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Eight Lights of Gratitude

By CARING, COMMUNITY, Eric's Blog

Remember back in 2013, when Hanukkah began on Thanksgiving Day? The mashup of holidays was dubbed “Thanksgivukkah” and we had fun with it. My friend Jennie Rivlin Roberts created a cool t-shirt for the occasion and donated thousands of dollars to charity from the proceeds.

You won’t be surprised to learn that a Jewish woman coined the name Thanksgivukkah. Dana Gitell, then a 37-year-old marketing manager for a Jewish nonprofit, trademarked the name and bought the URL. Given the quirks of the lunar Jewish calendar, another Thanksgivukkah is unlikely to happen again for 70,000 years! But this year we will come close with Hanukkah beginning on Sunday evening, November 28, just three days after Thanksgiving.

In the Thanksgivukkah spirit, here’s a list of the things for which I am deeply grateful this year.

  1. The COVID-19 Vaccine – This modern scientific miracle that delivers a safe and effective way to build protection against the virus was developed in record time and continues to save countless lives. I take pride knowing that Albert Borla, Pfizer’s CEO who led the company’s development of the vaccine, is the son of Greek Jews who survived the Holocaust.
  2.  The Braves are World Series Champions! — The ascent of the Braves, after so many years of disappointment, was pure joy for Atlanta — with the added bonus of three Jewish players! This win was exactly what we collectively needed after 18 months of pandemic isolation and anxiety.
  3. The 2022 Community Campaign — The Campaign is ahead of pace! As of today, we have reached 43% of our goal. I’m so grateful for our generous donors who continue to step up so we can meet urgent local and international needs. You can learn more about our 2022 campaign goals and donate here.
  4. $10,000 Israel Gap Year Scholarships for High School Seniors — I am delighted to report that The Zalik Foundation has renewed scholarship support for a second year to send graduating high school seniors to Israel. 2022-2023 applications for this year of personal growth and adventure prior to starting college open on December 6!
  5. The Resurgence of Midtown Atlanta — The Midtown construction boom continues with 16 active projects underway! The strength of Midtown real estate bodes well for our dream of transforming the Federation property at 1440 Spring Street into a vibrant center for Jewish life in the coming years.
  6. Federation’s Professional Team — It makes me especially proud to see Federation professionals blossoming within the organization. In recent months, several of them have stepped into new roles with added responsibilities. These transitions are a result of our culture of Excellence, Empathy, and Fearlessness, along with our commitment to professional development.
  7.  548 Commitments to After-Lifetime Giving — That’s right. As we conclude our three-year engagement with the LIFE & LEGACY™ endowment program, Atlanta’s Jewish schools, synagogues, and organizations have secured 548 letters of intent for legacy gifts with an estimated value of $35.2M! It brings me such nachas (Yiddish for joy) to see our community come together to ensure our future financial health. I extend a special thanks to The Harold Grinspoon Foundation for being a phenomenal philanthropic partner through camping initiatives, PJ Library, and the LIFE & LEGACY endowment program.
  8. Matt Bronfman’s Partnership and Leadership – As Board Chair, Matt has contributed a depth of wisdom and fresh insights during his Federation leadership. I deeply appreciate Matt’s commitment to strengthening our entire community.

The Joy of Face-to-Face Conversations

By CARING, COMMUNITY, Eric's Blog

It has been pure joy to attend the in-person outdoor events that are gradually returning to the Federation calendar. Two weekends ago an amazing crew of BBQ pit masters, competing as Team Feederation, joined 18 other teams at the Atlanta Kosher Barbecue Festival at Brook Run Park. Thousands attended the festival and Team Feederation took first place in the chicken category!

Last week I attended two more in-person events — the launch of the new J-CREN (Jewish Commercial Real Estate Network) initiative and the Women’s Philanthropy Fall event. At both, there was a palpable sense of reunion and optimism as people came together for the first time in more than 18 months.

Talking to donors — and to “not-yet” donors — about the work Federation does, and the ways the community benefits from our work, sparks great conversations. Once someone understands our story and respects the strategy we’ve been pushing forward, they are eager to help us care for, connect, and strengthen our Jewish community

At the same time, it is humbling to encounter folks who know little about the resources and opportunities their Campaign gift empowers.

I am hearing that people are hungry to travel to Israel again. We are still hopeful that a 2023 Community Journey to Israel will happen, and we will share details as soon as we can.

I am hearing that people love the microgrants we’re giving to individuals and community groups who want to build community. The small but mighty grants of up to $200 have empowered friends and neighbors to build sukkahs, join together for community service, feed the hungry, and turn their neighborhoods into vibrant Jewish places.

People appreciate the culture shift in the way Federation engages with the community. They value our collaboration with the synagogues, camps, human services, and partner organizations that make up our Jewish ecosystem. They appreciate the priorities and the leadership that emanates from 1440 Spring Street.

At this moment of reconnection, I’m reminded that today would have been the birthday of my beloved sister Judy who passed away unexpectedly in 1978. Judy is the reason I went to Camp Barney Medintz and ultimately moved to Atlanta. She is the person who still fires my love for our city and our Jewish community. With Judy’s memory in mind, I am gratified to report that the 2022 Community Campaign is ahead of pace, at more than 32% of goal.

As always, I love to engage in good conversation about our community. Whether face-to-face, or by email, let me hear from you!

Jewish Atlanta: Built for Limmud

By CARING, COMMUNITY, Eric's Blog

Ana and I attended Limmud Atlanta at Ramah Darom just before the High Holy Days. It was great to be back, and even in the midst of the Delta variant surge, we felt completely safe and had a spectacular time.

Did you know that there are 97 Limmud communities around the world? Most are one-day events held indoors. Limmud Atlanta is one of a handful of multi-day Limmuds held over Shabbat in a beautiful camp setting. Most Limmuds went virtual when the pandemic began, but Limmud Atlanta was committed to returning to an in-person event as soon as it was safe. This August we had the distinction of holding the first in-person Limmud in the Western Hemisphere since early 2020!

Honestly, it doesn’t surprise me. Echoing the theme of our 2022 Community Campaign, “Built for This,” it’s clear to me Jewish Atlanta was also built for the diversity, volunteerism, innovation, and community building that is Limmud.

Diversity: Jewish Atlanta was built to create Limmud because we are a truly diverse Jewish community. Limmud deeply values all streams of Judaism and prioritizes intra-Jewish dialogue. Limmud core values require that every event meets the needs of people across the spectrum of Jewish observance. I will never forget the time a group from The Kehilla led the entire dining room in a rousing birkat ha mazon (blessing after a meal), or the many times we’ve debated Israeli politics with respect and civility. Intra-Jewish engagement is Limmud at its best.

Not only that, but Limmud is age and geographically-diverse. This year we welcomed folks from Knoxville, Augusta, Asheville, South Carolina, and Florida. It’s a place where toddlers, kids, teens, young adults, and older adults become a community together. With so much informal time to share meals and schmooze, it’s no surprise that that Limmud has led to marriages, babies, and lasting intergenerational friendships.

Volunteerism: Jewish Atlanta is blessed with incredible depth in volunteerism. So too, Limmud is a 100% volunteer-run event. Most presenters are unpaid. At Limmud titles like Rabbi, Doctor, and Professor are dropped. This non-hierarchical structure encourages people to show up and really take responsibility. Passionate, committed volunteers rise quickly within the organization.

Innovation: Atlanta is about learning, and it also prizes innovation. Sessions range from traditional text study to the truly offbeat. Limmud loves putting a Jewish spin on hiking, yoga, music, and culture. One beloved Limmud tradition is a post-Shabbat cigar and scotch gathering, held outdoors. This year we honored Limmud Atlanta’s first executive Director Naomi Rabkin, z”l, by bringing in an innovative Jewish farmer for a learning track on the shmitah year — its history and its relevance in modern times.

This year, fearlessly, Limmud Atlanta had multiple sessions on race, gender and Jewish identity, and the imperative to open doors across our institutions to Jews of color. These sessions were frequently raw and emotional. They tested us to live out our highest ideals and face our failings. I love that about Limmud too.

I urge you to open yourself up to the possibility of attending Limmud Atlanta next year. Limmud is one of those immersive Jewish places where all kinds of people, at all levels of understanding and experience, can find meaning together. It’s exactly what Federation has in mind with its Family Camp initiative, creating new ways to connect with other Jews and with Jewish tradition.

Limmud succeeds because it was built for all of us, by all of us.

Shmitah Year: A Call to Change

By CARING, COMMUNITY, Eric's Blog

 

When I joined Federation five years ago, Steve Rakitt, a past CEO of our Federation, congratulated me by sending a big, green plant. It thrived in my office until we left to work remotely, then it dramatically wilted and turned brown. I consigned it to our HR Director Jeanette Park, who spent months lovingly nursing it back to life. Today my plant is smaller, but thanks to Jeanette, it’s green and growing.

The plant’s comeback hints at one of the most revolutionary ideas in the history of humankind — the shmita or sabbatical year. Shmitah is the Torah’s commandment that humans take responsibility for the earth by letting the land lie fallow every seven years. A shmita year is also about justice — we are commanded to forgive all debts and let those who are hungry glean the grapes, olives, and crops that have not been harvested.

Rosh Hashanah 5782 ushers in a shmitah year and it has me thinking that for all the ways we have adapted and pivoted these past 18 months to survive the pandemic, what, if anything, have we done to truly change? This Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I believe that we stand at the brink of a major moral opportunity. There is no going back to normal. Everything around us has been disrupted and yet we cling to old habits, worn strategies, and puny expectations. A shmitah year, especially after a pandemic, is a reset, a moment to commit to radical change.

Let us use this brilliant opportunity, the shmitah year, to reevaluate our priorities and address them with fresh and bold thinking. It has never been more relevant or more urgent than right now.

 

 

Three Big Reasons to Give

By CARING, COMMUNITY, Eric's Blog, PHILANTHROPY

The stunning success of the 2021 Community Campaign demonstrates to me that you, the Jewish community of Atlanta, are believers and builders. Your generosity is what propels us forward toward an even brighter collective future. It’s obvious to me that the Community Campaign is the very best vehicle for keeping that momentum going.

Last year’s Community Campaign closed with totals that exceeded our goals in every category, allowing us to amplify our impact. As our economy rebounds, I know we can do even better in 2022.

Federation is built to do big things. Here are my top three reasons to ask for your generous support for the 2022 Community Campaign:

1) Your support during COVID was magnificent. Jewish Atlanta deserves a pat on the back for how we met urgent needs during the pandemic, how we continue to come through COVID, and how we have learned from it. This kind of help is what Federation was built for and what a great community does.

2) You have helped us build one of the most vibrant Jewish communities in North America. We are the home of world-class partner agencies. We have a growing Jewish population, attracting young people after college and older adults who are moving to join their adult children. Our demographics have attracted innovative national initiatives to locate in our city:  Repair the World, OneTable, Honeymoon Israel, 18Doors, and B’chol Lashon are all thriving here.

3) Our tradition teaches over and over again that being a part of a community means supporting that community. This is the price we pay for the privilege of living in a community that has our back. It’s that basic. Please make your gift today and see all the ways you can channel your support to the things you care about most.

Moving Ambitious Ideas Forward

By Eric's Blog

As difficult as the past year and a half has been, Federation has not lost momentum or abandoned the ambitious ideas that define us as a Philanthropic and Community Champion. I am excited to tell you that we are going full speed ahead, and that many of the things we dreamed about which were on the shelf are being dusted off. Exciting initiatives are moving forward.

Israel Travel | Federation’s November 2021 Men’s Journey to Israel is already sold out. Hillel’s popular Onward program of Israel internships is in full swing. Federation NextGen’s 40-Under-40 Journey to Israel is planning a trip, and we’ve just announced the 2023 Community Journey to Israel — our first community trip since 2014. It will be open to anyone over age 18 and is timed to coincide with Israel’s 75th birthday.

Jewish Education Collaborative (JEC) | Our work to transform the quality of Jewish education in our synagogue schools continues through the Jewish Education Collaborative. JEC is doing bold work at Congregation Or Hadash to reimagine bar/bat mitzvah. New models for family education are launching at Temple Sinai, Temple Kol Emeth, and Temple Beth Tikvah. Busy families at five local synagogues won’t be battling traffic for midweek Hebrew next year They’ll be part of a proven new Hebrew curriculum, the Atlanta Hebrew Connection, where learning is done from home.

Gap Year Programs in Israel | With generous funding from The Zalik Foundation, JumpSpark helped Atlanta teens explore gap year options. Twenty-five students from fifteen different Atlanta high schools have accepted scholarships of $10,000 – $15,000 for the gap year program that suits them best. The experience is intended to amplify Israel education and develop a cadre of students who will enter college campuses with a strong connection to and knowledge of Israel.

1440 Spring Street: A Center for Jewish Life | We’re still talking about establishing 1440 Spring Street as Atlanta’s Intown Center for Jewish Life. It will be a gathering place for Jewish entrepreneurs and innovative nonprofits, with space for recreation, cultural experiences, learning and more. Imagine a multi-use theater, rooftop event facility, and conference center for lifecycle events, speakers and meetings, plus a reimagined Breman Cultural Center.

Toco Hills Housing Initiative | Exploration on the feasibility of building apartments for older adults in Toco Hills continues. This was the inspiration of Betty Minsk, z”l, who noted that many older adults in Toco Hills were not downsizing because there were no affordable, right-sized housing options in the neighborhood. Along with this, young families are also being priced out of starter homes. We will keep you updated.

Family Camp | We recently submitted a proposal seeking support for the creation of weekend and week-long family camp retreat programs. Family camp is a transformational education model at a time when people crave informal ways to connect with Jewish tradition. The immersive qualities of overnight camp give Jewish families fun new ways to do, feel, and be Jewish together. These programs could begin as soon as next summer!

Tuition Assistance for Jewish Professionals | Starting next school year, full-time Jewish professionals, clergy, and educators are eligible to receive up to a 50 percent tuition reduction if their children are currently enrolled or have been accepted to an accredited Jewish high school in Atlanta. Funding comes from a consortium of community foundations who support day school education and want to elevate our Jewish community as a destination for top professional talent.

One Happy Camper Scholarships | The pent-up demand for Jewish overnight camp has been off the charts. This summer we opened doors for more than 1,000 kids to have a Jewish camp experience!  Ongoing fundraising for camp, along with the Start a Campfire campaign, topped $750,000. Families who received grants and scholarships in 2020 were able to use them

Eric’s Summer Book List

By Eric's Blog

July has provided a happy breather for me. Coming off our incredibly successful 2020-21 fundraising year, I am exhaling a bit, but also feeling challenged to do even better in 2022. Knowing that the new fiscal year has just begun and that the 2022 Community Campaign launches in a few weeks makes these waning July days even sweeter. So, I have been treasuring time in the north Georgia mountains for hiking and hanging with friends and doing some traveling. I am looking forward to our Federation professional retreat at Ramah Darom next month and am also excited that Limmud Atlanta will be back at Ramah Darom in August (August 27-29).

And I’m reading. This summer my focus is on books about Israel, organizational accountability, and racial justice.

Our leadership is engaged in training on the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS) — a set of concepts and practical tools that provide an accountability and management system we will roll out to the entire organization. The executive team has been engaged since May. We are working with a consultant and learning the tools we’ll use to improve our operations. For this work I’m reading “Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business,” by Gino Wickman. It asks CEOs to define their values and build a culture around their core values. It’s a call to always let these values guide you when you hire, fire, review, and reward people, as well as a push to a more data-driven organizational culture.

I’m having fun reading “Coming of Age: The Atlanta Jewish Federation 1962-1982,” by Max C. Gettinger.”  Max (Mike) Gettinger grew up in New York City. Like me, he practiced social work and went on to become a Federation professional. Mike moved to Atlanta in 1962 taking on the role of Assistant Director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta and shortly after became the Executive Director when Ed Kahn retired. He served in this position until 1979 when he retired. Mike continued two years past his own retirement to launch Federation’s first endowment program. It’s been illuminating to learn more about the philanthropic foundation of our community and see how our Jewish leadership structure developed in those critical years of growth.

Mike Leven, who stewards the Jewish Future Pledge, urged me to read “Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth,” by Noa Tishby. Tishby is an Israeli actor and activist. She blends memoir and advocacy in this tribute to her beloved Israel, bemoaning how little the rest of the world actually knows about Israel. If you’re looking to counter social media “misinformation” about Israel, this is a helpful and inspiring read.

Also on my nightstand is Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson. This was last year’s big book on the roots of racism in America. Wilkerson approaches race differently than other writers, using the framework of a skin-color-based caste system, to explain how slavery compounded inequality and lack of social movement. She analogizes America to an old house that needs repair.  “We can never declare the work over. Wind, flood, drought, and human upheavals batter a structure that is already fighting whatever flaws were left unattended in the original foundation.” The idea is, we ignore the urgent renovations at our own peril. An important book.

Enjoy these last lovely days of summer. Let’s hope that we’ll be healthy and ready for in-person events in August and during the September Jewish holidays.

P.S. If you are reading something powerful and memorable, please send me an email and tell me about it.

Reflections on Pew: Leaning Into Each Other

By Eric's Blog

Three years ago our Atlanta Jewish professionals and lay community leaders traveled together to Israel. We represented legacy and emerging organizations plus many synagogues – from Reconstructionist and Reform to Orthodox and Chabad. It was a glorious experience in Jewish pluralism.

After the trip I shared our story of courage and strength in the face of passionate, diverse reactions to the many flash points on our itinerary. These included discussions with Women of the Wall founder Anat Hoffman, encounters with advocates for Arab/Israeli equity in Lod, touring a well-endowed orthodox yeshiva in Gush Etzion and visiting an adjacent Palestinian school that was struggling for survival.

We concluded our trip by committing to never speaking unkindly of each other or assuming malintent. We keep that promise to this day. We still pick up the phone before we make assumptions or accusations. We still use our WhatsApp group to wish each other Shabbat Shalom and mazal tov each week. Those simple acts have diffused conflict and built trust.

Actually, what jumped out at me in the 2021 Pew Research Center’s wasn’t about dwindling Jewish engagement, it was the importance of our promise. The Pew report noted the increasingly sharp religious and political differences between the Orthodox and other Jews. That divide suggests that the community is splitting into two groups increasingly focused on what separates us rather than what unites us.

It’s a very worrisome prospect.

I believe it’s time to double down on intra-faith efforts that create common ground. As I learned in Israel, our polarized politics made us uncomfortable, but being travelers together left us with no choice but to engage in dialogue — and we made time for it. We were literally on the bus together and had to deal with one another, our views, and our feelings. As we worked through it we didn’t come to a shared point of view, but we shared a new level of understanding. We were able to have grace for one another because we listened and leaned into each other’s perspectives.

We are, as a people, on the bus together. We need to act accordingly – leaning toward one another, listening, engaging, struggling to understand even if we don’t agree, rather than retreating to recriminations. If we are going to continue to be a people, we need dialogue, we require grace, and we must resolve to prioritize unity.

For decades, we have collectively done important interfaith work that has yielded results. We are better for it. Now there is an imperative to look inward and deal with intra-faith dialogue. We need more opportunities like Atlanta’s community trip to Israel, and the Wisdom Pairings work we are currently doing, where people gather not just to talk, but to listen and to understand one another. Our Jewish community should always embrace a diversity of voices, but our future depends on where we align.

Cultivating a Learner’s Mindset

By Eric's Blog

As part of Federation’s commitment to prioritize Excellence, Fearlessness, and Empathy as the core values that drive our work, all of our professionals know they are part of a learning organization. Federation’s learning culture means we not only encourage but require everyone to demonstrate personal and professional growth every year. Our people do this by taking classes and webinars, attending conferences, and sometimes choosing their own self-directed studies 

Every professional sets annual performance goals in their main area of expertise. And everyone has a development plan. Seventy percent of the development plan includes on-the-job “stretch opportunities. Our professionals frequently mentor each other to master these new skills. These commitments help us cultivate a learner’s mindset, which in turn, empowers us to become more fearless  

I see the benefits daily. People who are risk takers get comfortable with challenging fixed mindset and learn to embrace change. They are flexiblecurious, collaborative. They are open to the idea that there’s no one way to do things. These skills were absolutely essential as we adapted to the massive upheaval of the challenges of the pandemic  

Our professionals are taking classes about how to manage their teams, how to make Instagram and Facebook videos, and how to chart a donor’s journey from the very first gift to renewals. They’re learning about best practices in direct mail and how to tailor fundraising appeals to specific demographic groups. They’re studying how to move donors to monthly giving, and how to sharpen their listening skills so they take a project and turn it into realityOn their own time, several are pursuing MBA degrees, social work certification, and more!  

You may also have heard that Federation is integrating the capabilities of Salesforce into our daily operations. We are one of the first Federations in North America to adopt Salesforce, and I am continually getting phone calls from others who ask how it’s going. I’m proud to say, it’s going really, really, well. Salesforce allows us to better integrate our data, connect with community partnersvolunteers, and donors.  

In this way toohaving a workforce that values a learner’s mind has served us well. All of our teams are touched by Salesforce and after many, many, hours of trainingour professionals are fearlessly adopting new proceduresI am convinced that our commitment to ongoing learning is much deeper than what’s usually called “professional development.” It is an attitude that opens us up, fearlessly, tideas that can move this community forward.

Freedom Looks Like A Big Fat Hug…With A Face Mask

By Eric's Blog

I began this Passover message thinking I’d write about the positive things this challenging year of COVID-19 has taught us and the specific innovations, adaptations, and behavior changes we might want to keep. Indeed, many, many good things have emerged from our plague year. Crisis is always a catalyst for innovation and transformation, and Atlanta rode that thrilling wave. We created dozens of socially distanced ways to serve. We unleashed unprecedented levels of generosity and kindness.

That’s all good, great even. But I am in the relationship business and I desperately miss the energy of being around people. Half a dozen people have joined the Federation team since we began working remotely. I’ve never met many of them, or any of our new donors, in person, and it tears me apart.  I’m literally champing at the bit to catch up with all of you.

So, I’ll leave the catalogue of COVID “keepers” to other writers. For Passover I want to lift up the paradox of covenant vs. freedom, and the tension that exists between the two. As vaccines allow us to take our first tender steps of emergence from the narrow place of hand sanitizers, six feet apart, and social pods, we will embrace family members we haven’t touched in a year! We are like a reborn people. Giddy with our newfound freedom, we rush back to what is familiar. Remember how the Jewish people, just weeks after the parting of the Red Sea, built the golden calf.

Our post-COVID liberation comes with covenantal responsibility to each other and the world. Freedom may look like a big fat hug, but for a while it will likely be a hug with a face mask. Let us rejoice in our redemptive freedom but never forget that we were charged to be a light unto the nations with a unique mission to repair the world.