This years General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America boasts an especially full program of edifying and inspirational speakers and events – from Supreme Court justices to an Academy Award-winning actress and even a top TED speaker.
This years GA is a celebration of the Federation system, which has been the bedrock of the Jewish community for more than a century. For that reason when we think about Federations, the word innovation may not always come to mind – but it should. Like virtually every business and charitable organization in the world, Federations have evolved to meeting the demands of the 21st century.
This year, the 153 Federations that comprise the JFNA were invited to submit descriptions of their most innovative programs and activities. The result was astonishing: over 200 Fedovation (Federation plus innovation) programs were submitted, of which 50 were selected to be presented at the GA. Other Federations will surely be inspired to adapt many of these great ideas to their local communities.
New ways to engage new audiences
Numerous Federations have adopted bold approaches to programming, implementing fresh ideas to reach out to new audiences and strengthen the community. Engaging teens can be particularly challenging. UJA Federation of New Yorks PovertySLAM is a unique program aimed at educating Jewish New York teens about poverty in the New York Jewish community and inspiring them to address the needs of this population.
New approaches are also deepening young adult engagement. Innovative programming includes Tampas Better than Bubbe, a website for young Jews offering real-life tips, advice and insights; and Israel360, which connects young Jewish leaders ages 27-35 in Philadelphia and Israel.
Another exciting program, from Chicago but potentially relevant to all Federations, is GIFTS – a program that reaches out to grandparents, providing them with the essential knowledge, skills and tools they need to share Jewish values with their grandchildren. The program has special significance to grandparents of interfaith or non-Jewish grandchildren, who seek opportunities to connect with their grandchildren around Jewish values.
Many Federations have programs targeting the LGBT population. Southern Arizonas Power of LGBT Inclusion project attracts new leadership while actualizing a welcoming community. In addition to special programs on Shabbat and holidays, special lecturers offer a particular view on LGBT issues from a Jewish perspective. The project has attracted strong lay leadership who are now active leaders in the Federation.
Programs in several Federations are making their communities accessible and welcoming to people with disabilities and special needs. MetroWest ABLE (Access, Belonging and Life Enrichment for People and Families with Special Needs), a program of The Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, serves and advocates for individuals with disabilities and their families. Focusing on creating inclusive congregational communities, MetroWest ABLE is available to support congregations in developing inclusion committees, training, identifying and prioritizing goals of inclusion. The availability of this ongoing support helps congregations connect more individuals and families to the greater Jewish community.
Other innovative programs in this area include the Baltimore Jewish Abilities Alliance, which promotes an inclusive, spirited environment that celebrates the diversity of the Jewish community and the uniqueness of every member; and Federation of Greater Orlandos RAISE (Recognizing Abilities and Inclusion of Special Employees), a work/social skills training program providing paid employment with job coaching at partnering agencies.
Israel encounters: creating a connection
Some of the innovative programs introduced in the U.S. and Canada are devoted to creating deeper relationships with Israel. Israel Childrens Zone is a flagship educational intervention program established by The Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago aimed at narrowing scholastic gaps in their partnership region, Kiryat Gat-Lachish-Shafir, in an effort to meet academic and social needs of students at elementary schools in the region.
Reverse Mifgash is a program for young adults sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington that brings American and Israeli Birthright Israel alumni together for a ten-day immersive experience in the Greater Washington area, giving Israelis and Americans alike a true understanding of what it means to be part of a global Jewish community.
Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ devised the Step Up For Israel Campaign – a community-wide effort to educate and mobilize the community to counter accusations against Israels legitimacy.
Rethinking social services: new strands for the safety net
Federations and JFNA agencies are taking care of the communitys most vulnerable members in a variety of unique ways. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles set up the Ezra Network to provide social services in synagogue settings. By creating 19 hubs in synagogues throughout the city, participants are able to access social services from multiple entry points, with free one-on-one private sessions, workshops, support groups and consultations with clergy and other synagogue staff.
Similarly, JHub Richmond is a new collaborative venture funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver to bring needed social services to Jewish community members living in a suburban community outside Vancouver. The hub offers central and easy access to Jewish social services for seniors, families and individuals. At Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, an in-house Mitzvah Food Project (MFP), which is a network of food pantries and anti-hunger services, revolutionized an existing food pantry to more effectively and efficiently combat hunger.
New approaches to camp and education
Creative initiatives having to do with Jewish education and summer camps are shaping Jewish identity in many communities. In Greater Boston, as elsewhere, 80% of Jewish students receive their Jewish education in a synagogue-affiliated or community supplementary school that often fails to provide a sense of authentic commitment. Jewish Learning Connections in Boston supports a new vision for learning in synagogue-affiliated and supplementary schools through innovative models and a multi-pronged approach.
In Orange County, CA, Passport to Jewish Life is an educational grant program that opens the doors to more Jewish journeys for Jewish youth, supporting student participation in congregational religious school, Jewish summer camp, teen and young adult peer-group Israel experiences, and more. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles held a Tour de Summer Camps: Ride for the Jewish Future – a community-wide bike riding fundraiser designed to give more local children a transformative experience at Jewish summer camps. The project brought both the Jewish community and the greater community together for an innovative, fun and different fundraising event.
Through collaborative efforts, Federation CJA of Montreal, the Jewish Federation of Cleveland and the Jewish Community Foundation for Greater MetroWest NJ have been able to build dynamic camping initiatives to significantly increase the number of children from their communities going to Jewish overnight camp each summer. The communities have invested in the One Happy Camper incentive program and developed other strategies to help market Jewish overnight camps to diverse populations.
Meet Jerry Silverman
As the head of JFNA, Gerrald (Jerry) Silverman oversees the national organization headquartered in New York City. In his first year at JFNA, he visited close to 40 communities, listened to leaders and spent time with agencies and Federation executives. After five years at the helm, he has become known for his focus on fundraising, commitment to the next generation of leadership, young adult engagement, Jewish Education, support for Israel and freedom of religious expression.
I am proud to say that our Federations are working together, changing and moving forward, Silverman said. They are thinking together, creating coalitions of the willing. Were able to move more nimbly on issues together; were able to have real conversations on the tough issues. Were much more of a collective today. We have Federations that are creative and inventive, that are doing new things which are being shared across all communities.