world, and to set a vision for the year to come.

The United Jewish Communities represents 155 Federations and 400 independent communities, and the four-day conference, Nov. 12-15 at the Los Angeles Convention Center downtown, brings together Federation machers as well as other organizations and activists from around the world. Anyone who wants to be a player in the Jewish community is at the GA.

The powerful bloc of participants attracts an impressive roster of leaders, scholars and experts to run daily plenaries and a menu of hundreds of sessions on topics from global anti-Zionism to new trends in Jewish education to savvy solicitation techniques.

Anyone can register as a delegate. Southern Californians are offered a local’s discounted rate of $275 (non-residents pay $525), and people who have volunteered to help out for a few hours can attend the conference on that day (volunteer slots have been filled). All events — including a concert at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on Monday, Nov. 13 — are open to registered delegates and volunteers only.

But word has been slow to trickle out to the far-flung L.A. Jewish community.

While a call for volunteers went out to synagogues and organizations months ago, full-page ads have only shown up in the last few weeks, and the UJC Web site didn’t post program details — such as speakers and session topics — until early October.
There are currently 425 local delegates signed up, along with about 300 to 400 student delegates, some of them at Southern Californian schools, signed up through Hillel. About 750 Angelenos have also volunteered to staff the convention, which is estimated to attract 3,000 delegates and an additional 1,000 exhibitors, organizers and staff, according to Judy Fischer, who is the Los Angeles Federation staff GA director. Fischer is working with lay host community chair Terri Smooke to organize the event.

Organizers admit publicity has been slow because the program was revamped following the war in Israel.

“The focus was transformed in light of what happened over the summer, and particularly in light of the implications of the war for Israel and for the Jewish people in our communities and across the world,” said Michael Kotzin, executive vice president of the Chicago Federation, and head of programming for the GA. “There is a strong sense of connection with Israel, and recognition that as much as this means as a single war, it wasn’t just that. It has a deeper meaning.”

The theme chosen over the summer was “On the Frontlines Together: One People, One Destiny,” meant to encompass the war’s implications regarding the Israel-Diaspora connection, global Jewish security, Israel’s identity, its military, its leadership and how that reverberates out to Jewish communities across the world.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is scheduled to deliver the keynote on Tuesday evening (though in the past prime ministers have often ended up canceling or speaking through video feed). A record four Knesset ministers are also scheduled to address the group, including foreign minister Tzipi Livni, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel’s ministers of education and tourism.

During and following the war, federations from across the country funneled $330 million dollars to Israel through UJC.
“In some ways this was kind of a breakthrough in the recognition of the centrality and significance of the UJC Federation system,” Kotzin said. “The prime minister wants to be able to come and participate to express his appreciation and to advance ties between Israel and the North American Jewish Community. The GA exists at a moment where we can really keep up with what is going on and move things forward.”

Other speakers include Canadian Parliament Member Dr. Irwin Cotler; Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International; and French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levi.

A plenary on “The Jewish Future” will feature a panel with Norman Cohen, provost of the Reform Hebrew Union College-Jewish Insitiute of Religion; Arnie Eisen, chancellor-elect at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary; and Richard Joel, president of the Orthodox Yeshiva University.

But all other conference-wide sessions will focus on Israel, as will more than half of the smaller sessions.
It is a shift that not everyone is thrilled with.

“As someone who lives in Israel and is a Zionist, I think it is unfortunate and actually speaks to the lack of an overarching vision for the future of the Jewish people,” said Yossi Abramowitz, founder of Jewish Family and Life, who now blogs daily at peoplehood.org.

Abramowitz has attended around 20 GAs, and moved to Israel this summer.

Large-Scale Israel Solidarity Rally Planned for Sunday


In an effort to demonstrate solidarity with Israel, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and other Jewish groups are organizing a major community rally to take place in front of the Federation’s Wilshire Boulevard headquarters this Sunday, July 23 at 4 p.m.


RELATED LINKS

The Federation

Board of Rabbis

Wiesenthal Center Hosts 900+ for Pro-Israel Rally

Simon Wiesenthal Center

United Jewish Communities (UJC)

Planners hope to attract 10,000 supporters.

“This is an opportunity for a broad cross-section of our community to come together for the people of Israel at this difficult time,” Federation President John Fishel said.

The Federation and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California are coordinating the rally, which will include the pro-Israel advocacy group StandWithUs and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, among other organizations. Fischel said The Federation will work with public agencies to ensure participants’ safety.

First Federation Rally

Sunday’s event is the first major pro-Israel rally organized by the Federation since 2001, Fischel said. That year, the nonprofit organization held a rally in support of Israel just after the outbreak of the Second Intifada.

To publicize the rally, many local rabbis are emailing congregants and will speak from the pulpit on Shabbat about the demonstration’s importance, said Board of Rabbis Executive Vice President Mark Diamond.

“The rally will send a clear message to American politicians, the U.N. and to world leaders that the people of Los Angeles stand with Israel,” Diamond said. “I think the world needs to be reminded over and over again what started this war, and that Israel is a sovereign state that has a right to defend its people.”

The attacks on Israel by Hezbollah and Hamas represent nothing less than the latest step in radical Islam’s quest for world domination, said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Standing up to the threat, whether on the frontlines of Israel or the streets of Los Angeles, is a needed challenge to the forces of darkness.

“Their first step may be the state of Israel, but it is not the last stop in their international Jihadist journey,” Hier said. “This is an historical moment for the state of Israel. And Israel is doing what the world should be doing: confronting terrorists.”

Wiesenthal Center Plans Screenings

As part of its attempts to educate the public about the roots of the current crisis in the Middle East, the Wiesenthal Center has plans to screen three films, beginning July 25. “The Long Way Home,” discusses the story of Israel’s creation; “In Search of Peace” details the conflict from 1948 to 1967; and “Ever Again,” Hier said, spotlights the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and anti-Semitism.

Meanwhile, the Federation has established an Israel in Crisis Fund. One hundred percent of all monies raised will go toward sending Israeli children living in northern communities under attack to summer camp in safer areas.

The Federation’s emergency campaign is part of an initiative among U.S. and Canadian federations to raise $1 million weekly for the summer camp program.

As a measure of its support, the L.A. Federation announced that it had donated $100,000 to the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization for 155 Jewish federations and 400 independent Jewish communities across North America.
New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington D.C. and Toronto have had or will also hold rallies to show solidarity with the Jewish state.

The upcoming Los Angeles event comes less than a week after a Chabad-sponsored pray-in and two weeks after an emotional rally at the Wiesenthal Center.
On July 17, Chabad held a pro-Israel prayer rally at Rabbi Schneerson Square in Los Angeles. The lunchtime gathering attracted about 1,000 people, including 500 children from local Chabad camps and youth groups.

“Whenever the Jewish people are threatened, our special weapon is the prayers of our beautiful children who now cry to the Almighty for the safety of our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land,” said Rabbi Boruch S. Cunin, director of West Coast Chabad.

Four days earlier, about 500 supporters of Israel attended the last-minute gathering. The two-hour ceremony included speeches from Wiesenthal Rabbis Hier and Abraham Cooper, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yarsolavsky, L.A. Consul General to Israel Ehud Danoch, Judea Pearl (father of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl) and The Federation’s Fishel.
“This operation will not end until we make an end to Hezbollah,” Danoch said. “Israel is strong. The government is strong. The Jewish people are strong, and we will last an eternity.”

Religion Editor Amy Klein contributed to this report.

Views Differ on Role in Centers Crisis


The news stunned John Fishel. In the fall of 2001, the L.A. Federation president learned that the city’s Jewish community centers were in crisis. If The Federation didn’t act quickly, some or all of the JCCs would have to shut down.

Fishel had every right to feel upset. He and other Federation leaders had allocated millions to support the JCCs over the years, with the expectation that the money was well spent, with proper oversight. In the late 1990s, for instance, The Federation had forgiven $1 million in loans to the parent organization running the centers.

Now, not only were the Jewish centers’ futures at stake, but also nearly $3 million in additional loans advanced by The Federation.

The financial troubles at the local JCCs were by no means unprecedented. Years earlier, difficulties flared up in Pittsburgh and Cleveland. In those instances, the local federations acted quickly to bail out troubled centers. They forgave loans, made emergency cash infusions and hammered out long-term strategic plans.

Other cities saved their JCCs because they saw them as invaluable community resources. They not only provided valuable services to Jewish families but also strengthened or even established connections between individual Jews and the Jewish community. In Los Angeles, JCCs also were known for serving the larger non-Jewish community.

But Fishel did not act as though preserving the centers was a community necessity. His approach to the problem was markedly different than in other cities.

“It all became: How are you going to pay back the money? When are you going to pay back the money? What interest rate will there be for this accrued debt?” said Nina Lieberman Giladi, former executive vice president of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA). “I would have expected The Federation, as leader of the organized local Jewish community, to have taken a different, more collaborative tone.”

A former Federation executive close to the parent organization corroborated her account, as does documentation. The Federation brought an attorney to the first post-crisis meeting between group executives and representatives of the centers’ parent organization. Many in the community began to see Fishel as intent on liquidating the centers to get the Federation’s money back. Fishel did little to dispel that perception by opining that perhaps the JCC model was antiquated and megasynagogues, day schools and other Jewish institutions might fill the void.

Eventually, The Federation restructured the debt and agreed to some loan forgiveness. But Fishel created no special fundraising campaign. He didn’t hold a fundraiser dinner. And the repayment terms virtually guaranteed that most of the JCCs would be shuttered, with their land sold to repay The Federation.

His actions suggested that he had lost faith in the mission and relevance of some of the city’s JCCs, especially the smaller ones.

Within three years, the venerable Bay Cities JCC in Santa Monica went out of business; the small Conejo Valley JCC shut down, and the JCCs’ parent organization sold the North Valley JCC. Although the property’s new owner has permitted North Valley members to continue operating on the site, the number of families participating at the center is off nearly 80 percent from the late 1980s.

And in Silver Lake, it was a Christian cleric — not The Federation — who partnered with the local community to purchase the land under the Silverlake Independent JCC. Otherwise, that profitable center would have closed because of a debt that it did not create. Most of the proceeds went to The Federation to repay a secured loan.

All this occurred against the backdrop of a JCC movement that is booming nationally. Close to $700 million in construction is planned, under way or has recently been completed, said Allan Finkelstein, president of the JCC Association of North America, the umbrella organization for the nation’s 200 full-service JCCs and other community properties, including Jewish camps. In coming years, Las Vegas; Boulder, Colo., and Naples, Fla., are expected to have new state-of-the-art facilities.

So what happened in Los Angeles, a city with such an affluent Jewish community? For one thing, the JCC parent organization mismanaged its finances and never raised enough money to maintain and improve the centers as Federation funding began declining in the 1990s, said attorney Ron Leibow, a vice chair of the national JCC Association. Leibow ultimately helped negotiate a final settlement between The Federation and the JCC parent organization, the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles.

The local Jewish community, unlike those in other cities, neither supported most existing centers nor clamored for the types of state-of-the-art facilities that have proven so successful elsewhere, he added. As for Fishel, Leibow said, he erred in initially taking an intransigent stance.

“There’s lot of blame to go around,” Leibow said. “I blame The Federation. I blame the JCC system. And I blame the community.”

Fishel, supporters argue, did much more for the local JCCs than he’s given credit for. In 2001, at the height of the crisis, Federation grants, loans and advances to the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles totaled $3.3 million, or nearly one-quarter of its $14 million budget, according to The Federation. (That figure included a $1.1 million emergency loan, with interest.)

“I can assure you John did all he could,” said Harriet Hochman, a former Federation chair who worked closely with Fishel on the JCC issue. “This caused him a great deal of pain and agony.”

The Federation, Hochman added, has increasing demands on its finite resources and simply lacked the money to prop up the entire system.

Given the mismanagement at the JCC parent organization, Fishel could be excused for not rushing to throw new money at the problem.

But to critics, Fishel and The Federation seemed to be choosing with their funding which Jewish communities were worth fighting for.

In the end, those JCCs considered worthy were the state-of-the-art New JCC at Milken in the West Valley; the Westside JCC (near the Fairfax district), which has raised millions for a planned renovation, and the often-struggling Valley Cities JCC. They have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in Federation support.

“Without John Fishel and all the lay and professional support we’ve gotten from The Federation, we wouldn’t be here — period,” said Mike Brezner, president of Friends of Valley Cities JCC, which operates the center. “They got us over the hump.”

Fishel’s unwavering support, Brezner added, allowed Valley Cities to rebuild programs, attract new members and gave it time to find an anonymous donor who paid off the Valley Cities outstanding debt. More than 1,000 visitors per week now come to the center.

No such luck with Fishel for the Silverlake Independent JCC, which arguably was more successful than Valley Cities. The Federation, in recent years, gave nearly nothing to Silverlake.

A boisterous 2004 protest held by Silverlake supporters at Federation headquarters brought out television crews and put Fishel and The Federation in a negative glare. Afterward, when Silverlake formally requested a grant, Federation officials asked for audited financial statements. Silverlake executives said they couldn’t afford to pay the audit fee.

“In my estimation, [the Silverlake leadership] chose not to go through the route we recommended,” Fishel said curtly.

In April 2005, just as Silverlake appeared on the verge of closing, Bishop J. Jon Bruno, head of Los Angeles’ Episcopal Diocese, stepped in to assume a 49 percent ownership stake on behalf of the local Episcopalian diocese. The Silverlake group retained 51 percent control. The center, which operates in the black, now offers ballet, gymnastics, yoga and other classes. Its preschool has a waiting list.

“I was stunned when we ultimately received no help from the organized Jewish community,” said Janie F. Schulman, president of the Silverlake Independent JCC. “I kept thinking that at the end of the day, they would come through for us.”

For a city its size, Los Angeles now has a relatively weak JCC system. Whereas metro New York has 26 full- or part-service JCCs and Chicago has seven, Los Angeles has five.

“I don’t feel the JCC model is necessarily outmoded,” Fishel said, “but we have a different community today than we did 10 or 20 years ago.”

Fishel Facts

Name: John Fishel.

Position: President of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles — 1992 to the present.

Age: 57.

Salary: $332, 000 (according to 2004 federal tax documents).

Birthplace: Cleveland.

Education: B.A. in anthropology from University of Michigan; M.A. in social work from University of Michigan.

Family: Married for 31 years to Karen, preschool teacher at Temple Isaiah; daughter, Jessica, 19, freshman at University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Hobbies: Reading, international adventure travel, music, especially jazz and blues.

Federation Support of Civic Group Wanes


When former Democratic Congressman Mel Levine agreed to chair the Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC), he hoped to infuse it with the passion and purpose of its heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In those days, the JCRC — which is one of the major voices and faces of The Federation to the non-Jewish world — was a high-profile entity. It took up the cause of Soviet Jewry and Ethiopia’s Jews. It was assertive locally, too, whether in denouncing the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 or reaching out to non-Jewish communities in need.

But something has happened during the John Fishel era at The Federation.

Critics say that starting in the mid-1990s, the JCRC slowly began losing its voice and shirked a core mission: to be as visible and forthrightly active as possible.

As Levine saw it, the community relations committee could once again become a powerful voice by taking principled stands on controversial public policy issues, thereby strengthening coalitions with African American, Latino and other ethnic groups.

Levine’s appointment came at a time when JCRC staff morale was low. The committee had largely abandoned public policy advocacy in favor of its more traditional roles of ardently supporting Israel, reaching out to other religious and ethnic communities and lobbying for government dollars for social programs. Under Fishel, the JCRC has seen its influence, as well as staff and budget, shrink.

“John Fishel doesn’t get it, doesn’t understand it,” said Howard Welinsky, a former JCRC chair. He said that Fishel constantly pushed to downsize the JCRC during Welinsky’s two-year term in the late ’90s.

But Fishel’s view is that the political climate simply evolved. The JCRC has “a unique function,” he said, but the community itself no longer always coalesces, through the committee, as one voice. There are no longer such issues of broad agreement, such as support for Soviet Jewry.

“I think it’s become much more difficult for the JCRC to define what becomes an issue of Jewish concern,” Fishel said.

To be sure, JCRCs across the country have seen budgets shrink as federations’ resources dipped. After the successful immigration to Israel of nearly 1 million Soviet Jews — a Herculean undertaking that community relations councils around the nation helped orchestrate — several JCRCs experienced periods of “searching for meaning,” said Ethan Felson, assistant executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the New York-based parent organization for 125 community relations councils nationwide.

Which is why the appointment of former Rep. Levine was so welcomed. Given his political connections in Sacramento and Washington and his energy and dedication, JCRC supporters believed Levine would restore the committee’s lost luster.

When the Israeli embassy contacted Levine, seeking JCRC public support for Israel’s planned withdrawal of settlers and troops from Gaza, he set about building consensus. Although Levine eventually succeeded in putting the JCRC on record as favoring the withdrawal — a position shared by the majority of American Jews — he said he felt frustrated that it took so long for The Federation to sign off on the public pronouncement. And by this time, The Federation was following the train of opinion shapers, rather than leading it.

Time was, the local JCRC, with The Federation’s blessing, took controversial stands on issues of the day, said Steven Windmueller, the committee’s director from 1985 to 1995. In those heady times, the JCRC opposed the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court and spoke out in support of abortion rights, he said.

Although those positions angered some Jews in the community, Windmueller said the committee’s views reflected those held by the majority of the Southland’s liberal-leaning Jews. The JCRC’s willingness to take those and other positions, Windmueller said, attracted scores of young people to the committee, which served as a gateway to the Jewish community for many. Some later went on to became Federation donors, he added.

About a decade ago, however, the L.A, Federation, like some others around the country, began discouraging the local JCRC from venturing into controversial public policy matters, Windmueller said. With competition for charitable dollars heating up, many federations concluded that the risk of alienating conservative donors outweighed the benefit of taking liberal stands. Increasingly, most JCRCs left political advocacy, whether liberal or conservative, to other groups.

In Southern California, that void was filled by the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee, StandWithUs, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), among others. Ironically, the PJA’s willingness to fight against sweatshops and the exploitation of hotel workers along with its boldness in embracing the sort of left-of-center causes once championed by the local JCRC has helped swell its ranks to 3,500. With half its members under 30, the alliance, which just opened a second office in the Bay Area, has succeeded in reaching a demographic coveted by Fishel’s Federation.

“What we find is that pursuing a positive, progressive Jewish response to the issues of the day is profoundly inspiring , especially to young people who one day will be our community leaders and donors,” PJA Executive Director Daniel Sokatch said.

Two of the nation’s most robust JCRCs are among the most politically liberal. The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston has a staff of 24 and a $3 million budget, while the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Relations Council employs 20, with a budget of $2.1 million. By contrast, the local JCRC has five full-time and two part-time staffers and an annual budget of $1.2 million. Unlike Los Angeles, Boston and San Francisco have taken bold policy stands recently, with San Francisco, for instance, coming out in favor of same-sex civil marriages.

A left-leaning JCRC wouldn’t fly everywhere, but the formula has consonance with liberal Los Angeles.

Levine had expected the L.A. JCRC to take positions on ballot initiatives, legislation and other political issues, provided he could build consensus. But The Federation’s new chairman of the board, Michael Koss, worried about alienating donors. Koss said he also thought the JCRC would benefit if led by someone who was not strongly identified with either liberal or conservative politics. Koss, who had the authority as Federation chair, did not reappoint Levine. The former congressman, for his part, said he had no interest in a second term given the lack of support.

“Losing Mel Levine for the JCRC or anyplace Mel puts his hat is a loss,” said Harriet Hochman, a former Federation chair.

Fishel said he respects Levine but added that Federation chairs make their own appointments. Fishel’s critics counter that it’s his job to show leadership.

Koss tapped corporate attorney Ron Leibow as Levine’s successor. Leibow, former chair of The Federation’s Planning and Allocation Committee, said he plans to revitalize the JCRC and has made reaching out to ethnic groups, especially Latinos, a priority.

Those involved with JCRC are determined to make a positive difference. Under new JCRC Executive Director Tzivia Schwartz-Getzug, the committee has added paid staff and seen its budget increase. Several JCRC programs have grown in importance. The Holy Land Democracy Project, for instance, has helped teach thousands of area Catholic high school students about Israel, while, simultaneously, tightening links between Jews and Catholics. The JCRC continues to take elected leaders on trips to Israel — to expose them to the Jewish state and to Jewish issues.

But a recent, tentative step back into the political fray was telling, when the JCRC encountered some Federation resistance and withdrew, for now, a pro-immigrant statement. The scenario unfolded in mid-May, when the JCRC board approved a statement saying that it supported better border security but opposed legislation that would criminalize illegal immigrants. The statement also favored normalizing immigrants’ status, insiders said. JCRC members had hoped the resolution would demonstrate solidarity with the Latino community, she said.

The Federation board, however, barely approved the JCRC resolution, so the JCRC has pulled back, while it develops new wording that could attract more support, Schwartz-Getzug said.

That the JCRC still hasn’t come out with a statement weeks after one of the largest pro-immigration demonstrations in U.S. history reflects the committee’s — and, by extension, the Federation’s — cautious approach. Critics might go farther, arguing that this reluctance to take a public stand on immigration illustrate that those institutions no longer speak for the local Jewish community.

“If the Federation isn’t going to take a position on something as important to the Latino community as immigration, even after the huge marches all over the nation, then what in the world do they have to say to the Latino community?” commented Michael Hirschfeld, formerly the top JCRC staff member. Hirschfeld was himself the focus of an earlier JCRC furor: His unexpected 2003 dismissal, after 24 years with the JCRC, generated a firestorm of criticism, and a few calls for Fishel’s resignation.

Levine believes that until Fishel’s Federation either allows the JCRC to become independent or have more autonomy, the committee will serve as little more than an administrator of such programs as KOREH L.A, a well-regarded tutoring program.

“The CRC and Federation are no longer a meaningful political force in the structure of Los Angeles,” said Levine, now a partner in international law at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. “That’s unfortunate.”

 

Super Sunday Aims at Aiding Programs


In 1999, Alexander Khananashvili left behind his prosperous life as a Moscow doctor to immigrate to the United States with his wife and two daughters, hoping for a better future. He came with little money, no job prospects and no knowledge of English.

With the help of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Khananashvili and his family quickly found their footing. Within two days of their arrival, the former doctor and his wife met with a social worker from Jewish Vocational Service (JVS), a Federation beneficiary agency.

The social worker spoke to them at length about life in America, giving them information on everything from opening a bank account to enrolling in a medical plan. Within a few weeks, Khananashvili had several job leads, courtesy of JVS, while his wife enrolled, for free, in an English-language class offered by the agency.

Subsequently, The Federation awarded scholarships worth tens of thousands of dollars to enroll the Khananashvili daughters in Jewish day schools and Jewish camps, which, Khananashvili said, has helped cement their Jewish identities.

“The Federation improved our lives,” said Khananashvili, now a 48-year-old social worker and Beverly Hills resident. “They gave us our start here and protected us under their shield. We’re very grateful.”

During the past 30 years, The Federation has helped 30,000 Jews from around the world settle in the greater Los Angeles area. On Feb. 26, The Federation will hold its annual Super Sunday megafundraiser to support its 22 beneficiary agencies, including the Refugee and Resettlement Program that helped the Khananashvilis, as well as myriad other programs.

For the fundraiser, an estimated 1,900 volunteers will gather from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. to staff phones at three sites: The Federation’s headquarters at 6505 Wilshire Blvd., the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus in West Hills and the Torrance Marriott. They will be making calls to potential donors, with the goal of raising $4.7 million.

Craig Prizant, The Federation’s executive vice president for financial resource development, said he hopes this year’s Super Sunday fundraising will break its record by $200,000 over 2005. He said he feels optimistic, because many local Jews have profited from the sizzling real estate market, enabling them to give more generously. In addition, The Federation has identified and plans to contact the growing population of Jews in the West Valley, including West Hills, and in such South Bay cities as Manhattan Beach and Torrance.

Still, “the needs are always going to outweigh what we can raise,” Prizant said.

That’s especially true for Jewish Family Service (JFS) and Jewish Vocational Service (JVS), two Federation beneficiary agencies that have been particularly hard hit by cuts in government funding.

The JFS Gramercy Place Shelter, for instance, has lost about $180,000 in federal and state money over the past two years, a huge financial hit, according to Paul Castro, the agency’s executive director. The 57-bed homeless shelter, which, Castro said, “seems to be chronically at risk,” has managed to stay afloat only because JFS has filled the gap with private donations. However, because of the government shortfall, JFS has not been able to expand the existing programs or introduce needed new ones at a time when demand for services has skyrocketed, Castro said.

In this age of budget deficits, JFS and other local nonprofits increasingly rely on funds generated by Super Sunday and other private-sector initiatives to maintain present service levels, Castro said.

“When you look at what’s happening with government funding, you’re seeing a bigger expectation that private donors will take a greater responsibility for meeting the safety net,” he said. “And Super Sunday is an important example of how this community is working toward that reality.”

JVS also has seen demand for its services outstrip resources to provide them. In 2002, for instance, the agency’s staff included eight full-time job developers tracking down leads for clients. Today, JFS has one full-time and one part-time employment developer.

Reduced funding has forced JVS to move away from individual sessions for resume writing and interviewing. Instead, said Vivian B. Seigel, JVS chief executive, much of the training is now done in a group setting.

In light of those realities, she said, Super Sunday’s importance to JVS should not be underestimated.

“We look at the money generated by Super Sunday as extremely important,” Seigel said. “It has enabled us to reach out to families we know are living below the poverty line and to offer important services, ranging from help in finding jobs that pay a living wage to college tuition scholarships.”

Among those calling prospective donors will be the Khananashvilis, who, in addition to making pitches, will make their own donation, just as they have every year since coming to America.

“We like being able to give back,” Khananashvili said. “In the beginning, it was only $10, but $10 for us was maybe more than $1,000 now. It was a lot of money.”

To volunteer for or make a donation to Super Sunday, call (866) 968-7333.

 

The Circuit


Shining Lights

The Jewish Federation’s Young Leadership Division put a cool spin on Chanukah with “Latkes and Blackjack” at the Knitting Factory in Hollywood. The usually dark alternative music club had a cheery holiday makeover as dreidels and chocolate gelt were spread across tables in the main room, as well as in the neighboring Alterknit lounge.

The continuous shouts of “yes” from 20- and 30-somethings at the seven blackjack tables — who were wearing everything from jeans and sneakers to suits and “little black dresses” — added to the spirit of the event.

Young Leadership member Jeff Kay said events like “Latkes and Blackjack” are more likely to draw him than other types of events: “The more social, the better.”

That’s exactly what the division’s staff had in mind.

“We find that it is really important for us to have festive occasions for people to participate in,” said Sandy Levin, Young Leadership Division director, who added that recent reports about the disconnect of young people from the Jewish community are “troubling.”

“I think at this age there are so many people not affiliated to anything,” she said. “We’re trying to make an impact and help people connect in our own small way.”

Since Young Leadership is about giving back to the community, each candle on the enormous menorah, brought in for the event, represented a different group assisted by The Federation.

“We want them to enjoy Chanukah, but we also want them to understand more about what the Federation does,” said Heather Greenberg and Yael Irom, Young Leadership Division co-chairs.

Causes honored by the candles included Jewish Family Service (JFS), SOVA Food Pantry and the Bureau of Jewish Education. “Anybody at any stage of their life might need a service of The Jewish Federation,” Levin told the Circuit. “And if they don’t need it today, they may need it down the road.”

When all the blackjack chips were cashed and all the latkes were eaten, Young Leadership had raised more $81,000, to provide assistance to the elderly, children and others in need in Los Angeles, Israel and around the world. They also collected more than 50 toys for JFS Gramercy Place Shelter. — Shoshana Lewin, Contributing Writer

Fulfilling Dreams

It was truly the “children’s hour” when The Fulfillment Fund held its Annual Holiday Party for young children with disabilities. The well-attended event entertained several-hundred students, ages 3-9, from the Los Angeles Unified School District for a memorable day of festive fun.

The event is hosted by Fulfillment Fund students and their mentors, and college scholars from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. The Lucky Brand Foundation provides a generous grant each year to help make this incredible event possible.

More than 30 years ago, the Fulfillment Fund began with a similar holiday party, and has since grown into one of the most effective college access organizations in Los Angeles, having served thousands of young people throughout the years.

FESTIVAL of Advocacy

Lighting up the night, more than 450 people filled the University of Judaism’s Gindi Auditorium for its “Festival of Lights” concert/fundraiser for the Israel advocacy and education group StandWithUs on Dec. 11.

“Giving is easy when it doesn’t cost us anything,” said Century City attorney and StandWithUs board vice president Marty Jannol, a festival honoree along with his wife and fellow board member Susan Jannol.

“Few of us here tonight have any fundamental material needs,” he said. “May our giving be doubly blessed by causing us to make the right choices about our material lives.”

Honors for Estrin

Israel’s high-tech industry, a mainstay of the country’s economic, military and scientific strength, honored its engineering “father” recently, when it bestowed the Israel Software Industry Pioneer Award on UCLA proffessor Gerald (Jerry) Estrin.

Estrin and his wife, Thelma, also a computer engineer, left Princeton in 1954. With a small team at the Weizmann Institute of Science, Estrin hand-built the WEIZAC, the first computer in the Middle East.

Additional honors were conferred on Estrin, a Santa Monica resident, by the Weizmann Institute and the worldwide Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers for his and Israel’s roles in the global information revolution.

An extensive story on Estrin’s work was published in the Jewish Journal on Dec. 3, 2004, and can be found on the Journal Web site. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

 

Awards Appreciate the Unappreciated


 

Sitting in a roomful of teachers and the people who love them in a Bel Air hotel on a recent Thursday afternoon, you could almost forget that Jewish educators are inexcusably underappreciated, underhonored and underpaid.

The Jewish Educator Awards luncheon, hosted by award sponsors the Milken Family Foundation (MFF) and the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) of Greater Los Angeles, is a yearly fest of pride, love and admiration for the wide swath of Jews who belong to Los Angeles’ day school world.

Beyond being a chance to recognize five outstanding educators, the day is, at heart, a wider celebration of Jewish education and those who dedicate their lives to it, from the Mormon math teacher at the Orthodox boys school who pronounced “Yeshiva Gedolah” like an Eastern European zayde, to the principal of a Reform day school that has doubled in size under her leadership over the last decade.

“If we are going to assure a quality education for our children, it is absolutely essential that we have quality educators in the classrooms,” said MFF executive vice president Richard Sandler. “Thank you for doing all you do for the next generation.”

That thank you is backed up by a $10,000 purse, no small change for a teacher at a Jewish school (though not quite as much as the $25,000 award that goes to the 100 winners a year of MFF’s National Educators Award, not restricted to Jewish day schools. But no one else is doling out such nice gifts to Jewish teachers, so whose complaining?).

The goal of the awards is not only to appreciate the specific recipients — 75 teachers and administrators have been recognized since the award’s inception in 1990 — but to enhance the status of the profession in general. By giving teachers incentive and appreciation, and by showing the wider community that Jewish educators are not taken for granted, MFF has handed the profession a classy and dignified opportunity to pat itself on the back.

MFF does its best to make a production of the whole thing.

Leaders from across the spectrum of Los Angeles Jewry were at the luncheon, including Federation President John Fishel and other federation officials. Leonard Nimoy, who hosts a radio series for Milken’s Jewish Music Archive, was present to honor Eileen Horowitz of Temple Israel of Hollywood, where he is also a member. Former Rams lineman/pop singer Rosie Greer, a MFF trustee, sat at the table with Nimoy.

But the festivities began long before the luncheon.

Over two days in October and November, members of the BJE and MFF appeared at school-wide assemblies to surprise the five educators — Publishers Clearing House style — with notification of the award.

A video, followed by a slide show narrated by Sandler, brought those days to life for the 275 people — from black-hatted rabbis to women in kippot — at the Luxe Summit Hotel Bel-Air in early December.

Rabbi Mordechai Dubin, described as the “soul of Maimonides Academy,” led the school in song and dance minutes before he was tapped as the award winner, with the children screeching and cheering in his honor.

Rick Hepworth worked for 25 years to build up the secular studies at Yeshiva Gedolah, and the emotion and disbelief showed through the deep blush, set off by his yellow hair, as he became the school’s first MFF Jewish Educator Award recipient.

Horowitz, head of school at Temple Israel of Hollywood Day School, quipped at the luncheon that her dad always wanted her to be a famous actress, and there she was that day accepting an award on a Hollywood stage — a bimah to be precise.

Hugs from teachers and students alike awaited Pamela Kleinman, a fifth-grade teacher at Heschel West, when she was told of the award at an outdoor assembly, where American and Israeli flags flapped in the cold morning wind coming of the Santa Monica Mountains.

Inez Tiger, a life-skills facilitator and middle school counselor at Pressman Academy who has helped dozens of pre-adolescents learn to deal with emotions, could not stop her own tears when the award was given to her.

The element of surprise found its way into the Luxe Summit as well, when Lowell Milken, chairman and co-founder of MFF, made an unwitting Gil Graff, executive director of the BJE, the first ever recipient of an honorary Jewish Educator Award for his years of service to the Los Angeles community.

“If you combined the wisdom of Solomon, and the patience of Job and the teaching of Hillel, you might very well end up with Dr. Gil Graff,” Milken said, noting that under Graff’s tenure not only the number of students, but the quality of the education, had risen dramatically.

True to form, a shocked but composed Graff was able to present off the top of his head a perfectly crafted d’var Torah, replete with quotes from that week’s Torah portion, to express his gratitude for the surprise presentation.

That Graff, whose educational, academic and personal credentials stand out in the world of Jewish professionals, was honored on this day honoring Jewish education itself was only appropriate.

“I can’t imagine any audience to better appreciate the brilliance of this educator who has devoted his life to the academic, moral and spiritual enrichment and growth of our children,” Milken said.

He knew he was talking to an audience that gets it, because they do it, and today, at least, that was worthy of recognition.

 

Revitalizing the Core


We live in an extraordinarily diverse and pluralistic city. It is in our Jewish DNA to want to participate in making the world a better place. It is also in our self-interest to live in a place where the societal needs are being adequately addressed. That is why The Jewish Federation must aggressively reposition itself as a compelling player in the field of community relations with a strong Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC). To do so at a time when financial resources are limited is a challenge, but it is certainly doable if we tap into the abundant creative energy in our community.

The Federation is committed to a strong and vibrant JCRC.

Engaging residents of our community to impact the "urban agenda" is the objective. But the agenda of the organized Jewish community must be redefined in a thoughtful, targeted and strategic way to successfully mobilize human resources beyond the core of active, identified Jews. This important core must be supplemented with participation from the scores of involved, but often assimilated Jews. The opportunities for leveraging individuals who burn with a passion for tikkun olam (healing the world) is not only possible but necessary.

Last week we began to engage people about what a future JCRC will look like.

The Federation will work to build a community relations agenda that enhances the decades of intergroup and interfaith activity that has made the JCRC so vital an institution to the organized Jewish community. It is a portal through which Jews will walk if they feel it can make a difference. Thus, it is vital for the JCRC to become a more active outlet for a broader group of volunteers.

The JCRC has a base of strength from which to grow. KOREH L.A., the Jewish response to illiteracy, is a magnificent example of volunteer action. With the continuing generosity of the Winnick Family Foundation, KOREH L.A. has become the largest volunteer children’s literacy project of its type in Los Angeles, helping children in our public schools learn to read. Through the support of the Jewish Community Foundation, The Holy Land Democracy Project is working with children in Catholic schools to educate them about Israel.

So why stop there? Let’s consider a range of other programs directed at children in schools. This would provide a compelling example of the Jewish community’s engagement in an area of concern to all. We can, with planning and action, build extraordinary bridges to the Latino and other ethnic communities around issues of this type.

The extraordinary government-relations work of the Los Angeles JCRC in Washington, D.C., and in Sacramento has led to the granting of funds for California’s first Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (NORCs), has staved off Medi-Cal cuts for some of our local agencies’ critical programs and has led to the adoption of stronger hate crime legislation.

Beyond the critical service we provide in maintaining public support for essential programs of our agencies, we can engage these agencies in the creation of the new JCRC agenda.

Jewish Angelenos participate in disproportionate numbers as leaders in organizations addressing public education, health, welfare and even the environment. Our goal is to engage these activists so that they see that the JCRC is relevant to their interests. We live in a place where people do not always communicate or cooperate with others who care deeply about the same societal goals. The JCRC must reach out to a broader base of influential Jews to exchange ideas, successes and failures and to strategize about the communal urban agenda.

Where are the opportunities to engage more volunteers? Virtually every synagogue has a social action committee. Let’s create a mechanism to tap into these powerhouses. And how about a plan to take the younger leaders of our community and broaden their involvement? The College Campus Initiative, a collaboration of the JCRC, Hillel and the Shalom Nature Institute, provides college students on seven local college campuses with exciting social action opportunities, as well as training in Israel advocacy. The New Leaders Project gives Jewish young professionals an opportunity to learn about the broader Los Angeles community and to develop leadership skills. These are great examples of the good works of the JCRC. Let’s figure out the tactics to use the graduates of these training programs to be the leaders of the JCRC today.

Last week we met with members of the JCRC to discuss its future. They reminded us of the proud history of JCRC in protecting our interests and serving as the leading framework for the voice of Los Angeles Jewry to the broader community. The opportunities to once again revitalize and expand with meaningful action exist. The recent work of the Blue Ribbon Task Force of this Federation recognizes the need to narrow the focus of our activities in order to ensure impact, while bringing resources to those activities. Let’s make the urban agenda of this organization the centerpiece of the new JCRC. And let’s create a positive force for substantive action. I believe that the resources to implement that force, human and financial, will be a communal priority.


John Fishel is president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

How to Fundraise in the 21st Century


More than a century ago, Jewish federations served the needs of tightly knit Jewish communities around the country. Centralized, bureaucratic and occasionally paternalistic, these charitable organizations were highly efficient fundraising and money-dispensing machines in an era when Jews were marginalized members of a WASP-dominated society.

To paraphrase Bob Dylan, the times they have a changed. Today, Jews are among the most educated and affluent minority groups in the United States. Attitudes toward them have evolved to such an extent that an Orthodox Jew, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), is considered a front-runner for the Democrat Party’s presidential nomination.

As these tectonic shifts in American Jewish life occurred, federations, like dinosaurs trapped in tar pits, seemed stuck. As Jews became more secular, assimilated, geographically dispersed and willing to give to universities, museums and other non-Jewish causes, federations focused on the same handful of rich donors and trotted out their same tired fundraising campaigns.

Not surprisingly, they have found it increasingly difficult to engage their supporters in recent years. The nation’s federations raised $851 million in their annual campaigns in 2001, only 18 percent more than the $719 million in 1991, according to the United Jewish Communities (UJC), an umbrella group for 156 federations in North America and 400 independent Jewish communities. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles performed slightly worse than the national average, raising 3 percent less in that period, excluding other money-raising campaigns.

To maintain their relevance and polish their images, several federations are making sweeping changes in the way they operate, raise money and define their mission. From Los Angeles to Philadelphia and from Atlanta to Denver, these philanthropic bodies are looking at ways to boost fundraising, strengthen communal bonds and fund programs and agencies that resonate best with Jewish communities. In many instances, the UJC is providing consultants to help.

"We’re going to reinvent ourselves," L.A. Federation President John Fishel said. "We must; we will."

However, federations face myriad challenges that might prove difficult to surmount. Scores of Americans have lost faith in big institutions, said Mary Joyce, Gianneschi professor of nonprofit marketing at California State University Fullerton.

Joyce said that in the wake of United Way scandals in the 1990s and more recent corporate malfeasance at Enron Corp., WorldCom Inc. and Global Crossings Ltd., "people have become cynical of big business or anything that mimics big business. So when you have a big organization or charity that touts its ability to serve a big constituency, they’re now seen as suspect by many."

On Aug. 20, the L.A. Federation’s board will meet to consider a series of policy recommendations that would radically overhaul the organization from top to bottom. The fruits of eight months of intensive labor by a group of 25 local Jewish leaders — including Allan Cutrow, former chair of the Jewish Community Foundation; Frank Maas, The Federation’s former chair of planning and allocations; and Michael Koss, former chair of the United Jewish Fund — the proposed changes would "permit The Federation to remain as the central body in meeting the educational and social welfare needs of Los Angeles," said Irwin Field, head of the Blue Ribbon Task Force.

The L.A. Federation’s initiatives come at a period when it has fallen on tough times. In December, the organization posted a $1 million budget shortfall that was covered by reserves, said Field, who is also chair of The Jewish Journal’s board.

With annual campaign fundraising relatively flat over the past five years and workers’ compensation insurance costs tripling since 1999, the nonprofit organization expects to lay off some employees in coming weeks. Morale has flagged because of the uncertainty, said Jeff Rogers, president of the AFSCME, Local 800, which represents 84 of The Federation’s 145 employees.

In this difficult economic climate, other local Jewish agencies have also taken a hit. Jewish Vocational Service (JVS), a nonprofit that offers employment services, has lost $500,000 in government funding since October and recently laid off five workers. The cuts have led, in some instances, to a 10-day wait for career counseling, JFS Chief Executive Vivian Seigel said.

Jewish Family Service (JFS), in an attempt to balance its budget, recently eliminated the equivalent of seven of the agency’s 421 full-time positions. Jewish Free Loan Association has experienced a dramatic jump in loan requests without a corresponding bump in fundraising.

At The Federation, the task force has come up with 12 policy recommendations, subject to final board approval. Among the proposals:

  • Federation staff members should increasingly focus on high-end donors to raise more money, although the organization continues to have a commitment to the broader community.

  • All Federation personnel should help with fundraising in some way.

  • All allocations to national bodies must be consistent with The Federation’s strategic priorities.

  • All unanticipated or unbudgeted costs must be offset by additional revenue.

  • The Federation should partner more closely with such Jewish organizations as the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Skirball Cultural Center and synagogues to create programs, among other initiatives.

  • The Federation should strategically allocate its money to accomplish measurable goals.

Some activists in the community have taken a wait-and-see approach. Gerald Bubis, a former Federation vice president and board member, said he hopes the philanthropic entity will play a more active role in Jewish life in the future.

"Unless and until a federation thinks of doing community building alongside fundraising, it’s going to have a very, very hard time," he said.

The L.A. Federation isn’t the only one getting a facelift.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia has just unveiled its road map for the 21st century. With its 2003 annual campaign off by nearly $2 million compared to last year, the organization has decided to sharpen its focus to build "an inspired, caring and connected Jewish community," President Harold Goldman said.

The organization plans to focus on the Jewish elderly, Jewish education and on strengthening ties between Philadelphia’s Jews and the larger community abroad. That means less funding for underperforming agencies.

At the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado, fundraising for the annual campaign has jumped more than 10 percent to $9.5 million this year. That’s largely due to the recent launch of Total Choice Tzedekah, a program that allows givers of more than $50 to decide where their money goes, said Doug Seserman, federation president. Hebrew schools and synagogues are among the new aid recipients of the directed giving, he said.

In the South, the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta recently outlined a series of goals it hopes to reach in five years. The organization wants to double its endowment to $200 million and increase its annual campaign nearly 50 percent to $25 million by 2008. Federation task forces are currently coming up with a strategy to implement it.

Despite predictions of their untimely demise, federations are actually in better shape than many might imagine, said Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco. Although annual campaigns no longer generate much excitement and attempts to reinvigorate them are likely to fall short, federations have proven quite adept at raising hundreds of millions for capital campaigns, endowments and special initiatives, including funds for Jewish victims of terror and indigent Argentine Jews. To cite but one example, the L.A. Federation raised $18.6 million last year for its Jews in Crisis Campaign, money not counted in its annual campaign.

"In terms of creating new vehicles for raising money and managing money, there probably hasn’t been any greater success story in the Jewish community in the past 15 years than federations," Tobin said.