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Making the Case for the Big Tent Federation

Over the past several decades, federations have lost their place as the centerpiece of our communities. We believe that revitalizing them is critical for the Jewish future. In fact, we would argue that the current organizing model does not serve us well. A scattered community without any kind of overall framework is a recipe for the demise of our political influence and is contributing to the collapse of a necessary Jewish safety net. It’s particularly important to stop and take stock at a moment when the Jewish world is in crisis — high rates of assimilation and the corresponding decline in institutional affiliation, the threat of global anti-Semitism and the security challenges facing the State of Israel.

Federations across the country have contributed to their own diminished influence. They have become exclusive clubs for the very wealthy to harness their special interests, operating as a funding arm for particular projects and selected causes. They have often jettisoned some of their core functions and in turn promoted an environment of privatized Judaism, where individual aspirations trump communal priorities. As a result, we are experiencing the loss of a collective, visionary Jewish communal agenda.

But the historic experiences of the Jewish people have taught us that out of every period of disunity and chaos, Jews have always reclaimed their collective voice when they are threatened. It’s time for federations to once again lead the charge in this effort.

By returning to the Big Tent model, federations could operate as the communal table for a shared, civil and informed conversation on key Jewish-based and American-oriented issues. Federations played this organizing role in the post-war era until the 1980s. Bringing back this concept of the federations as a centralizing force will allow us to better articulate the concerns of the Jewish community. It will not be an easy process. The image of the tent with its open flaps should allow all who care deeply about the quality and future of Jewish life to be seated as part of this collective action. We envision a community comprising our synagogues, educational institutions, social service agencies and advocacy groups engaged in carving out a shared agenda, with tumult at times, but also with great purpose and resolve.

Federations are key not just in getting American Jews on the same page again, but also in amplifying our collective voice in American society. As Jews, we are part of a larger social and civic network, and as concerned citizens we have a stake in the well-being of American democracy. The federation system must be seen as a vehicle of community activism, articulating Jewish interests within the public square, part of the political discourse of this nation. American society is in need of a serious national conversation around such significant domestic issues as race, social justice, economic justice, immigration, education and foreign policy concerns like international terrorism and global warming. Jews as active and engaged citizens care as deeply about the character and substance of this society as they do about the welfare of Jewish state. We have been great beneficiaries of the American Dream and owe this country our honest commentary. We must be seen again as invested players in both the American and Jewish stories.

To be clear, we are calling not for lock-step political correctness but rather for Jews to be actors on behalf of their self-interests and in advancing critical discussions. How can we do this communally if there is not one address for these conversations, namely federations?

As part of revitalizing this centralized system, federations will need to focus their energies on identifying a new generation of leaders who can help give meaning and direction. Leadership in this century will require lay and professional men and women of depth and devotion who are capable of forging new ways of growing the communal agenda. This is not exclusively about young leadership programs; rather it is far more about attracting the talents and drawing upon the experiences of individuals within our community from all different levels of business and professional backgrounds; all our communal and religious organizations are in crisis precisely around the issue of identifying, nurturing and training knowledgeable and thoughtful leaders. Federations can and must assert their role as a leadership-training centers on behalf of the welfare and future of our organizations and institutions. Sustaining and growing Jewish life begins with attracting the best and brightest to help frame and drive the Jewish future.

Federations will be the best places to convene the necessary conversations and joint action that will allow Jews to be primary political and social actors within our society and across the Jewish world. This is also the best way for them once again to serve as incubators for new ideas around organizing, funding and policy engagement so that American Jews, as a community, can help define the future of our nation and reimagine Jewish life in this open society.

George T. Caplan served as president of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles between 1988 and 2000.

Steven Windmueller was both a federation and Jewish Community Relations Council director and has served as dean of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Los Angeles campus.

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