Reflections From Eric

February 28, 2017

April 25, 2017

From egosystem to ecosystem

I love the teaching that when we banish leavened foods from our lives for the eight days of Passover, and eat the flat, unleavened bread known as matzah, we are also banishing ego. If puffed-up yeast breads, cookies and cakes represent ego and self-aggrandizement, then matzah represents humility. Hasidic rabbis go on to say that matzah, the poor bread, made of only flour and water, renews our faith and opens us to self-improvement. It’s a tremendous lesson for individuals, and for big organizations like Federation.

For months I’ve talked to you about transforming the way Federation does business in our community, and now I’m excited to report that we are actualizing that promise. We are launching a process for change that rests on the idea of moving Federation from an egosystem focused mainly on its own well being, to an ecosystem that emphasizes the well-being of the whole community. With this mindset, all our Jewish organizations and programs are stakeholders, bound and committed to each other.

Going from egosystem to ecosystem, is a major shift in consciousness, so I’d like to tell you more about how we plan to do it. I also want to underscore that this is not a typical organizational strategic planning exercise. This is a bold and daring process that will require us to look collaboratively, rigorously, and courageously at the hard truths of our community and our leadership — as well as the seeds of possibility. This is a journey of coming together, slowing down, connecting, and really listening to each other. Together, we will discern the best use of Federation to create the conditions where Jewish Atlanta can flourish.

Our process builds from our 2016 Community Study which has been a rich source of learning. We’ll be organizing ourselves around three tracks, each with a different, but equally important purpose. Each track will engage a different cohort of lay and professional leaders, community members, and Federation staff, agencies and partners. The tracks are:

  • Track #1: Co-Creating an Innovation “Hub” or Holding Space for Next Generation Jewish Social Entrepreneurship

Working with young Jews and other innovators who are inventing new ways to embrace Jewish values and engage Jewish populations. The focus will be on supporting the culture of entrepreneurial Jewish energy and creating pathways for future leadership.

  • Track #2: Forming a Collective Impact Partnership with Bedrock Jewish Organizations & Activating Civic Networks

Bringing together our key agencies and creating a common agenda we all stand behind, that realigns us through the lens of “collective impact.” Using network thinking to identify and activate existing Jewish networks in Atlanta to reach out to more than 100,000 affiliated and non-affiliated Jews.

  • Track #3: Transforming Federation as an Institution

Supporting all the tracks above, and re-imagining its traditional functions and alignment with Jewish communities around the world, guided by a realistic understanding of the world in which we find ourselves.

A superb team of consultants from Insyte Partners, a Philadelphia based firm, has helped shape this process. I’ve worked with them at Camp Twin Lakes, and they’ve also done work with Atlanta Speech School and Sheltering Arms in Atlanta, along with clients both Jewish and non-Jewish nationwide. Jodi Mansbach, our Chief Impact Officer, will also be steering this initiative and assembling the teams that will drive institutional change. We are looking to assemble a diverse group of people who are willing to make a big commitment and participate in this effort.

I will continue to update you on this important work that promises to transform Federation and our larger community.

March 28, 2017

Building a 21st-Century Jewish Community

With five major Jewish conferences convening in Atlanta this month, March has been a whirlwind of connections with old and new colleagues, plus rich conversations about community building that I love. People ask me, “Why is Jewish Atlanta so hot right now? What’s the secret sauce?” I honestly don’t think there is one, but even with our challenges — urban sprawl and high rates of mobility and migration — Atlanta has a big appetite for innovation while simultaneously being bolstered by strong, stable Jewish institutions. I believe we’re a perfect laboratory for how to build a 21st-century Jewish community.

On March 20, Jodi Mansbach, our new Chief Impact Officer, and I gave a talk on this topic at Jewish Funders Network entitled, Meet Them Where They Are: Strategies for Engaging 21st Century Jewish Life. Using Atlanta as a case study, we took the position that Jews in 21st-century American cities are as much a part of the major trends and modes of contemporary living as anyone else. We’ve seen that Jewish people change and move more quickly than buildings or institutions can chase them. That’s why I’ve called Atlanta, “the Pew Study on steroids,” because our high rates of mobility challenge traditional modes of community building and make it difficult to foster engagement.

The 2013 Pew Study was a survey of Jewish Americans suggesting that Jewish identity is radically changing. It documented that the percentage of adults who say they are Jewish has declined by about half since the late 1950’s, and that one-in-five Jews (22%) describe themselves as having no religion. The study sent shock waves through the Jewish world; however, it also revealed many positives. For example, U.S. Jewish population is actually rising, and 28% of intermarried couples said they were raising their children as Jews. Rates of Passover seder attendance, fasting on Yom Kippur, candle-lighting and keeping kosher are also on the rise. Three-quarters of U.S. Jews said they have “a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.”

Atlanta’s Jewish community confirms these trends. In our session, we explored the general sociological and demographic trends that can inform planning and funding to examine Jewish trends. With data from actual Jewish programs, we framed questions about our current resources and how they relate to the ways contemporary Jews live and work.

You’ll be hearing more from us about these questions and the unique Jewish assets Atlanta brings to the table. As always, I’m eager to know what you think about how we can build the Jewish future together: erobbins@jewishatlanta.org

February 28, 2017

Building on a Promise

These last weeks of winter have been incredibly fruitful, building on the promise of becoming a more relevant, collaborative, and inclusive Federation. Our recent MLK Mitzvah Day was oversubscribed. Nearly 200 Federation volunteers honored Dr. King’s birthday by doing good at three sites: Atlanta Community Food Bank, Berman Commons, and Hillels of Georgia. The event filled up so quickly and demand was so strong that we will definitely be planning more Mitzvah Days. We’ve tapped into a real hunger for meaningful community service experiences, which I believe can be a powerful doorway to Jewish engagement. Read about some exciting new ventures underway.

Community Service
In January we invited people interested in community service to meet the director of Literacy Action — the Southeast’s oldest and largest basic education nonprofit serving undereducated adults. Literary Action offers profound experiences that are life changing for client and volunteer alike. The evening became a springboard for a larger discussion about creating a Jewish Center for Service & Dialogue that would consolidate volunteer opportunities for people of all ages and help them find the right fit. We are in discussion with JF&CS and other agencies about how to do this collaboratively so that we engage people across Metro Atlanta for greater impact.

Collaboration on Outreach
Earlier this month I met with the leaders of three innovative national Jewish organizations that have now established Atlanta offices: OneTable, led by Shira Rothman Hahn; Interfaith Family, led by Rabbi Malka Packer; and Honeymoon Israel, led by Hannah Spinrad. All of them have ambitious and creative agendas to welcome and engage more Jewish Atlantans. The four of us had an honest, open, and productive discussion about how we can collaborate on the many things we have in common, rather than working in silos. I know that our impact is stronger when we collaborate, and that’s what we intend to do.

Community Forums
Federation is hosting a series of community discussions on timely topics, all aligned with our mission to build community, stand for Israel, and advocate for justice. On Friday, February 17, we offered The Current Status of the Refugee Resettlement Program featuring J.D. McCrary, Executive Director of the International Rescue Committee in Atlanta. The remaining discussions are free and open to the public. Register here.

  • Monday, March 6Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Update (in partnership with American Jewish Committee).
  • Thursday, March 9 – Come see the new play about Jewish Atlanta history that everybody is buzzing about, The Temple Bombing. Then stay on for a discussion on Security in Today’s Jewish Community led by Cathal Lucy, Federation’s Director of Community-Wide Security.

Creative Placemaking
Finally, I’m excited that Jodi Mansbach, our new Chief Impact Officer, will be a presenter at the Jewish Funders Network and The Collaboratory conferences coming to Atlanta in March. Jodi is leading sessions on Creative Placemaking in the Jewish Community, challenging national leaders to think intentionally about ways to leverage the power of the arts, culture and creativity to engage more people while driving a bigger agenda for growth and transformation. The Jewish sustainable farming project and our emerging Jewish Center for Service & Dialogue are great examples of how Federation is already putting these ideas into practice.

I’m always interested to hear your ideas and get feedback. Drop me a line at erobbins@jewishatlanta.org.

January 24, 2017

Shabbat Shalom in Toco Hills

As Ana and I continue to learn about Atlanta’s Jewish communities, we spent the cold and icy weekend of January 6-7 “embedded” in what is surely one of Atlanta’s warmest, most vibrant Jewish micro-communities — Toco Hills. We experienced Shabbat from beginning to end, discovering a depth of hospitality and harmony that is beautiful and all too rare. Over the course of 25 hours, we were embraced by a unique Jewish community that is incredibly diverse and cohesive at the same time.

On Shabbat morning, Rabbi Adam Starr graciously offered me a chance to speak at Young Israel of Toco Hills. I commented on the weekly Torah portion, Vayigash, near the end of the Joseph story. In retrospect, I couldn’t have imaged a more relevant teaching than the way Joseph’s fractured family ultimately resolves years of misunderstanding and resentment. In the very next portion Jacob, the patriarch, blesses his sons, acknowledging each brother’s unique role. That kind of unity within diversity is exactly what I saw in Toco Hills.

I’m sure many of you have seen the parade of families streaming up and down LaVista Road on Shabbat, coming and going to synagogue, or carrying potluck dishes on their way to meals with friends. Within the eruv (the ritual enclosure that permits Jewish residents or visitors to carry certain objects in public on Shabbat) that delineates this community are at least five congregations. They range from Reconstructionist, modern and traditional Orthodox, to Sephardic and Persian. On any given Shabbat, you’ll see women covering their heads in scarves, wigs, and hats, or nothing at all. You’ll see men wearing knitted kippahs, black kippahs, fedoras and fur-rimmed shtreimels. It’s a glorious sight.

Because Toco Hills has proximity to the CDC, Emory University and several hospitals, the community is full of men and women who are doctors, lawyers, academics, public health professionals, teachers and innovators. It’s an intellectual oasis. Though many people we met grew up with secular Jewish backgrounds, they’ve chosen this committed, observant Jewish life and are passionate about sharing it.

They care intensely about education, Jewish camp, Israel, the obligation of tzedakah, and each other. When a family is in need, the word goes out across Toco Hills and suddenly meals are delivered, children are driven to school, and prayers are offered. Families are large, but generosity runs deep. An incredible 40% of the donations supporting relief after the fires in Israel came from members of Young Israel of Toco Hills.

Unity within diversity. It’s right here in our Toco Hills Jewish community. And if you want to experience it, just call any of the synagogues along LaVista Road and ask to be invited. I guarantee you’ll find a Shabbat table to join, a warm place to sleep, and an unforgettable Jewish welcome.

All our Atlanta Jewish micro-communities have something to teach, and I look forward to immersing myself each of them.


 

November 22, 2016

Message From Eric

I love Thanksgiving. And this year, it couldn’t arrive sooner.

At this divisive moment in our history, how desperately we need to connect with the oneness and unity of this sacred day. We are a divided community and we need to heal.  Yet we cannot call ourselves pluralistic, diverse, and tolerant if we ignore significant voices in our community and refuse to engage with them in an inclusive dialogue.

Does that mean we never make statements on issues of the day? No. It means that we’re respectful, careful, and mindful of the impact of what we say. And here’s another idea — I just learned about a beautiful new initiative here in Atlanta that uses Shabbat dinner as a platform for healing through thoughtful, constructive conversation. Find out more here.

Thanksgiving also reminds me how much I enjoy the balancing act of living in the Jewish world and the secular world. As Jewish-Americans we actually multiply our opportunities to express our gratitude and connect with each other. We just celebrated the harvest festival of Sukkot with uniquely Jewish symbols — the lulav, the etrog, and the sukkah — as thanks for G-d‘s bounty and protection in a fragile world. Later this week we’ll do the same with iconic American traditions — turkey, cranberry sauce, pumpkins and football.

Similarly, how lucky we are to have two new year celebrations — Rosh Hashanah for self-reflection and gratitude; the secular New Year for a fresh start and a bit of fun. Both are important ways to solidify our commitments to community, family and self.

For me this is the perfect moment to express my thanks to all of you in our community who have given me input and wise counsel over the last 100 days. I am grateful to all who came before me as the builders of this remarkable Jewish community. I am incredibly thankful to the Federation staff, our tireless volunteers, our donors, the staff of our affiliate organizations, the leaders of our synagogues and all of you who’ve engaged me in important conversations wherever I go in Jewish Atlanta. The sheer number of hours you have spent advising me, challenging me, bringing me up to speed, and laying a foundation for my success, is humbling.  One thing is crystal clear: our desire to build an even more dynamic, innovative and beloved Atlanta Jewish community hinges on collaboration. My prayer for Thanksgiving is that the new ground we plow together, and the seeds of change we plant, will yield an amazing future harvest for which our children will always be grateful.


October 26, 2016

Writing our next chapter.

It’s the end of my first three months as your CEO. I’m still in listening mode and my days are still packed with breakfasts, coffees, and meetings and conversations with community leaders. Yet I’m energized by the head nods I see when I talk about a more collaborative and less siloed Jewish community infrastructure. It’s equally exciting to learn about some of the creative grassroots Jewish initiatives that are popping up around Atlanta, with the potential to engage Jews we’ve never reached before. Did you know that Intown Atlanta now has a chapter of J-WOW (Jewish Without Walls), a volunteer-led organization that builds Jewish community across denominations and affiliations? Jewish social justice Shabbat dinners are happening around the city, and other Jewish points of connection are bubbling up, from Rosh Chodesh groups to havurahs. Combine all of this with the incredible strength and new leadership of our established organizations, and our next chapter is already being written.

Here’s what I’ve synthesized as fertile areas for change, with some hints to what could become key parts of a new Federation agenda and guiding thoughts for a vision that is emerging:

  • Changing the paradigm of how we relate with the organizations with which we work in the community to one rooted in convening, collaborating and seeking collective impact as we aim to build a stronger Jewish community.
  • Rallying our Federation team around a shared vision for community building and creating a 21st century Jewish community.
  • Cultivating new programs and spaces for broader participation in community building — like the Jewish Farm Initiative that is rooted in Jewish practice and values.
  • Investing in our Jewish professionals and lay leaders across Atlanta so they can stretch their abilities and become dynamic community leaders throughout all of our organizations.
  • Inventing new ways to engage individuals in our Jewish community and help them connect with their Jewish identity to live more meaningful lives, through innovation within existing organizations and with startups.
  • Bringing Israel closer to Atlanta through community exchanges and programs and creating safe places where we can talk about Israel as one tribe, with mutual respect.
  • Offering new opportunities for community service inside and outside the Jewish community locally and internationally. Service can be the primary way we engage the broader community.
  • Becoming the place in the community that teaches the practice of philanthropy and fosters the next generation of Jewish philanthropists.

Please share your thoughts and ideas for Jewish Atlanta’s next chapter with me: erobbins@jewishatlanta.org


September 27, 2016

Message From Eric

One of the many things I love about being Jewish is the inner spiritual work we are called to do during the month of Elul. This year I am doing that personal work, and leading the same process for Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. I am looking closely at our history — what we were built on and what we have become today. This process has meant doing a lot of listening to our internal team, the organizations we partner with in the community, our donors, and individuals who have never found a place to connect with us. Jewish Federation has been an integral part in building this incredible community, and yet this process has been challenging and sometimes painful because we clearly have flaws and some fractured relationships. For real change to take place, we must connect with the ways we fall short, understand them, and emerge with inspiration for what the future should look like.

Personally, as I gain firmer footing as your Chief Executive Officer and begin to live in my new role, I have also been looking inward. I feel renewed excitement about how being Jewish makes life richer, fuller, and more purposeful. I believe that Judaism offers an amazing template for living a meaningful life, and I love that it is not a prescriptive template — it is actually open and flexible. For me, being Jewish is a blueprint for living a life of community, core values and the openness to explore spiritually. Federation is the perfect vehicle for tapping into this template, offering unlimited opportunities to make the world better and invest in our community.

And finally, because Elul and the holiday of Yom Kippur is a time of forgiveness, I am asking for yours — both personally and for Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. This is a difficult job and I am still new at it. If I have missed the mark or said something upsetting or hurtful, please forgive me. If we as a Jewish Federation have failed you, or have not been there for you in the way you want us to be, we also ask for your forgiveness. For Federation to flourish in a new world, we all need to change our expectations. We will never be all things to all people, but we can be a place that welcomes all people and respects and nourishes their perspectives. My ultimate goal for 5777 is to partner with you to build a more resilient community where the next generation will always find meaning and connection.

As our tradition says, mitzvah goreret mitzvah – doing good leads to more doing good! I would take it one step further and say that building a community that allows Jews to connect more deeply with their identity can only make more good people and create more good in the world.


August 30, 2016

My First 30 Days – Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta

I’m 30 days into my new position at Federation and I continue to be excited by my unique vantage point on Jewish Atlanta. I’m working very hard at connecting the dots. What are the dots? People, places, organizations, and ideas. My days have been filled with important conversations about change with our affiliates, partners, and with our Federation professionals and lay leaders. My biggest takeaway is that we really must learn to listen deeply to each other. Jewish life out in the larger world is not what we experience inside our buildings.

I believe that If we truly want to be inclusive, expansive and inspiring, we must communicate with passion, that being Jewish is life-changing and compelling. We need to show how Jewish values and experiences are a roadmap for doing more good in our lives.

That’s why I’ve been hyper-focused on these things:

  • Changing our language to say to everyone, “You have a place here!”
  • Encouraging collaboration between agencies and affiliates and other community innovators.
  • Seeing ourselves as the central convener for discussions on Jewish life in Atlanta.
  • Lifting up new ideas and models for our future — for example, creating a Center for Innovation in our community, and exploring new ways to use our building.
  • Setting the table for transformation as I work with the Federation board.
  • Convening a focus group on New Jewish Places — unexpected spaces in Metro Atlanta where new kinds of Jewish activities can happen.

Some very exciting things are already taking shape and I can’t wait to share them with you. As always, my door is open and my email is erobbins@jewishatlanta.org. Let me know what you’re thinking about!

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