By Cindy Mindell
As 2014 was heading to a close, nine municipalities in Connecticut boasted a Jewish Federation, the traditional umbrella organization of a Jewish community’s various agencies and institutions, and all members of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA).
An organization that first appeared in Boston in 1895, Jewish Federations were created wherever Jews settled in the U.S. and Canada, adapting in size and scope to the communities served, and expanding over time to help Jews and non-Jews alike. At the end of last year, JFNA had 155 member Federations. This month, the count has dropped to 153.
The reason for the drop: Connecticut, whose number of Federations recently dropped to seven. The result of one dissolution (see story next page) and one merger, the loss of two Federations is a reflection of the changing demographics and philanthropic behavior of the Connecticut Jewish community.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Danbury, CT and Putnam County, N.Y. shut its doors on Dec. 31, dispersing its constituent database among The Federation of Western CT in Southbury and the newly-created Federation for Jewish Philanthropy of Upper Fairfield County, a merger of the UJA/Federations of Eastern Fairfield County (EFC) and Westport Weston Wilton Norwalk (WWWN).
The idea of a merger has been batted around by the two Fairfield County Federations at least since the mid-‘80s (or, as one longtime WWWN board leader recently quipped, “since giant reptiles roamed the earth”). There is a long history of downsizing, resource-sharing, and consolidation among the Jewish communal bodies in both areas. From the ‘30s on, Norwalk’s Jews founded and supported a variety of organizations, including United Jewish Appeal (UJA), Jewish Community Council, Jewish Federation of Greater Norwalk, and a JCC. By 1990, UJA had merged with Federation of Westport-Weston-Wilton, located in Westport. A decade later, the JCC had closed.
Similarly, Bridgeport was once home to the Bridgeport Jewish Community Council, Jewish Federation of Greater Bridgeport, a JCC, and the United Jewish Campaign. In 1995, the JCC and UJA/Federation of Eastern Fairfield County merged into the Jewish Center for Community Services (JCCS), both housed in the JCC building on Park Avenue in Bridgeport. The organization was besieged with financial difficulties, threatening to close the building two years later, but it soldiered on. In summer 2010, Steve Wendell was hired as the JCCS president and CEO.
At the same time, a small group of lay leaders got together to create the Thriving Jewish Community Initiative (TJC), an effort “to figure out who we were, what we needed to be, what we needed to do, and how to move the community forward,” says participant Karen Ferleger, then a board member of UJA/Federation of Eastern Fairfield County.
In October 2010, more than 400 community members gathered for a visioning exercise that would produce nine scenarios for the future of Jewish Eastern Fairfield County. Eventually, some 2,000 people in the catchment area would weigh in. Among the most widely-endorsed concepts that emerged from the ongoing community-wide conversation was the need for more effective inter-agency collaboration and resource-sharing.
But the TJC process also pointed up a reality that would open the door to wider endorsement of a merger, according to Wendell: “The Bridgeport JCC was no longer serving the needs of the Eastern Fairfield County Jewish community and the community would be better served by investing its resources in programming rather than maintaining an aging and underused building,” he says. “The TJC process also helped demonstrate that the community was willing to investigate, and participate in, new initiatives.”
Until the October 2010 TJC meeting, it had been assumed that Sacred Heart University (SHU) was the only viable purchaser for the JCC building and property. For nearly five years, as JCCS struggled to remain financially viable, its board and the university had been discussing details and had finally reached an agreement on a sale. (During the first week of December 2010, Wendell received a contract signed by SHU for the agreed-upon price.)
The tide completely turned at the October TJC meeting where, for the first time, the Jewish Home for the Elderly (now Jewish Senior Services) became a possible contender for the JCC property. Located adjacent to SHU, the Home had encountered town zoning issues preventing the construction of a new facility on its current site. After the meeting, Wendell was approached by leaders of the newly-founded Jewish High School of Connecticut, then housed at Congregation B’nai Israel in Bridgeport, with a proposal that the school be moved into the JCC building and share in renovation and operation costs.
The JCCS organized a Strategic Planning Committee, chaired by Karen Ferleger and with the support of JCCS board chair Shelley Kreiger, to explore all possible scenarios for the JCC property in light of the TJC process. The committee recommended to the JCCS board that it would be in the best interest of the Jewish community and the JCCS to work toward selling the JCC property to the Jewish Home, and to secure Federation office space in the resulting facility, which might also be able to include JCC programming space.
The latest serious conversation that eventually led to the merger began sometime in early 2012, when Wendell and WWWN executive director Steve Friedlander met for lunch to discuss collaboration and ways to test a possible merger of their two Federations. Wendell and Friedlander contacted JFNA for help with a visioning process and ideas to promote more collaboration among Fairfield County Federations.
The two organized a meeting with their counterparts and lay leaders from Greenwich, Stamford, and Danbury, facilitated by JFNA vice president Becky Sobelman-Stern and JFNA consultant Michael Miloff.
“The prime motive behind this meeting was that the system was feeling the effects of the recession, which were not temporary,” says Friedlander. “With more limited resources, it made greater sense and there was a feeling of greater urgency, that collaboration should be actively explored.”
The meeting produced a countywide Federation website and the decision to host a joint Fairfield County Israel@65 celebration (sans UJA Greenwich), an event that also involved the professional and lay leadership of The Jewish Federation of Western CT.
Wendell and Friedlander continued to explore collaborative opportunities. Then, in late 2013, they brought together their respective board leaders to discuss a possible merger.
“Fourteen of us came together for the first time – executive directors, board presidents, lay leaders, guided by Becky Sobelman-Stern and Michael Miloff – and discovered how much we absolutely had in common,” recalls Linda Russ, then-president of UJA/Federation WWWN, who hosted the dinner meeting at her home in Westport.
“That was the perfect basis for going forward with the merger: a shared concern for a vibrant and inclusive Jewish community, and a shared belief that there was an opportunity for tremendous engagement of our Jewish community in both a more vibrant Jewish life locally and in joining together for tikkun olam – to improve the Jewish world – in our three spheres: locally, in Israel, and around the globe.”
Both boards then endorsed the concept of working together toward a merger. Ferleger and Russ recruited members from their respective Federations to comprise three task forces to hammer out details of governance, operations, and marketing.
The marketing committee was charged with one of the most difficult tasks. “It took five long, emotional meetings, not to mention hundreds of emails, to finally settle on the new name,” says Russ. “What you think would be very easy was extremely difficult. The name had to accomplish so many things and yet the group had one simple goal: that the name explain what we do so that we didn’t have to constantly explain ourselves. The word ‘philanthropy’ accomplishes that. Yes, ‘Federation’ has a longstanding meaning for a great many people, but for the younger generation, we wanted our mission to be right there in our name.”
The two Federations began to share staff. When the JCC building was finally closed in summer 2013, Wendell moved his office to the WWWN facility, followed by his executive assistant after the JCC building was sold in early 2014. His contract fulfilled, Wendell was tapped to head up the United Jewish Community of the Virginia Peninsula in Newport News, Va. Friedlander became CEO of both UJA/Federations, a role he would maintain in the merged Federation for Jewish Philanthropy.
The two Federations hired David Levine of Cohen and Wolf to handle the legal aspects of the merger; as well as a new development director, Allison Halpern. In January and February 2015, the board of directors of each Federation approved the merger and then the membership of each Federation did so as well. The merger became legally effective in the state of Connecticut on March 1, celebrated the night before at the first major event hosted by the new organization.
“We don’t regard this as a merger of two old, mature organizations but rather, we like to think of ourselves as a new entity with a start-up mentality,” says Friedlander. FJP will now serve 14 communities in Fairfield County, from Stratford west to Norwalk, and north to Bethel, Redding, and Ridgefield.
While a member of JFNA, FJP is not a member of the Jewish Federation Association of Connecticut (JFACT), the government and community-relations arm of the state’s Jewish Federation system, which also speaks for the JCCs, Jewish Family Services agencies, and Jewish nursing homes. Prior to the merger, UJA/Federation WWWN was not a member of JFACT, while UJA/Federation of Eastern Fairfield County was.
“The positive working relationship Steve and I had, and our willingness to take professional risks for the welfare of our communities, was the strongest reason the merger process kept moving forward in spite of the occasional obstacles that occurred,” Wendell says. “There are those in Eastern Fairfield County who were skeptical, including key leaders, and who perhaps remain skeptical to this day. But the younger leaders in both communities seem to have developed good working relationships that are free of some of the historical baggage that has separated the communities over the years.”
With a new Jewish communal campus on the horizon, spearheaded by Jewish Senior Services, lay leaders on the Eastern Fairfield County side see a direct line between the Thriving Jewish Community Initiative started five years ago and the new Federation.
“Coming from the TJC process, we realized that our vision of a campus was going to be different from what was there in the past,” says Bonnie Slyn, a TJC leader and now on the new FJP board. “With that in mind, what are the other things that we want to accomplish? All those things focused on what historically were Federation operations, what the role of Federation should be. Those things that the community identified as priorities have in many cases become the priorities for our newly merged Federation for the first 12 to 18 months: creating a young leadership program, reconstituting a community-relations council, getting more people engaged. So it’s sort of come full circle.”
The idea for a new Jewish Senior Services complex evolved over several years, explains president and CEO Andrew Banoff, as The Jewish Home sought to both replace its skilled-nursing facility and expand its services. “The opportunity to build the first ‘household-model’ senior-living community in Connecticut took years of planning, new legislation, fundraising, and all of the pieces to come together at the right time and place,” he says. “When the old JCC decided to sell its campus, the story unfolded perfectly as we were able to bring all of the needs of our community together in one great location.”
When the facility is completed sometime in the first half of 2016, FJP will occupy approximately 5,400 square feet of office space on the third floor in the center of the new campus, according to Banoff. “The concept, though, is so much more than that,” he says. “We have a Joint Collaboration Agreement that spells out a vision for shared services, meeting rooms, the large multi-purpose room, [kosher] bistro, and catering services that allows the community to be a part of the new campus in whatever way they choose. That might be through adult education or Israel programming, or by being a part of the childcare center or new fitness center, or just by volunteering and supporting the overall vibrancy of this truly intergenerational campus.”
Along with the dedicated committee members who fleshed out the details of the merger – in two months, rather than the projected eight, Ferleger says – Russ lauds Friedlander for keeping the train on the rails. “Steve really deserves so much credit for shepherding the very difficult merger process to its successful conclusion,” she says. “It involved a great many people with a range of concerns – lawyers, our area rabbis, the agencies whose work we support, synagogue leaders, all the interested members of our Jewish community – not just our lay leadership, who was highly engaged in the process. There were so many meetings, especially last summer when the committee work was getting done, and I don’t think Steve missed a single one. We owe him a huge debt of gratitude for the many ways he personally helped make the merger happen. It was very complex, it was not easy, and he really guided it through to completion.”
With the new infrastructure and game plan in place, and with the first meeting of the new board already on the books, says Ferleger, “the good work and the fun stuff start.”