When the rear view mirror steers us toward innovation

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Israel, the "start-up nation," embodies innovation. Those phrases--"start-up" and "innovation"--sit atop the pinnacle of today's hierarchy of favored jargon for non-profits and corporations alike. 

However, there is a correlation between a phrase being increasingly invoked and a decrease in it being credibly invoked.  If everything is innovative, then nothing is. And too often phrases du jour are deployed as dismissive criticisms: a program is "not innovative," that group is "a legacy," not a startup.

In the Jewish world, those criticisms are typically, and unfairly, aimed at Federations. In Chicago, for over a century, Federation agencies have innovatively addressed the needs and the dreams of our youth, our elderly, our families, our refugees, our Holocaust survivors, and our sick. The approaches JCFS, JCC, CJE SeniorLife, Sinai Health System, and others have established to better serve 500,000-plus Chicagoans provided models widely replicated. And how JUF generates the financial resources fueling those state-of-the-art services is itself often innovative, from a Day School Guaranty Trust, to issuing tax exempt bonds, to a benefit concert for Holocaust survivors. 

Yet, our community's most vibrant and important source of funding--JUF's annual community campaign--is indeed "guilty" of being a legacy relic.  But, as the song goes, "if loving you is wrong, I don't wanna' be right."

That's because our ancestors figured out long ago that community-based tzedekah provides and embodies the greatest Jewish value.  

There is simply no more efficient, leveraged, impactful way to raise and allocate precious philanthropic resources than doing so together. On our own, none of us could have resettled 30,000 Russian-speaking Jews in Chicago and a million in Israel; provide free monthly Jewish books and music to 7,700 local families; 576,000 meals, food bags, and groceries to people in need and financial assistance to 5,400 struggling households; free or highly subsidized health care to 42,000 individuals; or send thousands of students and young adults to Israel.  But together, year after predictable year, that and more is what our "un- innovative" community tzedekah campaign achieves.

Some other American Jewish communities -- believing that unfettered individualism is here to stay -- have atomized their communal fundraising efforts, unraveling the centuries-old kehillah -based (community) approach to charity and instead empowering each individual donor to annually select which agency or program will be supported this year.  

Those choices are not tethered to research, planning, leveraged resources, or even knowledge of supply and demand for services. (JUF leader Bill Silverstein analogizes it to having an interstate highway designed by thousands of individuals acting totally independent of one another.) In this emerging anti-communal model, neither the agencies nor the people they serve can rely on a regular level of support.  If they happen to win the popularity contest this year, all is well; if not, oh well.  

Another cost to the atomizing of communal fundraising: large, international projects that require years of preparation and clandestine operations to execute will become impossible to realize.  

For example, who among us was even aware of the multi-year campaign to rescue the endangered remnants of Yemenite Jewry?  Which of us, on our own, took the initiative to learn about their plight in the midst of their country's civil war? How many of us, with our individual tzedekah , could mobilize the financial, political, diplomatic, and logistical resources to shepherd them to freedom?

In Chicago, as in so many other American communities at the beginning of the 20th Century, a small group of Jewish philanthropists came to realize that each doing their own thing was ill-serving their philanthropy and those they sought to help. The anarchic status quo resulted in competition for financial support and competition, not collaboration, in providing services. Creating Federations changed that paradigm, and further leveraged their impact by becoming the philanthropic vehicle of choice not just for major donors, but the Jewish masses--  amcha  --who also wanted their gifts leveraged to magnify their impact.

The ensuing century-the needs it presented and the solutions provided by Federations-again validated the historic, kehillah -centric Federation business model.

Fast-forward to 21st century Israel. Not long ago, a handful of Israeli philanthropists came to realize that they, like their American Jewish predecessors of the early 20th Century, were unable to accomplish on their own as much as they could do together.  So drawing upon their entrepreneurial, innovative DNA, they created a "new" Israeli tzedekah start-up, a.k.a., a federation.

That's right. Start-up nation Israel-the epitome, the embodiment of innovation-established its first community Federation. In the second decade of the 21st century, an Israeli community looked in its rearview mirror and saw an early 20th century American Jewish innovation, which in turn drew upon our community's traditional mode of tzedekah as providing the best path forward.  

Federation isn't innovative? Try telling that to the donors who have been inspired and those who have been helped by the latest and brightest trend in Israeli philanthropy. Theirs is not the newest Jewish idea, just new for Israel. And it remains the best formula to harness our people's innovation.

Sometimes, the rear view mirror can point us in the best direction.

Jay Tcath is executive vice president of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago.


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