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Jewish Federations’ new overseas planning group reports in

By Cindy Mindell

Cathrine FIscher Scwartz

Cathrine FIscher Scwartz

WEST HARTFORD – In late 2011, in response to a decline in fundraising, Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) launched the Global Planning Table (GPT), a new process by which to identify global Jewish needs and raise and allocate the funds needed to address them.

The 42-member GPT committee includes representatives from JFNA member federations, as well as the organization’s historic partners, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Cathrine Fischer Schwartz, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, was a member of the GPT Committee that initially designed the structure of the group.

In its first year, GPT was tasked with forming working groups to analyze global Jewish concerns and initiatives in four areas: building Jewish identity and peoplehood; caring for vulnerable populations; strengthening Israeli society; and developing leadership and community.

Since its inception at the JFNA General Assembly in November 2012, the GPT has been met with a tepid, if wary, response from the Jewish community, especially from those grantee organizations whose funding may be affected.

In June, the group produced a report on its first year of work, which outlines six “Signature Initiatives” designed to address the most urgent needs identified by the working groups, three of which will be the focus of GPT’s endeavors in 2013: cross-border immersive experiences and follow-up opportunities; breaking the cycle of global Jewish poverty; and partnering with the people of Israel to strengthen the fabric of Israeli society. As the first three initiatives are up and running, the remaining three will be introduced.

In “Revisiting the Global Planning Table,” posted on the Jewish Philanthropy website in June, Stephen J. Donshik questions the importance of the GPT, in the larger context of JFNA and its mission.

Donshik is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and former director of the Israel office of the Council of Jewish Federations and of the Israel office of UJA/Federation-Federation of New York. In his article, Donshik suggests that the organized American Jewish community reexamine the concept of collective responsibility that has long formed the core of organized American Jewry and been overseen by JFNA.

“By bringing the [Jewish] federations together, this umbrella organization… enabled the system to speak with one voice, when necessary, and to explore the need and viability of responding as the overall representative of the Jewish community,” he writes. “However, given the significant changes in both the JFNA and in the way local communities function today, one must question whether a process such as the GPT is at all relevant and whether the last two years of ‘process’ have made the case for the relevance of the JFNA, in its present form.”

In response to Donshik’s article, Schwartz responds that a process such as GPT is a valuable one, and long overdue.

“The world has changed and the Jewish world has changed even more so; yet, our process for understanding ‘overseas needs’ has not evolved to any great extent,” she says. “There are some challenges which we can meet – or at least make an impact on – and there are some which we may not be ideally structured to solve. We should involve ourselves in those areas where we can have the greatest impact, as a coalition or collective, and where there is wide agreement that working on the issue is imperative. The GPT structure also ‘makes room’ for individual communities to be involved in initiatives and programs that their particular community cares most about and wants to be involved in.”

One important outcome of the GPT process so far, Schwartz says, is establishing a benchmark for Jewish Federations’ allocations to the overseas agenda.

“There was not a stated requirement before,” she says. “Now, communities must allocate a minimum of 10 percent of their gross annual campaign to overseas needs to be considered a member of JFNA. While 10 percent may seem a low bar, there were some communities who formerly allocated nothing overseas or to Israel.”

Schwartz raises a more basic concern than that expressed by Donshik: not whether the GPT process makes JFNA a more relevant organization, but, she says, “I actually think the challenge is that most people in our communities don’t understand what Jewish Federations do, much less think about or care about what JFNA does. That is our failing and we must do something about it.”

While perhaps not always visible or obvious, the organization’s contributions are significant, she says. “JFNA provides Federations with value that most community members don’t see because they depend on it and simply assume it’s in place.”

Among those ‘unseen’ areas: “There is an entire security network that Federations are part of – the Secure Community Network, to alert us of threats and provide recommendations. We are able to alert our agencies or synagogues quietly so that security levels can be ramped up in a way that does not cause alarm,” says Schwartz.  “JFNA’s organization in Washington does an incredible job of advocating for the Jewish community on a myriad of issues. A significant amount of government funding flows to our community agencies thanks to their efforts. Advocating for the rights of Jews cannot be underestimated; we are one of the most organized and politically active groups in the country. These are collective activities which we all take for granted.”

Schwartz says that the GPT process will no doubt bring more partners into the discussion. “I agree that the progress has been slow and, from my 24 years’ experience working in the Jewish community, I can affirm that building consensus to move things forward is a very slow, sometimes painfully slow, process,” she says. “I also have found that the value of this slow process on the front end pays off during implementation. There aren’t as many stumbling blocks and unexpected consequences. It’s a trade-off. Rushing right into something means a lot of course corrections along the way. I believe that, in the end, innovative solutions to the most challenging problems we face as a global community will involve JFNA, Jewish Federations and many partners, including private foundations and potentially other partners we cannot even imagine now.”

Comments? email cindym@jewishledger.com.

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