Freedom Looks Like A Big Fat Hug…With A Face Mask
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.
The Jewish World Needs Camp
Jewish overnight camp was always the place where I could be my best self. It’s no exaggeration to say that Camp Barney Medintz made me the man, the father, the husband, and the leader I am today. So, nothing makes me happier than to tell you that our southeast Jewish overnight camps are planning to open for summer 2021, registration is robust, and Federation fundraising for camp scholarships is breaking records!
With a goal to send nearly 1,000 kids to camp, we have raised a record-breaking $41,000+ through the annual Start a Campfire campaign, and over $725,000 in total for camp scholarships this year. Camp directors are using all they’ve learned in the last year along with CDC and American Camp Association guidance to keep kids and counselors safe for the coming summer.
There’s a deeper urgency behind Federation’s push to get more kids to camp. After a year of cooped up COVID living, and a year of virtual learning for many, our kids are hungry for each other and the joy of living with peers at camp. They’ve missed so much over this past year.
It’s not just kids who need camp, and not just stressed-out parents who need their children to go off to camp for fun and independence. As Jodi Rudoren, editor of The Forward writes, “the Jewish world needs camp. The way it creates a feeling of home is rarely replicated in synagogue or school. That sense of calm that washes over everyone as they emerge each Friday evening in their whites. That intensity, that closeness, that warmth, and pure fun — all essentially, intrinsically, tied up in Jewish identity and sealed with a singalong.”
A darker truth is that many kids are feeling anxious and depressed. Children handle stress differently depending on their age, and they generally have a high susceptibility to the longer-term consequences of anxiety on their mental health. We anticipate that those who are stuck in negativity may require professional help.
Our camps will be ready! To keep camps an emotionally safe space, directors are prioritizing having trained mental health providers on their campuses this summer to support the emotional needs of campers. “We are experiencing a world-wide shared trauma experience,” Jill Goldstein Smith, Senior Program Manager at Foundation for Jewish Camp reminds us. “Camp provides a bubble of sorts, but it is also a safe space to be vulnerable, which is where the growth happens.”
For sure, some aspects of camp will be different this summer. Rethink the bunk as a “pod.” Generally, campers will spend more time outdoors than in the past. They will do most things with their pod — eating, playing, and living together, while physically distancing from other groups. Camp directors can provide more details about these safety protocols — just ask them!
I rejoice that our Atlanta community understands the long-term power of overnight camp to build Jewish identity and lifelong engagement. I’m excited that scholarship funds are still available! Give your kids a summer without screens at our amazing Jewish overnight camps. They can’t wait to welcome you and Melissa Scholten-Gutierrez, who manages Federation’s Overnight Camp initiative, can’t wait to answer your questions and even help you pick the right camp.
Be sure to send me a photo of your child when he or she returns home happier, wiser, stronger, and more independent than you ever imagined!
Connection is Our Superpower
When the whole world fell apart last March and COVID-19 overtook our lives, Jewish Atlanta reeled, but it never collapsed. Jewish life carried on because we had a superpower that others lacked.
Deep human connections.
We didn’t realize it then, but it’s clear to me now that the relationships and partnerships we’ve nurtured across our Jewish ecosystem are what allowed us to respond quickly and effectively, to rise up and meet human needs.
Human connections helped us raise $4.3 million for COVID-19 relief in just six weeks. Our IT professionals moved most of our organizations to virtual operations in days, not weeks.
When our Jewish day schools switched to virtual learning, we leveraged relationships to make incredible things happen. Through our partnership with Jewish HomeLife we got our day school teachers COVID tested so they could continue to teach. When we saw that the kitchen at The Epstein School wasn’t in use, we turned it into a staging area to make meals for homebound older adults.
We invested in human connection by assigning Federation professionals to convene meetings across all our community sectors — schools, synagogues, human service organizations, older adult services, and more. Those sector conversations helped us understand community needs and prioritize our response. And they established the protocols that helped our schools, organizations, camps, and the MJCCA reopen safely.
With most of our professionals still working from home, and services being delivered virtually, people ask me all the time how we’re faring. Actually, we’re doing surprisingly well. Jewish Atlanta is recovering. That’s because our virtual connections are built on face-to-face connections that came before the pandemic.
I pray that at this moment when vaccines are finally becoming available, we may soon resume the face-to-face connections that laid the foundation that has kept us strong and resilient during this unprecedented time.
A Raging Menorah
Who could possibly argue against the idea that when our light increases there is more goodness in the world?
Yet centuries ago, there was a rabbinic debate over this very thing. In a famous argument on how to light the Hanukkah candles Beit Shammai said: On the first day one kindles eight lights and gradually decreases the number of lights until, on the last day, they kindle one light. And Beit Hillel said: On the first day one kindles one light, and then gradually increases the number until, on the last day, they kindle eight lights.
Today we follow the path of Beit Hillel, raising ourselves spiritually by adding light to the world. It’s exactly what I see today in Jewish Atlanta. Each day our community organizations are sharing ideas and resources with each other — as Jewish HomeLife did to provide COVID-19 testing at our day schools, as Serve the Moment volunteers do by virtually visiting older adults at The Breman Home and Berman Commons, and as our North Metro synagogues are doing to create Hanukkah celebrations together.
Each organization alone is a glimmer, but together they are a raging menorah, lighting the way to a brilliant collective future. Hanukkah teaches us that candle by candle, mitzvah by mitzvah, we really can overcome the darkness and change the world.
Bridging the Divide
You know the saying, “Two Jews, three opinions.” It’s funny and true. Jews seem to enjoy taking ideas apart and examining them from every angle. What is the Talmud, after all, but a book of debate?
The Jewish tradition of argument has given the world more than its share of brilliant Jewish scholars, leaders, lawyers, and teachers. I guess outspokenness and debate are byproducts of being a people devoted to repairing the world. But how do we handle argument right now when deep political divisions enflame the nation and bubble up within our own Jewish community?
In last week’s Atlanta Jewish Times, reporter Dave Schechter asked Rabbi Laurence Rosenthal of Ahavath Achim Synagogue how to cultivate civility and turn down the rhetorical heat. Rabbi Rosenthal pointed to unique ways Judaism helps people find common ground.
In this moment when Georgia is at the center of the news, and when one of the run-off candidates for Senate is Jewish, political passions are boiling over once again.
Marc Gopin is another rabbi who has dedicated his life to conflict resolution in Afghanistan, Syria, Ireland, and Israel. He counsels people embroiled in political argument to “Stop talking, listen, and keep asking questions.” Thoughtful questions, he believes, illuminate the mind and move us towards what we have in common. Gopin has discovered that kindness and concern literally create new neural pathways that can change the mind. Our words can take us from fear and hate to openness and compassion.
At times like this I sometimes hear from people who feel that this Federation, and Federations in general, favor a particular point of view. I want to be really clear: Federation celebrates engagement in democracy. However, as a nonprofit, we cannot and do not participate in elections, including endorsing candidates or parties.
Federation remains focused on our mission to care for, connect, and strengthen our Jewish community throughout greater Atlanta, Israel, and the world, with our focus on impacting people, not politics. About this there should be no argument.
Demonstrating Compassion in our Responses and Actions
This article was featured in the Atlanta Jewish Times for November.
Uncertainty abounds amidst a global pandemic and at a political crossroads. Our children and grandchildren are in various models of school – face-to-face, remote, and everything in between – aware that a positive COVID-19 test result can call for change at any moment. These are challenging times, to put it mildly.
And yet, these are also opportunities for us – both as individuals and as part of a larger kehillah (Jewish community) – to practice and uphold the very Jewish principles and values we celebrated during Rosh Hashana and recommitted on Yom Kippur. Even when we are stressed, it is imperative we support each other, our community, and the organizations we hold dear.
As you may have read, after many months of having no cases of COVID-19, the William Breman Jewish Home experienced an outbreak which, sadly, has taken eight lives. Together, as a community, we mourn for these individuals, and we offer our heartfelt condolences to their loved ones. We have in our thoughts those who are in the hospital; we are grateful for the caregivers. We are fortunate that Jewish HomeLife is served by leaders who responded quickly, instituting the comprehensive COVID response plan they had prepared months ago. And, while we know that across the country COVID-19 rates have been rising in older adult care communities, agencies are being reassured that this vulnerable population will be among the first to receive a vaccine. Thankfully, the numbers at the Breman Home are steadily declining, and currently there are nine residents and two staff who have tested positive for the virus. They continue to conduct weekly testing and have not had any new positive cases at the William Breman Jewish Home since November 1.
Just last month, we admitted our shortcomings to G-d and asked Him for forgiveness. We pledged to be better Jews, to be better humans. Our job, as good stewards of the greater Atlanta Jewish community, is to support the Breman Home through this time. Our individual – and collective – response to this news should be one filled with compassion and helpfulness.
Bikur Cholim (visiting the sick) and the shiva ritual is steeped in our Jewish heritage. Unfortunately, the pandemic has brought myriad challenges to observing these traditions in their usual manner. We, as a community, have an opportunity – an obligation as Jews – to support the families who are suffering losses in whatever ways we can. At the very least, we can provide sympathy, empathy, and compassion.
Despite the uncertainty we all undoubtedly feel right now, we can cultivate some ‘best of times’ through our responses to events, and through our actions.
When the Telephone is a Lifeline
Few things make me feel better right now than having a socially distanced “playdate” with a family member or friend. Sometimes I bring a chair to their driveway, or we take a bike ride, or we sit together in a local park and catch up. It’s the best feeling!
But what happens when you live alone and are at elevated risk for the virus? That was Cheryl’s story.
“Most of my friends have husbands and children who keep them busy. I live alone and have very little family. For me, One Good Deed has truly been a gift that has greatly enhanced my life. Now, I have someone to talk to by phone,” she told me.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Jewish Atlanta has done far more than simply raise money, it has raised spirits. One Good Deed’s Friendly Phone Visitor Program (from Jewish Family & Career Services) is a tremendous example of doing just that.
Cheryl was matched with a 26-year-old volunteer named Lexie. They had an immediate rapport and have become great friends. Their age difference only enhances the relationship. Cheryl has the life experience to give Lexie sage advice, and Lexie helps Cheryl stay current and connected with her generation.
“I love being matched up with Cheryl. Pre-COVID we had a great time shopping and exploring restaurants around Brookhaven. We still talk multiple times a day and I can’t wait to take her out after the virus is gone. I do miss seeing her, but phone calls are always nice,” says Lexie.
Since the pandemic started, Cheryl had another telephone friend named Jane. Although they have not been able to get together in-person, their conversations mean the world to Cheryl. “Jane is a good cook, and we love talking about one of my favorite interests — food! I’m hoping to meet Jane face to face and share a lunch together when the pandemic is under control,” Cheryl said.
The pandemic has shown all of us how debilitating loneliness can be, and that even a short conversation has the power to lift the heart. Thanks to organizations like One Good Deed, a new friend can be just a phone call away. I am moved by all the ways our community is reaching out to build human connections — Repair the Moment’s virtual visiting, JF&CS grocery delivery program, and AgeWell’s Atlanta’s virtual programming for older adults are great examples. It makes me so proud to see these mitzvahs happening everywhere!
If you or someone you know would love to be matched with a Friendly Phone Visitor, contact One Good Deed at 770-677-9489.
The Gates Are Not Closed Yet
Yesterday, many of us experienced the drama of the Yom Kippur N’eilah service and heard the closing blast of the shofar. But lest you think that the Gates of Repentance are shut tight until next year and our fates are sealed, let me share another idea.
I learned this teaching — that the “gates” don’t truly close until the eighth day of Sukkot, right before Shemini Atzeret, on a day known as Hoshana Rabba (The Great Supplication). The Zohar, a collection of Jewish mystical writings, teaches that while the judgment for the new year is sealed on Yom Kippur, it is not “delivered” until the end of Sukkot, giving us an extra measure of time to lessen the impact of G-d’s verdict for the new year.
It only amplifies what I already love about Sukkot and its embrace of the land and the bounty of the earth, which I feel so keenly this year. While a sukkah is an enclosure, it’s somewhat COVID-friendly since it’s built outdoors, only has walls on three sides, and has a roof that is deliberately open to the sky. Please understand, for safety’s sake, strict social distancing and masking rules should apply on Sukkot, but what a joy to celebrate a holiday out of doors!
My bigger point is that there are opportunities for spiritual work and repentance with the upcoming festivals of Sukkot (my favorite Jewish holiday), Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah.
Sukkot is a reminder of human vulnerability. It’s a time to remember that too many suffer from hunger and homelessness. It’s an opportunity to support the Jewish and other shelters that protect them: The Zaban Paradies Center serving couples at The Temple, and Rebecca’s Tent serving homeless women at Congregation Shearith Israel. It’s an opportunity to support Federation’s 2021 Community Campaign, the JF&CS Kosher Food Pantry, our friends at the Atlanta Community Food Bank, and so many other nonprofits that serve people in need.
And it’s a time to remember our beloved planet earth. Fires blaze on the west coast, glaciers the size of Delaware fall into the sea, and temperature extremes generate multiple hurricanes off our shores. What will we do to green our community? Let’s use these remaining days to challenge ourselves to put the environment on our agenda this coming year.
Along with acts of loving-kindness, t’shuva (repentence), tefila (prayer), and tzedakah (righteous giving) are our uniquely Jewish tools for world repair and a better future.Even the smallest efforts have the power to change. I love how Federation plays a role for justice in our city by engaging young adults in Repair the World and Serve the Moment. Find a mitzvah with your name on it and do something kind and good — yes, there’s still time!
The Shinshinim Are Returning!
In a time of global disruption and national anxiety, I want to share some very happy news. After extensive planning for their safety and health, we will welcome a new cohort of six Israeli Shinshinim to Atlanta right after the high holidays.
Atlanta is one of 19 North American communities continuing to host young Israelis spending a gap year engaging with Diaspora Jewry. Atlanta’s decision to host them embodies our commitment to kesher, human bridge building, and our commitment to Global Jewish Peoplehood.
The Shinshinim also exemplify one of Federation’s core values – fearlessness! Not that we are being casual about their safety. To protect them and the people they interact with here, we are following extensive health and legal guidelines already established by the Jewish Agency (JAFI). And even though it’s not required in Georgia, the Shinshinim will quarantine together for 14 days upon arrival in Atlanta.
Now that our Jewish day schools, JKG, and the MJCCA are open, there’s plenty for them to do. Before they even get here, the Shinshinim will connect with our community. They have an orientation this week in our Partnership region of Yokneam and Megiddo and will continue to reach out to their Atlanta host families and host organizations. Their work will be on a hybrid model, combining in-person and virtual interactions with a continual emphasis on safety.
Two of the Shinshinim are observant Jews, including a young woman whose mother, Omer Yankilevitch, was recently named the first female orthodox Minister of Diaspora in Israel.
I am so grateful to the Schoenbaum family for supporting the Shinshinim program here in Atlanta, as a way to express their values. The cohort will be well supported by Rich Walter, Federation’s VP of Programs and Grantmaking; Keren Rosenberg, Global Jewish Peoplehood Director; and Andrea Levy, a former host “Mom” who supervised last year’s group, will be the Shinshinim Coordinator. Having them back in Atlanta is a win-win for all of us!
Listening, Learning, Stay Connected
I love the Jewish people, and I love Atlanta. As a people, we have deep passions. As Jews living in the south who hail from all over the United States, we’ve built a beautiful mosaic here – a community with a diversity of perspectives and practices. Yet we are connected by a shared narrative, culture, history, shared struggles, and religion.
It’s complicated. That’s why everyone is experiencing this moment differently. As individuals and as a community, we are grappling with grief, working to empathize with others’ pain and struggles, and perhaps struggling at times to understand others’ perspectives.
I believe that as long as we remain connected – as long as we are a community – we have an opportunity to make a positive impact. But of course, how to do so is easier said than done.
This is a time for listening and learning. We owe it to ourselves to understand other perspectives. All voices are important. We’re all made in God’s image. I work every day to not judge anyone, and I do my best to understand how others come to their perspectives. I try to put myself in their shoes, stay open to changing my perspective, and even ready to adopt new ideas from people I love and respect. This is important to me because, in the end, we are a family. Judaism thrives when we are together as a community. Part of the beauty of our culture is that we’ve always welcomed a diversity of perspectives.
So what is the role of Federation in this context? Like everyone, we are listening and learning – guided by our mission, vision, and values. Part of building a strong, vibrant connected, caring community is playing a role in bringing different voices to the table in our community – and being at the table in the larger community.
Perhaps the greatest challenge along these lines is the perception that Federation might be attempting to speak for the community when really we’re doing our best to communicate with the community – speaking to people and listening to them – and, where we can, connecting people who might not otherwise be connected. Because that’s part of building community.
None of this is easy. I welcome you to let us know when you don’t think we get it right. I hope you will always find an openness to criticism here. I would only ask that we all afford each other some grace, particularly in this moment. Let’s assume we’re all working for a better world for us and for our children and their children, even if we come to that work from different perspectives.
Celebrating Our Thought Leaders
Few things get me more excited than passionate discussions with friends and colleagues about Jewish ideas and the Jewish future. Whether in leadership trainings, at professional retreats, or around my dinner table, I love how deep conversations on difficult topics light up my brain with fresh insights and get my synapses firing. Occasionally, I’ve shared my personal thoughts in Op-Eds and in online publications like e-Jewish Philanthropy, and I’m absolutely delighted that our Federation professionals are doing the same.
Four members of our Federation professional team have recently published articles in Forward, e-Jewish Philanthropy, the Atlanta Jewish Times, and on our website. As colleagues and thought leaders, they make me incredibly proud and exemplify our core values of excellence, fearlessness, and empathy, along with our culture of being a learning organization.
Jodi Mansbach, our Chief Impact Officer, draws on her urban planning background to wonder how, after the pandemic, communities will shift the way they think about public, private, and Jewish places. She reminds us that after the destruction of The Temple, Judaism pivoted to a synagogue model, and that in the American experience, we created JCCs, camps and day schools to express our Judaism. Now Zoom has turned our living rooms into sacred spaces. Read Jodi’s predictions about hyperlocalism and collectivism.
Jori Mendel, our V.P.of Innovation makes the case for the power of creativity as a driver of organizational value and community vibrancy. She argues that organizations should cultivate an innovation mindset that prioritizes collaboration and R&D, and take the time to understand what “customers” want and value. Read it here.
Rabbi Melissa Scholten-Guttierez, Federation’s Jewish Camp Initiative Manager, reflects on the genius of Jewish mourning rituals, and how even during a pandemic, when social distancing deprives us of the usual ways to grieve, a community can find solace. Read it here.
Rabbi Elana Perry, who leads Federation’s Jewish Education Collaborative initiative, lays out an inspiring blueprint for how we intend to transform part-time Jewish education in Atlanta, invest in great teaching, and make it something families and kids are truly excited about. See the flipbook about it here.
Man Plans. G-d Laughs.
These days, the only thing I know for sure is that my Tupperware all has lids.
Yet I am centered by the ways that Judaism offers structure and meaning – a guide for how to live – in the best and worst of times. This moment of unprecedented fear, anxiety, and insecurity is no different. Even as we worry and wonder what the coming months and years hold, let’s remember that we are in a special time on the Jewish calendar called the Omer. How can it help us, in this year in particular?
The Omer begins on the second night of Passover and concludes 50 days later, on Shavuot when we celebrate receiving the Torah. It reminds us of the liberation we celebrated during Passover, and how easy it is for us to slip back into slavery. Each of the 50 days offers us an opportunity to work on our best selves and be ready to receive the rules our people will live by (Torah) on Shavuot. This year, counting the Omer is serving as a reminder to me that we need to resist the temptation to plan for a future we cannot possibly imagine, and instead, be in this moment.
Before the pandemic, Jewish communal leaders were consumed by the challenge of creating a Jewish future, staying connected to Israel, engaging the next generation in an assimilated world, caring for the vulnerable, and continuing to raise the resources necessary to support the massive communal infrastructure we have created. Innovation has entered our vocabulary out of a recognition that what brought us to this point may alone not get us to the future.
Discussions are more often now focused on life After Covid (AC). Does innovation go by the wayside? Do we go back to basics? Do we double down on the organizations that are helping us to serve the vulnerable in these challenging times? Do we lean more into the secular world for our services? Do we scale back and consolidate to save limited resources? Do we halt the capital projects we envisioned about Before Covid (BC), and focus on making the best with what we have?
Clearly the world is going to be different AC, and no one knows what that will look like and when that will be. The only thing we know for sure is where we are now. (The only thing I know for sure from these past several weeks is that my Tupperware now all has lids.) I think we must lean into the present and let it seep in knowing that it will bring clarity when that time comes.
Soon enough we will be back to planning. Attempting to do so in this moment is an illusion – an attempt to assuage our anxiety. Let’s focus on addressing critical needs in our communities, making sure we take care of the ill and unemployed, and protecting those who are healthy. Let’s take walks, plant flowers, embrace our homes, our neighborhoods, our families and take time to just be – and count each day to again receive the Torah.
Everything We Need is in the Passover Story
Earlier in March, just before the COVID-19 crisis became more intense in Georgia, I was at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra with one of our community’s wise elders, Jarvin Levinson. Looking back, it was an eerie evening with the seats half full. The music seemed to herald the dark period that has now arrived.
Our world has been transformed. Grateful as I am to reconnect with the basics of a slower pace, self-care, and more time with family, my days are filled with worry about how to meet human needs and the financial health of our institutions.
Yet like any personal crisis I have lived through, or the Jewish people has lived through, when we get to the other side things will be different. I hope we will refocus on the essentials that make our people unique: the obligation to be responsible for each other, the centrality of Jewish education, and all the beautiful communal ways we gather to play and pray.
I am overwhelmed by the generosity that is pouring into our COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund. More than $2.5M has been raised from hundreds of donors! Grants are already going out to help our community handle food insecurity, social isolation, job loss, the shortage of protective equipment for frontline healthcare workers, and more.
As we welcome Passover, let’s proudly tell the story of Jewish resilience and optimism. Our master story of redemption and survival despite suffering, plagues, and slavery, is everything we need right now.
All of Israel Are Responsible for Each Other
How proud am I of how our Jewish community has pulled together to address the disruptions and challenges of the COVID-9 crisis?
Let me count the ways!
Unlike the old joke about the classic Jewish telegram:“Start worrying. Details to follow,” our collective response to COVID-19 actually started two weeks ago as Jewish Atlanta’s agencies, schools, and synagogues shared contingency plans for social distancing and remote working and learning. By the time most of us made the decision to cancel events and have our professionals work remotely, we were already on the same page. That’s what it means to be an ecosystem!
The “new normal” still feels strange, but we’re on surer footing every day. Federation’s leadership team meets daily via Zoom calls to troubleshoot and review priorities.
We’ve sent all our core partners a financial needs assessment survey. It asks them to list their most urgent needs and is helping us understand their financial pain points — lost revenue due to cancellation of programs, meeting payroll, populations at risk, staff layoffs, and more.The survey is giving us a real-time lens into the financial impact of COVID-19 in our community.
I’m proud that nearly overnight, we crowd-sourced a comprehensive online list of community resources: https://jewishatlanta.org/covid19-resources/available-resources/
Just last week, with the full support of our community partners and approval by the Federation board, we launched theCOVID-19 Emergency Response Fundto help our organizations stay operational during this time, and prepare for the future, too.
Our Federation professionals are demonstrating a dedication and a work ethic that is incredible! They’ve pivoted on a dime to focus on the challenges of this moment, changing course to reflect new priorities.
With schools closed, thousands of parents are now working from home while also caring for children. It’s a huge disruption. So, I’m beyond proud of PJ Library Atlanta, which has gone way beyond books to become a community builder. PJ Library is reaching out to parents with a series of “Parenting Under Quarantine” virtual focus groups to gather information and assess programming parents need. They’re providing live story times in English, Spanish, and Russian as well as yoga classes and cooking demosdaily via Facebook Live.
From ITP to OTP this community has rallied to create online Jewish learning opportunities, daily guided meditation, engaging programming for children of all ages, and a resource bank for individuals struggling with feelings of isolation and anxiety. By sharing information on social media we’re amplifying the community’s creative online offerings which have mushroomed to include virtual minyans, workshops, volunteer opportunities, live storytime, and virtual support groups.
We’re leveraging the Microsoft Teams platform to help our ecosystem organizations share discoveries and challenges in real time. It won’t replace communications like FederationFive, but anything tailored to organizational needs, like information from the Small Business Administration on loans, for example, or details on our new Emergency Response Fund, will now come through Teams.
Social distancing is painful, and the emotional toll of isolation is only beginning to be felt. We must hold fast to our values and our mission to put human needs first—and they are growing, day by day. Please help by givinggenerously to the COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund.
As Passover draws near in a time of literal plague, let the words: Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, all of Israel are responsible for each other, be on our lips. This remarkable community was built on generosity, dreams, volunteerism, optimism and vision. Those qualities have never failed us. Together,I know we will come through this and will continue to proudly push Jewish life forward.
Inspired by Rwanda
I saw many powerful things that underscore the progress and possibilities happening in Rwanda, but three insights stay with me forever. All three drive me to think about the unique role Jews can play in addressing social justice on a global scale, and the impact Israel has already had as a partner committed to helping Rwanda transform its future.
1. As Jews, it is impossible to ignore the legacy of genocide that binds us to this land. The echoes of the Rwandan genocide are both recent and concrete – in memorials, in visits to the Rweru Reconciliation Village, and in the testimony of everyday Rwandans. We feel echoes of the Holocaust in this place where hatred and racial supremacy drove a campaign of mass murder over the course of 100 days in 1994. The genocide was planned and executed by extremist elements of Rwanda’s majority Hutu population. They demonized the minority Tutsis as “cockroaches,” and brainwashed the Hutu to despise them. With nowhere to run, Tutsis were literally slaughtered in place. Every Rwandan family has been touched by the conflict and yet, reconciliation between the tribes has happened. Twenty-five years later, there is healing and prosperity in this land which now has the highest GDP in Africa. Rwanda teaches us transformation is possible through the redemptive power of forgiveness and good leadership.
2. Just as Israel transformed itself from a developing nation to a world leader in innovation, Rwanda is truly on its way to becoming a knowledge-based, service-oriented economy by educating its people, adopting new agricultural technologies and creating renewable energy.
Rwandans have literally taken what we Jews know, from the Israeli kibbutz and Jewish camping, to the rehabilitation and resettlement of exiles and orphans in Israel. I saw it at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (ASYV), a place modeled on Israel’s Yemin Orde, that houses orphaned and vulnerable youth and help them reach their potential. Five post-college Jewish Fellows currently volunteer for a year at ASYV through the Global Jewish Service Corps. I was incredibly inspired by their commitment to immersive global service.
One young volunteer told me how her experience in Rwanda now defines her. “I love that the Jewish community is investing in my Jewish identity, but now I know with certainty that working in the developing world will be my life’s work. This expresses who I am as a Jew.”
It was no surprise to me to learn that ASYV was created by a South African Jewish woman, Anne Heyman, z”l, who moved to the US at age 15 and became active in Young Judaea, a Zionist youth movement. Anne spent a year in Israel with Young Judaea and it was foundational to her identity. After college, and many years practicing law, Anne set out to improve the world on several fronts. ASYV is just one part of her legacy as a social entrepreneur. It is a remarkable place of healing and hope.
3. I deeply believe that immersive Jewish global experiences, such as those I saw in Rwanda, are more than identity building, they are antidotes to antisemitism. I was thrilled to be on the trip with the heads of Moishe House, Repair the World, Birthright Israel, Amplifier.org, (which grows impact through giving inspired by Jewish values), plus journalists, and policy makers from around the world. Being together led to rich conversations and new ideas for collaboration. Just as young Israelis do this kind of service work after completing army service, I had the idea that our organizations could partner to bring young Jews from across the Diaspora together in service to the world. These conversations were like pieces of a puzzle that we’ll continue to work on at home.
The result, I hope, will be a new way for Jewish world service that expresses our highest values and brings our people together in service to humanity.
January 21, 2020
My Jewish Journey to Rwanda
Today is my birthday, and I’ve received an incredible gift. In about two weeks I leave for a very special invitation-only trip to Rwanda curated for Jewish leaders, educators and influencers, spearheaded by OLAM — a collaborative platform of 53 Jewish and Israeli organizations committed to engaging the Jewish world in global service and international development.
Why Rwanda? Because surprisingly, Rwanda is a place where Jewish organizations are deeply engaged in driving social change and social justice in agriculture and international development. And because Rwanda is linked to the Jewish people through a joint history of genocide and growth. Israel has just established an embassy in Kigali, the capital, plus, the city boasts a Genocide Memorial, and also a new Chabad center that will include the nation’s first synagogue served by the country’s first permanent rabbi.
Rwanda is one of the smallest countries on the African mainland, yet it has a rapidly growing Jewish community of men and women assisting with poverty relief, health care and economic development. Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, for example, a Rwandan-based organization founded by an American Jew who was inspired by the Israeli youth village model. It works with vulnerable and orphaned children, drawing inspiration from how Israel helped Jewish orphans after the Holocaust.
The trip excites me because it’s all about shared values and the potential of the Jewish people to address urgent global challenges. I’ll spend five days in “The Land of 1000 Hills,” seeing the work of Jewish organizations and individuals who are supporting vulnerable communities. Along with Israelis and other American and British Jews, I hope to learn about some of the pressing issues facing the developing world and think deeply about our Jewish responsibilities to the wider world.
Rwanda is a beautiful and challenging nation and I’m beyond excited to travel there. I’m hoping to see first-hand, some prime case studies that model Jewish engagement in global service, international development, and philanthropy. Watch my Facebook page for updates and insights from the trip!
December 24, 2019
An Even Brighter Light
Here’s what makes my fire burn — it’s when many flames in our community come together and, like the shamash candle, become an amplifying torch.
A great example is how Jewish Family & Career Services joined with Jewish Homelife, the MJCCA, and Federation to create AgeWell Atlanta. This is a brilliant partnership that leverages the expertise of each organization to help our community’s older adults live their best lives. AgeWell Atlanta streamlines access to the incredible services and resources that already exist for older adults, then adds the human touch of a Concierge who can guide users to referrals and support services.
In a time when antisemitic incidents are on the rise, another big light is how the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, Federation, the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Atlanta Rabbinical Association have come together to strategize about combatting antisemitism and the growing Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions (BDS) movement. We’ve never needed their collective wisdom more.
Another light: Did you know that our Atlanta Jewish ecosystem consists of more than 90 schools, synagogues, agencies and organizations? The ecosystem now meets quarterly to talk in depth about mutual concerns, from how to make our community more welcoming, and ways to improve customer service, to opportunities for collaboration.
It thrills me to see the community coming together to elevate the work we are all doing. It shows that in spite of our diversity and geographic sprawl, we are one community working together to make this the best Jewish community in the world.
November 26, 2019
So Many Blessings
Gratitude. It’s an attitude and a practice that underpins so much of what we do and believe as Jews. It’s why I love the rabbinic teaching about saying 100 blessings a day! The rabbis looked at Deuteronomy 10:12, which says, “Now, Israel, what does your God, ask of you? To walk in God’s ways, and to serve God.” The Talmud explains that the word mah (what) can be read as me’ah, meaning 100, suggesting that God wants us to recite (at least) 100 brachot (blessings) every day.
It’s the ultimate in mindfulness!
That’s the thought I had earlier this month when I was in Israel on our Men’s Journey. We had an evening program that wrapped up late. Many groups of guys on tour would either go to bed or go drinking afterward. But not our Federation men. Though I went back to the hotel, these guys said, “Let’s go to the Kotel!” And so they did, walking over in the darkness and expressing their gratitude for the friendships this trip had created, for the joy of being in Israel together, and for the privilege of having this homeland. So many blessings!
I love the ways Jewish tradition requires us to stop and think about all that we have, acknowledge all the ways we’re blessed and how we’re commanded share what we have. These mitzvot are not at all abstract, they’re rooted in real life and demonstrate that Jewish giving goes beyond charity (from the Latin caritas, or love), it is tzedek, justice.
There’s the mitzvah of Pe’ah, leaving the crops in corners of our fields for to the poor. We’re commanded, “You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit…you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger.” And in the spirit of radical justice, the rabbis actually say that not leaving the corners of the fields for the poor is theft!
There are laws about how we treat animals, how we slaughter animals, and how we eat them. All express reverence for G-d’s creations, along with temperance about how we consume them.
There’s the shmitah year — the seventh year of the seven-year agricultural cycle, mandated for the Land of Israel. We let the earth lie fallow, giving it a rest, with no plowing, pruning or harvesting allowed. Another agricultural mitzvah with much to teach mankind about stewarding a warming earth.
And finally, there’s Shabbat itself. There’s no day I long for more. My family knows that my weeknights are ridiculous, and that most evenings I am out in our community. Without Shabbat to refocus me, bind me to what matters, and connect me to all my blessings, I could not do this work I that I love.
Thanksgiving is just days away. You may know that this uniquely American holiday, so reminiscent of Shabbat, has roots in Jewish text. In 1620, William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth Colony, compared the pilgrims’ flight from persecution in England to the Jews’ fleeing Pharoah. The Pilgrims recited psalm 107 from the Hebrew bible, a song of thanksgiving to G-d. In their gratitude they identified with us.
Have a wonderful holiday!
October 23, 2019
SHOCK, GRIEF & PRIDE: Pittsburgh One Year Later
After four trips to Pittsburgh since the massacre at Tree of Life, I am emerging from a year of shock and grief with a firm conviction that we must double down on Jewish identity and Jewish pride. This is our greatest weapon against antisemitism and against those who seek to threaten and intimidate us.
Pittsburgh is my hometown. I knew some of the community members who were murdered, and I have been holding on tightly to my memories of them in life. Each pilgrimage I made to Pittsburgh this past year began with emotions centered around personal and collective loss, but each time I emerged with a deeper appreciation of Jewish resilience.
I first went to Pittsburgh immediately after the attack, together with Mark Silberman, our Federation board chair. Together with other community representatives, and with the crime scene tape still surrounding the synagogue, we could visualize the horror and terror that unfolded that Shabbat morning. At that time, we bore witness to the agony and somber solidarity of a community in mourning. The shock was still raw.
As time passed and I traveled back to Pittsburgh, this time in December with my brother Marvin to visit our family, my healing journey began. We celebrated life, even as death and tragedy hovered.
Then, in May, I returned to Pittsburgh with civic and religious leaders on the 23rd annual Atlanta LINK trip to learn about change from other cities. Pittsburgh leaders told us the relationships they had built before the massacre is what allowed them to respond so quickly, and with such an outpouring of love and support.
I took that as a mandate to do the same in Atlanta and I believe we really are making progress building strong relationships both within and beyond our Jewish ecosystem.
As we approached this somber anniversary, Marvin and I went home again, this time with Sasha, my teenage daughter. It was the most intense and gratifying of the visits.
Over some of Pittsburgh’s famous Mineos Pizza, we spent time with Jeff Finkelstein, the CEO of the Pittsburgh Jewish Federation. Jeff was among the local leaders who shepherded that community through an unspeakable tragedy. They are moving forward, with heavy and wounded hearts, but the momentum is unmistakable.
On the Sunday morning before Yom Kippur, Marvin, Sasha and I set out for the cemetery where my parents, grandparents, sister, and other immediate family members are buried. We then decided to visit the tiny Jewish cemetery belonging to Poale Zedeck, one of Pittsburgh’s oldest Jewish cemeteries, located in an old mill town nearby. Another set of grandparents, great-grandparents and other relatives are buried there. No Jews have lived in this area for years. The aged cemetery, so stark behind barbed wire, shows many signs of neglect.
We walked and walked, and searched every inch, but could not find their gravestones. And then we found one — overturned, neglected, bearing the name Mildred Erbstein, my great aunt. The headstones of my grandparents, Ruth and Louis Robbins, were also overturned.
From the cemetery, we hurried over to Heinz Field for a Steelers game. The so-called “Terrible Towel,” a symbol of the Steelers and the city of Pittsburgh, was pink for breast cancer awareness. The Terrible Towel was the invention of Myron Cope, Pittsburgh’s legendary Jewish radio sportscaster. It filled me with pride and nostalgia to be part of “Steeler Nation” and lose myself in the sense of belonging that permeated the arena.
Marvin, Sasha and I all felt it, all the more so since the Tree of Life was never too far from our thoughts. Win or lose — and we lost — it just didn’t matter. And who can forget that iconic newspaper headline, in Hebrew, with the opening verse of the Kaddish. All year I have wrestled with how to reconcile my personal history and Pittsburgh’s renowned hometown spirit with the anguish and stain of violent antisemitism — a stain that now marks my hometown and our global Jewish family.
I know that Jewish Pittsburgh will never be the same. There is a new sense of vigilance, but even at Tree of Life, there are beautiful signs of healing. The plywood covering the windows of the shul have come down. There is now an installation that curates art works sent in solidarity.
When I was growing up in the 1970s—when I was Sasha’s age—the banners outside Tree of Life read: SAVE SOVIET JEWRY. Yes, we saved Soviet Jews. Do we now pivot to asking how can we secure ourselves?
I tried to understand this journey through Sasha’s eyes. In just one day, she traveled to a crumbling old cemetery filled with Jews who share her DNA and also stood before a synagogue where hate inspired a murderer to steal eleven lives, a building now adorned with images sent by students her age demanding gun control. She sat in a stadium filled with tens of thousands of strangers, all waving pink towels, yet felt like she was part of a larger community.
Out of this year of introspection and chesbon nefesh, the only clear answer that has emerged from a senseless tragedy is that we need to pay much more attention to Jewish identity and pride. How else can we counter hate? The work we do to build and strengthen our community is holy, it is relevant, and it is more important than I ever before. We must bind ourselves more tightly to each other, from Pittsburgh to Paris, whether we are secular or religious, and we must continue to build bridges with our brothers and sisters who have experienced similar tragedy at churches, mosques and other community institutions.
As the famous Israeli poem begins, every person has a name. When the anniversary arrives, I will be in Jerusalem and I will say Kaddish for Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthanl, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, and Irving Younger.
I hope for all of us use the one-year marker to heal, connect and strengthen our bonds to our shared and global Jewish family.
We must continue to fine-tune our community security strategies, improve our vigilance, and continue to tighten our collaboration with local, state and federal authorities, but we cannot – we must not – succumb to fear and retreat into a bunker mentality.
Pride has long been at the center of the Jewish renaissance that marks this era of Jewish history; and pride must remain at the very core of who we are as a community.
Eric Robbins is President and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Atlanta. He grew up in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. These views are his own.d
September 20, 2019
S’lach-li – Forgive Me
To be a leader means seeking the truth and speaking the truth. It means letting go of old pieties and embracing new realities. To be a leader means dialing down the voices that say “no, we can’t” and building a consensus to move ahead fearlessly.
In the process of leading Atlanta to become a thriving and connected 21st century Jewish community, I am guilty of all of these behaviors. I know that in my enthusiasm to build a Jewish future that will undoubtedly look and feel very different from what we know, I have upset some people. And for that I seek forgiveness.
S’lach-li, forgive me, but Jewish America is in the midst of a massive generational shift in identity and practice. Pride in Jewish identity and Jewish spirituality is growing, but young Jews are increasingly likely to say that they have “no religion,” and that they feel little connection to the organized community.
I want everyone, across the entire lifespan, to be thrilled by Jewish life and to say that their identity gives meaning to life and shapes their actions. So, I feel driven to create new pathways to engagement that launch Jewish journeys and spark Jewish possibilities. It feels urgent to me to broaden the ways we engage with Jews and their loved ones.
As this community tries out new ideas and innovations, I am aware that some people will experience a deep sense of loss. But we cannot let our collective anxiety paralyze or demoralize us.
Great things are happening in Jewish Atlanta!
Already we are becoming a community where agencies and individuals are collaborating and partnering to actualize bold ideas that benefit everyone. We are gathering in new ways and in new places. We are building a culture of innovation that invests in the creativity of changemakers and makes room to learn from failure. We are developing a relationship with Israel that is centered on its people, not its politics.
If I haven’t listened enough, if I haven’t been empathetic enough, forgive me. If I haven’t been fearless enough, I’ll admit, sometimes it’s easier to avoid delicate issues because of their divisiveness. Yes, I have big dreams. Yes, I am impatient. But in my soul, I am a servant of this wonderful Jewish community that opened its arms to me more than 45 years ago. And everything I do comes from a place of love.
September 13, 2019
Eric’s Blog: American Jews have created, perfected, and scaled the institution of overnight summer camp. Now it’s time for Jewish Family Camp!
By Rabbi Miriam Burg, Jeremy J. Fingerman and Eric M. Robbins
This article originally ran in eJewish Philanthropy on September 5, 2019
It was a Jewish trifecta when three passionate advocates for Jewish camp met on the shores of Lake Waloon this August to visit Camp Michigania, the 56-year-old family camp for alumni of University of Michigan. We were excited to see this legendary camp, explicitly designed and staffed for families, and considered the gold standard for family camp programing.
Camp Michigania isn’t fancy, yet it is deeply beloved. The cabins are basic, and all meals are held in a communal dining hall. A mix of traditional sports, arts, fitness, and discussion forums keep adults and kids of all ages busy all day – or not! You can opt out of events and just relax. We met families who’ve been attending for 30 years or more. We saw cars in the parking lot bearing Gania4 bumper stickers — which in Michigania-speak means, “We’re a 4th Week Family” in Camp Michigania’s 11-week summer season. And we never saw a cell phone – only one building on campus has wi-fi.
While the three of us have different personal camp experiences, we’re absolutely on the same page about the immersive benefits of Jewish overnight camp. We know there is tremendous power in stepping away from daily life and returning year after year to the same place at the same time. So, we’ve informally joined forces to be advocates and evangelists for a new model of Jewish community-building and a serious communal investment in creating week-long Jewish overnight camps for families.
Rabbi Miriam Burg, whose family has attended Camp Michigania for 37 consecutive summers, is an educator and a long-time advocate for Jewish family camp. She recently co-created the Capital Camps Institute for Leadership and Learning to skill-up Jewish camp counselors. Her current priority is building and expanding Kibbutz Camp, as a new model for Jewish overnight camps for families.
Jeremy Fingerman is CEO of Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC). He spent formative summers at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin and for the last ten years of his professional life has expanded opportunities across North America for more kids to experience Jewish camp – both day and overnight — including new specialty camps. FJC has identified family camp as an important growth element of its strategic plan.
Eric Robbins is President and CEO of Jewish Federation of Jewish Atlanta and the former director of Camp Twin Lakes, a camp for children with serious illnesses and life challenges. Eric was shaped by his own 18 years as a camper and staff member at Camp Barney Medintz and is a founder of Limmud Atlanta, which adopts a multi-generational family camp model.
We all agree that family life in America is overscheduled and isolating. Digital devices distract and distance us. Epic traffic and long commutes chip away at family time. Moms, dads, kids, teens and grandparents desperately need to carve out more down-time and rediscover each other. A joyful, immersive Jewish family camp can be a restorative island of sacred time where we put our devices away, talk face-to-face, and simply have fun together.
Fingerman notes that while a growing number of Jewish camps run family retreats before and after the summer season, opportunities to attract a broader range of families would result from offering “vacations” throughout the summer.
Burg adds that the idea of a dedicated Jewish overnight camp for families is “wholly different and impossible to create by simply adapting kids’ camps to serve the needs of families. “Singing the same songs with our children that we sang when we were first at camp, having grandparents and grandchildren making s’mores together, are powerful memory-making experiences, unique to family camp.”
When Robbins, a former camp director, thinks about family camp he stresses that weekends don’t cut it the way a week does. “For every day away, the benefits are exponential,” he says. “Immersive, week-long opportunities for families are what we envision.”
Think about it — all that really ties Camp Michigania families together is the University of Michigan. Now imagine the power of week-long retreats where connections are rooted in Jewish wisdom and rituals. Where food and language, holidays and songs, and traditions are the foundation for friendships. Where Shabbat is the highlight of the week. Imagine a place where your sense of belonging comes from being on “Team Judaism” and the wisdom of nearly 6,000 years of tradition. What a nourishing way for families to engage with one another and build community!
Who better to create new family camp than us? From Catskill bungalow colonies to early Settlement House camps, American Jews – more than any other group – have created, perfected and scaled the institution of overnight summer camp. No surprise to us that Camp Michigania’s longtime director is Jewish, or that lots and lots of Jewish families attend year after year.
As advocates, our next step is to create a prototype of the Jewish family camp we want to see. We know we’ll have to train staff to meet the special requirements of family programming. We know we’ll need to find a beautiful and accessible site somewhere that will work for all ages. But we also know American Jewish families have never needed it more!
If you’re interested in paddling along with us, please get in touch.
August 27, 2019
Something Bigger Than Ourselves
I’ve heard lots of wise folks say that your checkbook register — or to be more modern, your monthly e-statement — is the document that says everything about your values and priorities.
And that’s why, at a time when “boutique” philanthropy and direct, person-to-person giving are ascendant, I want to make the case for the ancient Jewish model of collective philanthropy that benefits the whole. In our time, it’s the Jewish Partners Fund of Federation’s Community Campaign.
Community philanthropy is sacred in the Jewish tradition, and the custom of asking individuals for a set amount “per head” dates back to the second temple period. The sum of a half shekel was an offering that everyone, rich or poor, was asked to give so that all were equal in observing this mitzvah.
The call to find meaning and purpose in community and to serve others has driven the Jewish people to be exemplars of generosity, opportunity and justice. You’ll see generosity, justice and more when you take a look at Federation’s “checkbook register,” — our 2019 Philanthropic Giving Report. The report, viewable online, documents our values and priorities and details all the things your Campaign dollars do for our people in Atlanta and around the world.
The Jewish Partners Fund of the Community Campaign is about the collective impact that happens when many “shekels” work together. Through Campaign, Federation and its partners launch Jewish journeys and educate all generations. Through Campaign we welcome all Jews and their loved ones to engage meaningfully with our community. Through Campaign we rise up to help ensure that no one falls through the cracks.
And . . . this year, thanks to an anonymous donor, for new or increased gifts to the Jewish Partners Fund, those dollars will be matched 1:1 up to $100,000.
If you have particular community interests, Campaign 2020 makes it possible to target additional projects. Through Targeted Philanthropy you can support PJ Library, Jewish Overnight Camping, and AgeWell Atlanta, a collaborative partnership that helps older adults and caregivers navigate the aging process. The Jewish Innovation Fund is yet another giving option to help advance new ideas and startups that support Jewish life in Atlanta.
I believe it is a fundamental privilege, unique to the Jewish people, and virtually encoded into our DNA, to prioritize the needs of the community. Last year communal generosity hit a milestone as Federation reached $19 million in philanthropic giving. Having surpassed the previous year by $1.5 million, we have set an ambitious goal of $20 million for Campaign 2020. I know we can do it, but only together. I am so proud of all the ways we bring Jewish possibilities to life, and I urge you to make our dynamic, welcoming and caring Atlanta Jewish community your priority by giving generously to the Jewish Partners Fund of the Community Campaign.
July 23, 2019
I Got My Superpowers at Camp
By Eric M. Robbins, President & CEO
Most of my “superpowers” come from having been a camper and staff member at sleepaway camp. I’m totally serious.
Over eighteen summers at Camp Barney Medintz I learned countless “soft” and human skills that have benefited me my whole life. And because it all happened so seamlessly and joyously at camp, I didn’t even realize how much I was learning.
At Camp Barney Medintz I learned how to really be a friend. When you live in a bunk with 12 other guys, you learn how to get along with, and eventually, how to love people who aren’t exactly like you.
I learned how to be leader. At the age of ten I put myself in charge of coordinating our cabin at clean up, cookouts, and even sneak outs!
I learned how to make my bed. Admiral William H. McCraw, a Navy SEAL, wrote a book called Make Your Bed: Little Things that Can Change your Life…and Maybe the World. He calls bed-making the way to start your day with a task completed. I agree!
I learned how to be a better communicator. As a camp counselor, I had to be sensitive to all the voices and opinions in my bunk. I had to evaluate each kid’s maturity level and respond appropriately. I couldn’t lose my cool. Sometimes I had to be a disciplinarian, sometimes I had to be as diplomatic as King Solomon. Learning this as a teenager set me up for a lifetime of good listening.
I learned about hard work. Being on the kitchen crew, helping turn out three meals a day, and cleaning up after hundreds of kids, taught me everything about showing up and pulling my weight, even when the work is tedious. To this day I consider mastering the kitchen’s Hobart dishwasher one of my greatest accomplishments.
I learned to be brave, to try new things. Ana and I recently had a little dispute over whether or not there was a rope tied to the boat when we went tubing at Camp Barney, or if we just held on to the skiing handle. (I think there were two ropes.) Either way, having a boat pull you on the lake was a thrill that took courage for a little kid. There were plenty of other scary things that I found the freedom to try, and even to fail, at camp.
I created my first network. As a kid from Pittsburgh, attending Camp Barney was my introduction to Jewish Atlanta. The kids I met at camp and the staff members who believed in me, became my Atlanta Jewish mishpocha (family). It’s no accident that one day in Pittsburgh, I literally dropped out of my local college, drove to Atlanta and registered at Georgia State and made this city my home.
I am grateful for all these profound moments of growth that shaped me into the husband, father, and community leader I am today. For all the kids who are having a blast at overnight camp this summer, someday you’ll discover, as I did, that camp teaches deep and lasting life lessons.
I’m so proud of Federation’s ambitious plan to send more of our kids to Jewish overnight camp. This year Federation allocated $866,961 in scholarships and grants to give kids the immersive, incredible experience of camp. That included:
- 593 unique campers went to camp
- 368 One Happy Camper incentive grants of up to $1,000
- 49 camps participating in the scholarship program
Camping is one of three targeted philanthropies for the upcoming 2020 Community Campaign. If your kids or grandkids are having a summer of personal growth, Jewish learning and sheer fun, I hope you’ll think about making a targeted gift to the fund. Your generosity is an investment in lessons that will last a lifetime.
June 25, 2019
Taking Atlanta Jewish Foundation Higher
Following a rigorous national search, I am thrilled to announce that Christy Butler Eckoff will be joining Federation as Chief Foundation Officer and Managing Director, Atlanta Jewish Foundation (AJF). Filling this important position with the right person has been a priority of mine and it’s a transformational opportunity. AJF is the centerpiece of Federation’s goal to be Jewish Atlanta’s Philanthropic Champion. By giving our donors world-class philanthropic advising to help them grow their assets, AJF has incredible potential to do great things in Atlanta.
Christy Eckoff comes to us from the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta where she was Managing Director, Philanthropic Counsel. In addition to solid credentials in law and taxation, Christy is a superb relationship builder and will be an excellent fit to work with donors and fundholders. As our Managing Director she enters with a bold mandate to make AJF the go-to place for planned giving, asset management and Jewish generosity. The Federation board has set ambitious goals for AJF. It currently manages $328.5 million in assets and we hope to grow that number to $1 billion under management over the next decade. Here are three reasons why I know we’ll get there.
Reason #1: AJF already has a solid foundation. In addition to advising and serving individual donors, AJF is the advisor and custodian of Jewish community resources. Eighteen Jewish partner agencies, day schools and congregations already invest with AJF, and this year three new community partners came on board. Donor-Advised funds grew by 20% this year as well. And, on behalf of the community, the AJF has helped secure more than 200 letters of intent with an estimated value of over $13.5M in after-lifetime commitments through the LIFE & LEGACY program.
Recently, Mark Silberman, Helen Zalik and I completed a two-year Jewish leadership cohort sponsored by PRESIDE. Through that program Federation became eligible for a $250K matching grant that has been earmarked for Atlanta Jewish Foundation. We’ve already raised 75% towards the match from our donors, enabling us to invest $1M into Atlanta Jewish Foundation right now. The grant will amplify AJF as an asset-based revenue stream that ensures our ability to fund Jewish community priorities and help donors actualize their Jewish dreams.
Reason #2: Total Philanthropy is up. Federation grew total philanthropy this year to $19 million — a $1.3 million increase over the previous year. At a time when annual campaigns around the country are generally flat, that’s a sign of health. I’m also optimistic about the future because Atlanta is a vibrant center of innovation and entrepreneurship where Jews already play an outsized role. Our organizational culture of creativity and generosity matches the culture of the community, making AJF ripe for philanthropic investment. I believe that by building current and new relationships and providing superb customer service, AJF will raise its visibility in the wider community and be a compelling option for investment.
Reason #3: There’s untapped wealth in Atlanta. You’ve likely heard that the next 20 years will see the biggest generational wealth transfer in U.S. history as the “Silent Generation” and Baby Boomers pass along nearly $48 trillion in assets to their heirs and charities. This impending transfer of wealth is a huge opportunity for AJF. With our deep understanding of Jewish community needs and the organizations that are addressing them, AJF offers donors a competitive advantage over commercial funds and advisors. We can help our donors manage their investments wisely and at the same time, help them express their highest philanthropic priorities.
May 20, 2019
A More Welcoming Atlanta
I spent a few days in Pittsburgh last week. This was not a visit to see family or friends. I was a participant on the 23rd annual Atlanta Leadership, Involvement, Networking, Knowledge (LINK) trip which hand selects 110 Atlanta leaders to travel together and learn about change from other cities. This year, LINK visited my home town of Pittsburgh with an agenda to explore places where Pittsburgh has done transformational and important work:
- Driving Innovation: The City/University Partnership
- P4 Equity Measures: The Hazelwood Green Site
- The Hill District: Preserving Cultural Legacy and Fighting for the Soul of a Community
- Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and Cultural District
- Building Welcoming Communities Through Interfaith Relationships
How surreal, 35 years later, to return to the city I so eagerly left as a young adult, to live in Atlanta and be part of building a city that was rising like a Phoenix in the south. The Pittsburgh I left was a city in decline where opportunity was rare, and where I never felt I could be part of shaping its future. The Atlanta I came to was growing, optimistic, risk-taking and had a Jewish community that I immediately felt a part of.
Here I was, back in this city which has become the envy of many cities around the world. A city that has transformed its economy from steel manufacturing to education and medicine, a city that has a vibrant arts community, that is a tremendous sports town, and that is embracing sustainability and a vibrant food culture. I also came back to a city that still has vital neighborhoods intertwined by great parks, and yes, an incredible Jewish community that in spite of experiencing the worst anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history is only getting stronger and more connected.
Along with Bill Bolling, one of my long-time mentors and the former CEO of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, I was asked to lead a session on making Atlanta a more welcoming community through relationships. Our panel was able to engage with leaders in the Jewish, Christian and Islamic communities who were all involved in Pittsburgh’s response to the tragedy at Congregation Tree of Life.
What they told us was that the relationships they had built before the tragedy was what allowed them to respond with such love and impact. All of us on the trip agreed that one of Atlanta’s great strengths is its network of faith groups. But we all agreed that the network could and should be stronger. From my vantage point, as a leader in the Jewish community, it was a reminder that not only do we have work to do across faiths, we also have a lot of work to do inside our own community.
We started some of that work over a year ago when many of our Jewish community leaders traveled to Israel together to build relationships and experience Israeli innovation. It was a tremendous start. And even though Jewish Atlanta is spread out and doesn’t have the close, cohesive neighborhoods of a Pittsburgh, we have a growing population and an enviable infrastructure of synagogues, schools and organizations. Our assets are incredible.
Now we need to summon the will to reach across our ecosystem to demonstrate what welcoming looks like. We need to show up in force in the Atlanta interfaith community as participants and stakeholders. As Jews, we can be community models of social justice, generosity and resilience.
It took a trip back to my Pittsburgh neighborhood, 35 years later, to reconnect with the urgency of becoming more welcoming to our own people, while making Atlanta more welcoming to all. I will need help from all of you, and I know that together we can make it happen.
April 22, 2019
Celebrating Freedom in Tense Times
It’s impossible to ignore the fact that antisemitism is on the rise around the globe. Fears once seen as “Europe’s problem” were stoked anew when the world’s oldest hatred found its way to my hometown of Pittsburgh this fall, and more recently as local incidents aroused concern in Atlanta.
The situation is concerning, but at Passover I remain profoundly joyful. My optimism rests on the incredible freedom we enjoy as Jews in America.
Our freedom is expressed in the abundance of creative and traditional Passover seders happening here in Atlanta. There’s the Downtown Seder at City Winery that brought musicians, artists, Jews and non-Jews together. There are women’s seders, hunger seders, sober seders, even a Unity seder where Jews and Muslims break matzah together. Once again at Ramah Darom, hundreds of families from all over enjoy communal seders and a chance to learn and explore Jewish life with top scholars and rabbis.
At my seder we used The Hartman Institute’s haggadah, A Different Night, and we have a tradition I love of writing our names and the date on the inside cover. It’s how we chronicle the names of our “tribe” and remember the ones no longer with us.
As a ben chorin (free person) at Passover, I can express my Judaism without constraint. Yet I also know that I am never “free” of memory, or of the responsibility to care for my people, particularly when their freedoms are at stake. That is the precious gift America bestows on all of us.
Have a sweet and meaningful Passover!
March 26, 2019
Ten Things in Jewish Atlanta That Spark Joy
It’s Adar, the month when the Talmud says our joy increases. I’ve now lived in Atlanta for fifteen years and they really have been full of Jewish joy with weddings, b’nai mitzvah, Shabbats, baby namings, holidays, Israel@70, plus hundreds of conversations and encounters with you! At Federation we talk a lot these days about creating more Jewish places and being a radically welcoming community. Atlanta has been all that and more for me. Looking back on fifteen years, I thought it was time to share my own idiosyncratic list of welcoming Jewish events and places that fill me with joy. So here, in alphabetical order, are ten beautiful Jewish Atlanta places, events, and things I love.
About six years ago, a group of mostly Intown and Decatur families formed a havurah (fellowship group) to share Shabbat and the high holidays, lifecycle events, and learning. Some of us were already members of synagogues, and some of us were not. What we had in common was a wish to create an interactive, family-friendly worship experience that drew from the best of Reform, Reconstructionist and Orthodox traditions. The Atlanta Havurah drew us close and continues to give our kids and our families a joyous place to be Jewish.
Atlanta Jewish Film Festival
The month of February can be a slog, but not in Jewish Atlanta. We have the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival make the month fly by. For 21 days we get to binge on incredible films from around the world, all presenting a unique Jewish take on life. I love the mad scramble to order tickets online, and the conversations that happen when we stand on line waiting to go into the theatre and run into friends and neighbors. AJFF makes Atlanta feel like a small town. It’s a treasure.
Atlanta Jewish Music Festival
How incredible is it that Atlanta has a Jewish film festival, a book festival, and a music festival? My friend Russell Gottschalk created AJMF right out of Emory University, and in less than 10 years he turned it into an engine for fresh, unexpected and vibrant Jewish music. Russell’s vision for AJMF was to engage the whole community, which he did with teen open mic events, and concert venues in synagogues, coffee shops and clubs. Now, under a wonderful new director, Joe Alterman, AJMF is still innovating and building new audiences and expanding my mind about what Jewish music can be.
The Breman’s Bearing Witness Series
Atlanta’s small and dwindling Holocaust survivor community is precious to all of us, and The Breman Jewish Heritage Museum’s Bearing Witness series brings honor to them. The series features Holocaust survivors, all Atlanta residents, who share their personal stories of survival, endurance and resilience. I never fail to be inspired by the optimism that still shines through as they bear witness to one of darkest periods in modern history. As someone who works at the Selig Center, it is a joy to see the lessons of the Holocaust come to life for new generations when school groups visit The Breman on a daily basis.
JKG B’nei Mitzvah
Full disclosure: my wife, Ana Robbins, is the Founding Director of Jewish Kids Groups (JKG). That said, I dearly love JKG’s unique approach to bar and bat mitzvah. As a different kind of Hebrew school, JKG has a different take on bar and bat mitzvah. At JKG, bar and bat mitzvah is a two-year program of small group study that culminates in a group B’nei Mitzvah event. The kids come of age as a close group, learning together and doing individual projects. Some families choose to have a conventional synagogue service with Torah-reading; others, who are not members of synagogues, craft their own personalized experience or take the group option. How cool that this model started right in Atlanta.
Kiddush Lunch at Congregation Shearith Israel
What can I say? Congregation Shearith Israel is my shul and I love it. Kiddush lunch at Shearith Israel is a delicious reward for coming to services — the place where my Intown village joins together for fellowship, schmoozing and fressing (Yiddish for eating). Want to know who had a baby, who got engaged, whose parents are moving to Atlanta? You find out everything at kiddush. Shearith Israel has had some ups and downs, but today it’s bursting with young families and newcomers, thanks to our dynamic and caring rabbi, Ari Kaiman. For me, Shearith Israel is the essence of community.
I’ve written many times about Limmud Atlanta+Southeast, our immersive, inclusive, and multi-generational learning community that happens over Labor Day weekend up at Ramah Darom. Limmud runs 100% on volunteer power and is the template I love for Jewish engagement. The sessions are eclectic, from text study to making pita in an outdoor oven. We do yoga, share meals, hear great music, go hiking and just hang out. Everyone in my family, from teenage Sasha, to my uncle Bill, who is in his nineties, loves it. Limmud proves what can happen when you empower passionate people to create the programs they want, to their own specifications.
Israel Leadership Learning Journey
Of all my recent trips to Israel, last year’s Community Leadership Learning Journey was a standout experience. With support from a wonderful donor, we took a group of 70 Atlanta Jewish community leaders on a unique trip to Israel, not to be tourists, but to encounter each other. Our work on The Front Porch created a mindset to build bonds as community leaders, affirm and deepen our ties to Israel, and immerse ourselves in Israeli innovation. Through many deep and difficult conversations, we came to know each other and love each other. We returned with a commitment to continue respectful dialogue, to take each other’s calls, to assume the very best of each other, and keep our connections going. And we have! Our What’s App group continues, with weekly wishes for Shabbat shalom.
Shabbat on La Vista Road
Have you ever been in Toco Hills on Shabbat? Less than ten minutes from where I live, on any given Shabbat morning, you can witness a street scene that’s almost out of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Boasting at least seven congregations, from Reconstructionist to Orthodox, LaVista Road, the central street of Toco Hills, comes alive on Shabbat. Within the eruv (ritual enclosure permitting certain activities on Shabbat) families and individuals greet each other on their way to synagogue, walk home for lunch, and return again for Mincha and Maariv services. You’ll see kids racing down LaVista to catch up with their friends. You’ll see clusters of parents pushing kids in strollers, even men wearing long black coats and shtreimels (fur hat worn by some observant men), creating a glorious street scene that’s unique in all of Jewish Atlanta.
Sukkot at Oakhurst Garden
My beloved friend, Naomi Rabkin, z”l, was taken from this world too soon. Earlier this month we marked her first yahrzeit (anniversary of a death). When Naomi lived in Atlanta she not only managed Limmud Atlanta, she was the spark that created The Atlanta Jewish Food Alliance, the first Jewish community supported agriculture group, and the first public sukkah at Oakhurst Community Garden. During Sukkot, Naomi turned Oakhurst Garden into a magical Jewish gan eden (garden of eden). She packed the week with potluck picnics, Sukkot sleepovers, and a Sukkot baking competition. For some Jews and their loved ones, it was their first ever experience of a sukkah and the wonderful customs of our harvest .
February 19, 2019
Modeling Inclusion at Camp
At the tail end of January we celebrated our local champions for inclusion at Jewish Abilities Alliance’s 5th annual Power of One event. Over 350 people turned out to honor 31 Power of One award recipients and to kick off Jewish Disabilities Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month (JDAIM) in February. It was no surprise to me that so many of the honorees work at and support inclusion at our region’s Jewish overnight camps and day camps. Our camps are places where disabilities are not seen as obstacles, where bullying is never tolerated, and where all kids are liberated from the cliques and social rules that operate during the school year. In this way, camp is a sweet taste of olam ha ba, the perfected world we yearn for.
I got my first real glimpse of what inclusion looks like at Camp Barney Medintz when I worked in the kitchen. It was the best job I ever had at camp and it taught me what’s really involved in feeding several hundred campers and staff members three times a day — incredible focus and hard work! To see Scott Hyman, who is on the kitchen staff, honored for his leadership, competence and strong work ethic at Power of One, filled me with pride.
One of the most moving moments at Power of One was when Rachel Krigsman, a counselor at Ramah Darom, was honored for her support for Briah Margolias, a camper with special health needs and one of the most medically fragile children ever to attend camp. Little Briah came up on stage to give Rachel a hug and a bouquet of flowers, and then told the audience how her counselor made the camp experience wonderful for her. For Briah and the entire Ramah Darom community, this was a beautiful example of how true inclusion erases stigma and builds compassion.
In the City Camp counselor Brent Rogers was honored for his support of day campers with special needs. Lotem Eilon received an award for inclusion programs at Camp Coleman. And the 2019 Robyn Berger Emerging Leader Award went Sarah Scheuer for her inclusion efforts at MJCCA Day Camps.
I recently became aware of another ally for inclusion at camp, Atlanta couple Matt Bronfman and Ronit Walker. They have been deeply impacted both by Ronit’s deceased sister, Naomi Walker, who because of her physical disabilities was unable to attend summer camp as an adolescent, and their daughter Kyra, who loves Camp Barney Medintz and has worked as counselor in their Chalutzim program for campers with special needs for the past two summers. Campers come to Chalutzim with a wide range of abilities, and the staff works closely with each camper to ensure a great experience. Their daughter observed some gaps in the program and felt it could be stronger. So, the family met with Federation and talked with us about ways to improve the program. Together we shaped a substantial gift to restructure the program and hire a director dedicated solely to Chalutzim. The gift will also support staff training and inclusion all year long and create a bridge between MJCCA day camps and Camp Barney.
Our camps are places that don’t merely pay lip service to inclusion, they model it! Let’s not forget that Camp Ramah Darom launched its Yofi program for Jewish families with children on the autism spectrum years ago. It has become a national model for inclusion in a camp setting. Our Jewish Abilities Alliance has reached more than 1,000 day camp and overnight camp counselors and staff through its trainings, so that these values of compassion, understanding and sensitivity endure all year long.
From my years as CEO of Camp Twin Lakes and directing the Isabella Freedman retreat center, to being a camper and a counselor myself, I’ve seen miracles at camp. What I saw at Power of One provided even more shining reasons why I’ll always be a camp guy!
January 22, 2019
Making Education a Priority
Yesterday was my birthday, and as the years race by, my birthday always puts me in a contemplative mood. I’ve been thinking hard lately about our community’s commitment to Jewish education. Atlanta’s formal Jewish education landscape is remarkable with a range of excellent Jewish day schools and preschools, 40+ synagogues, learning opportunities at the MJCCA, organizations like Limmud, and one of the largest Melton School programs in the nation. Our informal Jewish learning landscape is also impressive, with JumpSpark Teen, Jewish day camps, overnight camps, PJ Library, Jewish Kids Groups, Hillels, BBYO, Birthright Israel, Jewish Student Union and more.
But inevitably I start to think about the thousands of Atlantans who identify Jewishly yet fall outside the education mainstream. They’re missing out on so much — and worse, they don’t even know what they’re missing! Synagogues, the MJCCA, and Jewish camp are not part of their Jewish experience, and their estrangement from Jewish learning makes them feel like strangers. Tragically, many don’t believe they’re “Jewish” enough to be accepted as learners. As a tradition that prizes learning and commands us to welcome the stranger, we have to do better!
I believe that our Jewish ecosystem gets exponentially stronger when Jewish knowledge increases. So I have to ask, what would happen if Atlanta leveraged its strengths, truly doubled down on Jewish education and made it a priority? How can we improve the quality and the delivery of Jewish education, both in congregational and non-congregational settings? (By the way, I also believe we need to tell a better story about the good things that are already happening here).
More pointedly, how can we re-imagine Jewish education for those who have not been exposed to it? How can we make after school Jewish education more compelling for those who have tried it and fallen away? And what can we learn from successful church communities that use mid-week family experiences (and serve dinner!) to educate and engage?
Looking inside our own ecosystem, what role can our day schools, camps and the MJCCA play to meet new learners where they are? What would immersive Family Camp experiences, with opportunities for family story-telling, look like? How can we create a through-line that connects Jewish education and experiences from pre-school through afterschool, and from camp to teen? These are some of the provocative questions we’re asking.
David Bryfman is a thought leader in Jewish education who has really shaped my thinking. He says that for Jewish education to be successful, it needs to have, at its core, a mission to make people happy. I love and live by that idea. If there isn’t joy in Jewish learning, it will not stick.
Right now at Federation we’re beginning to explore some of these ideas and dream about how we might catalyze new energy around Jewish education in Atlanta. We’re meeting with experts in education around the country to learn as much as we can about educational innovation. I’ll keep you posted on our thinking and our progress. And if you have a great idea that could expand our thinking and bring joy to Jewish learning, I hope you’ll give me a call.
December 18, 2018
What 2018 Taught Me
We’re inching up to the start of the secular new year, so let the reflections and resolutions begin! As for me, I’m looking back on 2018 with an eye towards how I have changed. Here are some questions I’ve reflected on for the past year.
Who Did I Learn From?
Mr. Rogers was my rebbe in 2018. This remarkable man, who was literally my neighbor when I grew up in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill, reminded me that there is still good in the world, that we have to look for it, celebrate it and create more of it. In the aftermath of the Pittsburgh shooting, Mr. Rogers’ outlook sustained my spirit and refocused me on what matters. Returning to Pittsburgh several weeks after the tragedy, I could see that what endures are human relationships and acts of kindness. The simplicity and truth of Mr. Roger’s message is profound. By the way, if you haven’t yet seen the documentary film, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, about the life of Fred Rogers, don’t miss it.
How Have I Changed?
I’ve become much more realistic about what I can and cannot change. This year I will spend less time on the latter. I’m becoming more comfortable with the fact that I can’t make everyone happy all the time. Living with this truth and refocusing my energy on what is possible is a big change for me.
What Delighted Me?
What truly delights me is the Federation professional team. Together we’ve come through a year of inward-looking analysis and discussion through The Front Porch. We’ve learned how to live with uncertainty about where The Front Porch initiative would take us. Now, with firm vision of where the community needs to go, and the role that Federation plays in Jewish Atlanta, we are feeling optimistic and more focused about our work. We’ve looked at our internal organizational structure and created new ways facilitate cross-team collaboration. Job descriptions have been rewritten to reflect the priorities of our five impact areas: Inspiring More Jewish Journeys; Rising Up Higher to Strengthen Ourselves and Our World; Making More Jewish Places; Moving to Global Jewish Peoplehood; and Creating Radically Welcoming Spaces. We’re primed and ready for a productive 2019.
What’s the Most Important Conversation I Had?
After my daughter Sasha’s bat mitzvah in November we sat down together and had a conversation about tzedakah (righteous giving). I suggested that Sasha set aside 10% of the money she received for her bat mitzvah for personal giving. Sasha knows that I’ve been a fundraising professional for much of my life, and she certainly understands how our family prioritizes tzedakah and mitzvot, but nevertheless this was a complex conversation. Ultimately, we decided to open a Donor-Advised Fund at Federation in Sasha’s name. She’ll make her own decisions about where she wants to direct her giving. It will be interesting to see how it empowers her to lead a life of philanthropy.
Did I Step Out of My Comfort Zone?
I stepped out of my comfort zone this year asking for bigger gifts from our donors with the capacity to make big things happen. It meant cultivating a personal mindset to be unafraid. Asking for money is hard. Asking people to stretch for opportunities that excite them and reflect their priorities can be thrilling. It meant listening deeply to what donors had to say and being ready to show them the potential impact and relevance of their gift. Many of these solicitations broke new ground for me and for the donor, and they always deepened relationships.
November 27, 2018
Climbing the Holy Ladder
My daughter Sasha Irene became a bat mitzvah (obligated to perform the commandments) two Shabbat mornings ago at Congregation Shearith Israel, and just as everyone warned me, it was a day of indescribable pride. Sasha’s Torah portion, Vayetzei, is epic— the story of Jacob’s dream, and a ladder that stretches up from earth to heaven, and of Rachel’s desperate wish to bear children. In her d’var torah (bat mitzvah speech) Sasha talked about the values of righteousness, integrity, and being good to others. Before a congregation filled with friends and family, including many from my hometown of Pittsburgh who are still reeling from the October synagogue shooting, Sasha wrestled with an ancient text, teaching us the difference between what we want and what we need.
The congregation’s songs and prayers helped Sasha ascend her holy ladder as a young woman who is now old enough to be responsible for the mitzvot and old enough to follow dreams of her own. I cannot predict where those dreams will take my daughter, but I am confident that they will include great acts of generosity and philanthropy.
Sasha has volunteered and given back for most of her life in ways that are meaningful to her. She knows this is not just what the Robbins family does, it’s what Jews do, and that righteousness is what drives me every day in my work at Federation. I see myself as a relationship builder. In that role I love to sense and discover where there are opportunities to match a person’s energy with a philanthropic opportunity. We talk a lot about being a Philanthropic Champion here at Federation. It means listening closely in conversations for clues about someone’s true passion, and then asking.
Conversations like these can result in acts of philanthropy big and small.
I know a couple who is passionate about Israel and who wants everyone to experience the Jewish homeland. I asked them to help us bring 70 Jewish leaders from Atlanta to Israel last winter and they did. The experience this group had traveling, learning and struggling together with the complexities of modern Israel has literally changed the way we interact now that we are all back home.
I know a woman in Atlanta who lost her girlhood friend several years ago and was inspired to steward a Jewish foundation in memory of all that her friend cherished. In the name of her friend, she has done untold good in our community.
I know a successful man who worries about people who are too poor to afford air conditioning during hot Atlanta summers. Every year he distributes free electric box fans to cool them off.
And I know a couple who are ardent about the way social justice work creates new pathways to Jewish engagement for young people. They brought Repair the World to Atlanta, to bring meaningful service opportunities to young Jews in our city.
Where will you give your time and your resources? Today is Giving Tuesday, a day when everyone has an opportunity to be a philanthropic champion. It’s not just about monetary donations. Pick a cause you care about and learn their mission. Volunteer, or serve on a board. Like Sasha, you are old enough to do mitzvot, and more than ready to discover the deep satisfaction of righteous giving.
October 18, 2018
What Binds Us is Bigger Than What Divides Us
I’m writing this month’s blog from Israel where Mark and Linda Silberman, Renee Evans, Margo and Larry Gold, Seth Greenberg and I are attending the 70th annual General Assembly of Jewish Federations, better known as The GA. It’s my third trip to Israel this year and, as always, it’s great to be home. I arrived feeling buoyed by all the ways our Atlanta community has built stronger bridges to Israel this year and how we are moving towards what our Front Porch work calls Global Jewish Peoplehood.
But I wouldn’t be an honest reporter if I didn’t acknowledge that this year’s GA has generated some controversy. For one thing, there’s the conference theme, Israel and the Diaspora: We Need to Talk. Some feel it focuses only on a liberal critique of what divides us, ignoring the attitudes and realities of life in Israel today. And there’s unhappiness about the conference location, Tel Aviv instead of Jerusalem. We are in Israel to honor 70 years of Israeli independence. However, this is the first time in many years that the GA has convened Tel Aviv rather than Jerusalem. Now that the current U.S. administration has officially moved the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, some feel it’s an insult.
I’ll reserve judgement until the GA is over, but I believe deeper dialogue is precisely what we need.
Before we left for Israel I heard from some of you about a provocative Op Ed in The Jerusalem Post by Caroline Glick, a journalist, author, and former foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. As if the divide in American politics isn’t painful enough, her sharp critique of the GA was aimed directly at the Jewish communal world, and it hurt.
Politics aside, I often worry that the biggest challenge facing our community is simply getting folks to pay attention. The fact that Jews in Atlanta read, question and are immersed in the current events of our discourse makes me proud, and it undoubtedly makes our community stronger.
It brings to mind the many initiatives we’ve undertaken to deepen our ties with Israel — the Israeli Innovation Accelerator program for women, the English language Kefiada day camp we ran in Yokneam and Megiddo this past summer, our Israel@70 Celebration, our five successful missions to Israel, and the remarkable Shinshinim program which has exploded from two post-high school Israelis educators who lived here in 2018-19, to eight young Israelis this year! These young Israelis taught our kids in our day schools and preschools, in our camps and at community events. They shared so much about life in Israel, about their commitment to the IDF when they return, and their pride in Israeli resilience and innovation.
But it’s a two-way street. Atlanta taught the Shinshinim so much about American Judaism. Last weekend at a barbecue to welcome our eight new Shinshinim. Jodi Mansbach, our Chief Impact Officer, asked them, what was the most surprising thing about life in Atlanta. It wasn’t the comforts of Atlanta suburbs or the abundance of American supermarkets. “We had no idea there were so many ways to be Jewish!” they said. Let that sink in for a minute.
I know in my heart and in my soul that what binds us is much stronger than what divides us. So yes, if it was up to me, I would have chosen a different title for this year’s GA. But in the end, the meeting will succeed or fail based on the willingness of Israelis and Diaspora Jews to engage, to open their minds and to widen their perspectives. We have a long “to do” list here at home, but getting the relationship between Diaspora and Israeli Jews right for the next hundred years will have a defining impact on the collective future. Let’s keep talking!
September 20, 2018
Give Us Shelter
It’s just about impossible not to love Sukkot. The seven-day Jewish “festival of booths” which comes on the heels of Yom Kippur, celebrates the harvest and the miraculous protection G-d provided for our people when we left Egypt. We celebrate by building, decorating, and dwelling in shelters called sukkahs, fragile little huts whose roofs are made of natural vegetation and deliberately open to the sky. Here in Atlanta, the weather is incredible and we’re still harvesting the last tomatoes, peppers, and herbs that will be on our Sukkot menu. Ana, Sasha, and I enjoy having friends and family over for meals in our sukkah and we love to go sukkah hopping — filling our dance card all week at the homes of friends. Sukkot is glorious, but the fragility of the sukkah also illuminates the ups and downs of life. And nobody knows that better than Atlanta’s homeless population. For them, late September means it will soon be shelter season, as most Atlanta shelters open to the homeless October through April.
Shelter is elemental. Hurricane Florence showed last week how vulnerable our homes are to extreme weather. That’s why I’m especially proud of our Jewish community’s work to rise up around homelessness in Atlanta and the way we responded again to people displaced by the hurricane. My congregation, Shearith Israel, has run a women’s shelter, now called Rebecca’s Tent, for the past 32 years. It began in 1983 during a frigid winter in Atlanta when Shearith Israel’s rabbi realized that homeless women needed help. He approached Helen Spiegel, a member of the congregation whose family had fled to the United States in the wake of the Holocaust. Helen’s intimate experience with displacement helped establish a safe home with beds for seven “guests.” Today, Rebecca’s Tent supports thirteen women and provides ongoing supportive services and job training for them to build independent lives. Last season the shelter helped 60% of their guests transition to employment and more stable housing.
It takes more than 400 volunteers a year to keep Rebecca’s Tent running. Volunteers serve meals, prepare sack lunches, clean the kitchen and prepare the evening meal for residents. My daughter Sasha and I have done it together and it’s always a meaningful experience. Volunteer by calling Tasho Wesley, 404-873-3147, and Rebecca’s Tent will find a way for you to get involved.
The Temple’s Zaban Paradies Center (ZPC) on Peachtree Street also fills an important niche by helping Atlanta’s homeless couples find shelter. Founded in 1984 as the Temple Zaban Night Shelter, it was the first and only shelter that did not separate homeless couples, whether married or not. Today the ZPC assists couples who want to transition from homelessness to resettlement, providing case management services, laundry, financial management training, a well-stocked clothing closet, and more. Here too, there are many ways to help — volunteers can teach computer skills, they cook and/or serve evening meals, mentor residents on financial literacy, and help find employment opportunities. These are beautiful opportunities to perform a mitzvah. Sign up to volunteer here.
While Atlanta’s overall homeless population has dropped, high poverty and income inequality make our city one of the neediest in America, especially for veterans and families. Gentrification and rising Intown rents are driving people into extended stay motels and the shelter system. Life is fragile!
The rabbis tell us that a sukkah must be stable enough to live in for a week, but sufficiently unstable so that it will not be mistaken for a permanent home. Permanence, according to the Talmud, is conveyed by the ability to live a full and dignified life year-round, not just for a week. This season as we celebrate G-d’s bounty and share our good fortune under the sukkah, let us never forget the cry of Isaiah to “take the poor into your homes.” Dignity. Permanence. Independence. Let these values inform the prayers we say during Sukkot and all year long.
August 23, 2018
Becoming Our Best Selves
These waning days of the month of Elul signal that Rosh Hashanah and 5779 will soon be here. I look forward to this season of introspection that runs up until Yom Kippur. And I love when after midnight, on the Saturday before Rosh Hashanah, Jews begin reciting Selichot, Hebrew prayers of forgiveness, putting us collectively into a mindset of setting intentions for the coming year. Notice that I said, intentions. I make a distinction between the resolutions we make on December 31, and the authentically Jewish way of embracing change at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. As Jews we commit to change and the repair of relationships through tshuvah, which is not simply repentance, but also the revelatory idea of returning to our true and best selves. This is how Iframe my soul work for the high holidays.
What does tshuvah and repair mean for our wider Jewish community? How does our collective work this past year on The Front Porch reveal where we can grow and how we must also return and be faithful to our core values? Here’s my sense of what we can build on, using our strengths to become an even more vibrant and relevant Jewish Atlanta.
- Keep our commitments to strengthen each other.
How to build on it: The Community Campaign is the engine that powers all of Jewish Atlanta. It’s how we engage, care for, connect and strengthen each other. So, we must prioritize the unrestricted campaign and widen our donor base, but we also need bigger vision for generating generosity. I want to see us grow Jewish philanthropy in Atlanta through legacy giving and investments in Atlanta Jewish Foundation. We’ll keep diversifying ways for donors to support their personal interests in the Jewish community. This is what it means for Federation to become a Philanthropic Champion for the whole community.
Our institutional infrastructure is impressive, but we must be open to using brick and mortar spaces in new ways — what programs can we locate in our synagogues during the week, in our day schools after 3:00 pm? Let’s think about redistributing Jewish services to bring them closer to where people already are. How can we leverage technology to bring people together and strengthen neighborhood connections where people already live? How can we deploy more people as warm connectors and “concierges” who can expand our outreach. We have amazing camps — let’s send more kids there, and while we’re at it, let’s create more camp options for immersive Jewish summers.
- Open our minds to innovation.
How to build on it: Atlanta already has an innovative culture. Our Jewish community has caught the spirit and is becoming a laboratory for the new ideas and initiatives Jewish Atlanta needs. Let’s keep nourishing promising prototypes and awarding startup grants to local innovators. Here at Federation we hold a monthly FedLab to generate new ideas, we’ve hired our first ever VP of Innovation, and we’ve created two elementATL co-working spaces on the BeltLine and in Dunwoody to foster collaboration and idea generation.
We must turn up the juice on how we welcome people and become a radically welcoming Jewish community! I want to see openness and welcome become the prevailing culture in all our organizations. It means moving from thinking there is just one way to be Jewish, or that affiliation and membership are the only ways to measure engagement, to new options. Let’s explore pay-as-you-go models for engagement to put living Jewishly in reach for everyone. I’d love to see more families find scholarship support for our day schools, and more families gaining access to supplemental Jewish education. Let’s also change our language so we’re not just talking to ourselves, but instead inviting all Jews and their loved ones to learn, participate and feel part of our community.
- Deepen our connections with Israel and Jews around the world.
How to build on it: In the coming year we’ll see more people-to-people partnerships with our global Jewish community affirming that Jews are all one people, one family. We’re committed to care for our people, wherever they live. We’re taking our second Atlanta mission to Cuba and Atlanta students volunteer to be summer counselors in Eastern European Jewish camps that build Jewish identity. We’ll use Israeli innovation and resilience to inspire us. Starting in October a new Atlanta/Israel Accelerator is helping a select group of women launch startups for the good of the whole community, using Israeli style tactics, and business models. We’ve expanded the Shinshinim (young educators) program from two students last year, to eight students. They’ve just arrived in Atlanta to connect our schools and camps with the vibrant culture and spirit of Israel. They’re living with host families all around town and their enthusiasm is infectious. And how cool is it that the Maccabi Games will be hosted at our own MJCCA at the end of July 2019.
These are not “resolutions,” they are intentions for how I want to make 5779 a year of Jewish community health, fulfillment, prosperity and growth. Our Jewish Atlanta is magnificent — brimming with opportunities for spiritual growth, service and connection. For these coming holy days, my hope is that every one of us finds a pathway and a place for nourishment, wholeness, and renewal right here in this community.
Ana, Sasha and I wish you, shanah tovah — all the sweetness the new year can bring!
July 31, 2018
Moments In Time: “Opportunities”
Eric reflects on how volunteering in Israel had a profound impact on his life. “It was a period of time when life was simple, and in retrospect an opportunity for big personal growth.”
May 18, 2018
The Front Porch Era
Michael Jacobs, editor of the Atlanta Jewish Times, paid our community a great compliment when he wrote that Israel@70 heralded the beginning of “The Front Porch Era.” I believe that Michael was acknowledging a spirit of fresh thinking, innovation and collaboration that really seems to be taking hold in Jewish Atlanta.
Federation is still focused on its core mission to develop financial resources, build the Jewish community and address critical human needs, but we are changing. I believe we’re “showing up differently” around town. You can see it in an unprecedented number of partnerships where agencies, schools and synagogues are sharing resources, physical space and professional talents. You can feel it in the way we are investing in innovation. We’re also working very hard to become a warmer, more welcoming and inclusive Jewish community. Judaism is our treasure and we want to open new doors that inspire Jewish learning, connect people and engage them in meaningful experiences across the entire community.
Our Director of Community Planning and Impact, Amy Glass, recently attended a meeting at Temple Sinai which has been doing pioneering work on inclusion for people with disabilities. She was thrilled that Sinai and the Jewish Abilities Alliance had convened the meeting for all our synagogues, schools and organizations to share best practices.
Atlanta’s PJ Library Program, which sends 2,500 free Jewish books each month to Atlanta families, understands that PJ is about more than books, it’s about family impact. They’ve now engaged three “PJ Baby Connectors” who reach out to young families with children ages 0-3 in Smyrna-Vinings and North Metro. Connectors set up gatherings and playdates, introducing Jewish and interfaith moms and dads to other moms and dads, building Jewish community, neighborhood by neighborhood.
New Jewish ideas are bubbling up all over town through the Jewish Innovation Fund and The Front Porch Prototype Boot Camp process. We now have five “coaches” who are helping about 20 prototype groups move their ideas forward on a small scale and potentially scale them up. It’s a fresh new mindset that makes space for innovation, and honors the idea that even if prototypes are unsuccessful we learn from them.
Did you know that there are now two Jewish co-working spaces and collaboration spaces on the BeltLine? ElementATL, located at 691 John Wesley Dobbs Avenue, offers day passes and monthly desk space, as well as space for meetings and events. Reserve a spot at email@example.com. Chabad Intown’s Rabbi Eliyahu Schusterman is also developing a co-working and event space at 730 Ponce de Leon Place, targeting young Jewish professionals. We’re having great conversations with Chabad about joining forces to maximize our Jewish impact Intown.
Other communities are noticing what Atlanta is doing. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it was very cool to learn that Pittsburgh’s Federation joked about launching an initiative called The Front Stoop, and a Federation in Florida is playing around with “The Lanai” as a community transformation platform.
I hope you’ll join us on June 13 at Federation’s 112th Annual meeting, at Atlanta Jewish Academy. You’ll hear more about change and possibility, and we’ll formally share The Front Porch vision for a more connected 21st century Jewish Atlanta. Everyone’s invited and you can RSVP here. The Front Porch era is just beginning and it’s exciting. Come and be part of it!
April 19, 2018
Israel@70 – Why We Need Israel
Growing up in Pittsburgh’s most Jewish neighborhood, Squirrel Hill, Israel always made my heart swell. When I sang Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, there was a catch in my throat at the words, “lihiyot am hofshi b’artzeinu…” to be a free people in our land. My pride was rooted in Israel’s inspiring story of nation-building, resilience, and creativity. And it still is.
So as Israel’s 70th birthday approaches, I have a radical thought. Maybe, just maybe, Atlanta needs Israel more than Israel needs us. Here’s what I mean.
I mean that we all need to put Israel on our destination travel list. If you haven’t been to Israel in 10 years or more, you really haven’t been to Israel. So much has changed. Federation offers incredible opportunities to see Israel with fresh eyes. See our mission list at www.jewishatlanta.org/missions and come to Israel with us. You will be powerfully moved and impressed by what you see and the people you meet.
I mean that all of us can be uplifted by Israel’s innovation mindset that refuses to say “no,” to big challenges. That mindset turned sea water into drinking water, invented drip irrigation, created the first USB flash drive, and the WAZE app. Let’s build more reciprocal relationships with Israeli innovators and change makers so we can collaborate on big ideas that make the world better.
I mean that we can all be inspired by the prosperous, successful and capable Israel I have now visited so many times since becoming CEO of Federation. It’s an Israel still grateful for our support, but less reliant on us than ever before, solving problems with its own resources and ingenuity. We are moving to a peer relationship, not a purely philanthropic one, and it feels good!
I mean that we must reach out and build stronger relationships with Atlanta’s Israeli community, estimated at 10,000 and still growing. Let’s find more ways for Israelis and Atlantans to interact and truly know each other. This year we welcomed two young Israelis, Or Shahan and Lior Bar, to our community as Shinshinim – service volunteers. In just 7 months they’ve interacted with 1,000 kids in our camps, preschools and day schools. They’ve had real impact. Next year we’re welcoming eight Shinshinim to Atlanta.
I mean that everyone can take a lesson in resilience from Israel. This tiny nation has mastered the ability to rebound from terrorism and live with the constant threat of attack, and now teaches the world how to do the same. The Israel Trauma Center, which our Community Leadership trip visited in February, has helped tsunami and earthquake victims, even the Las Vegas and Parkland shooting survivors.
I mean that there’s tremendous wisdom for all of us in the Torah texts and bible stories that every Israeli school child knows, even the secular ones. Torah is not just for “the Orthodox.” Let’s build our Jewish literacy. One pillar of our work on The Front Porch is that Torah can be a manual for living for every Jew, no matter what their level of observance or literacy.
I mean that we should all take pride in the progress our partnership cities Yokneam and Megiddo have made in assimilating Ethiopian refugees since the early 1990’s. Yes, Federation support played a part, but the bigger story is Yokneam’s attitude of acceptance and commitment to a better future for Ethiopians. We’re excited to share that story in a new film about the Ethiopian Aliyah in Yokneam and Megiddo that Federation will preview this summer.
I mean that we must make it a priority help young Jews have an authentic and unique relationship with Israel. Let’s create safe spaces where we can have dialogue about Israel respecting all points of view. Let’s do it through immersive exchange programs, through Birthright Israel offshoots like Honeymoon Israel and through internships for college students like Hillel’s Onward program.
I write all this as our Atlanta Jewish community gets ready to throw a big, bold and beautiful 70th birthday bash for Israel on Sunday, April 29 at Park Tavern in Piedmont Park from 10:30 am to 4 pm. There will be food, music, technology, art projects, exhibits and sports — something for everyone! More than 70 organizations have planned Israel@70. What a great opportunity to come together and celebrate the miracle, and the complexity, that is the modern State of Israel. Tickets are priced so everyone can come, including a flat $18 for family groups with kids. You can buy tickets online at https://jewishatlanta.org/israel70.
Don’t miss the party! I look forward to seeing you at Park Tavern on Sunday.
March 21, 2018
I’ve always believed that volunteerism and service are powerful pathways to Jewish engagement. Our learning from The Front Porch affirms it, too — Torah is the birthright of all Jews, and it comes alive for people when they engage in meaningful volunteer service that’s infused with Jewish learning and values. This is why we’ve been in collaborative discussions with Repair the World, a nonprofit dedicated meaningful service for young adults. We want to bring their model of immersive, impactful volunteering to Atlanta. Repair recruits courageous and compassionate young leaders to become Fellows who spend a year embedded in high-need communities. They address social inequity through sustained local service and developing partnerships with local organizations around issues like education and food justice. So I’m beyond thrilled to say that Repair the World is opening an Atlanta office. (And also looking for a full time Director).
Repair is already on the ground serving Baltimore, Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Miami and New York. They’re just what we need in Atlanta, and their partnership model aligns perfectly with what The Front Porch is process is telling us to do — make more transformative Jewish experiences available to people who are ready to re-engage through value-driven Jewish service. Jodi Mansbach and Michael Kay are Repair the World board members, and they’ve been champions for bringing Repair to Atlanta. Thanks to both!
Repair’s Board Chair, Larry Brooks, recently shared news about the organization’s impact in eJewishPhilanthropy. “In the 2013-14 program year, RTW Fellows engaged 3,600 unique participants in their communities. By 2016-17, the number of unique participants grew to 25,000 – of whom a strong majority are coming back repeatedly and reporting increased understanding of Jewish values, while 80% of local partners report increasing their capacity through the volunteers. Repair achieved this level of growth and impact not only by measuring and assessing results at the end of each year, but, more importantly, by aggressively targeting and testing the future potential of the Communities program. By 2022 Repair now aims to engage 180,000 unique volunteers – while growing the power of the program on both volunteers and partners. This is measurable impact.”
Can you see why I’m excited? In Repair, we’ve found a perfect partner to make meaningful and impactful community service available to more young adults.
No matter where you live in Jewish Atlanta, no matter how Jewishly connected (or unconnected) you feel, I deeply believe that community service is a crucial doorway to Jewish meaning. I hope you will consider engaging with Repair the World in the coming year. Ana, Sasha and I wish you all a chag kasher v’sameach – a Passover that is celebrated with intention, meaning, and joy.
February 19, 2018
Atlanta: A Community Moving Together Into the 21st Century
Our Front Porch Learning Journey in Israel was a groundbreaking experience that deeply affected me and the lives of 70 Atlanta community leaders. I’m honored that my reflections on the Israel trip were published in national media last week and I hope you’ll share my excitement about what our insights can mean for Jewish Atlanta.
January 23, 2018
The Ultimate Learning Journey – Israel
In just a few days, a diverse group of 70 Atlanta Jewish community leaders, representing more than 30 organizations, big and small, will have arrived in Tel Aviv for the ultimate Front Porch Learning Journey — an immersive week in Israel. It’s a challenge to simply get 70 busy Atlantans together in one room, so bringing this group to Israel is nothing short of a miracle. Individually, we are a mixed multitude of community volunteers, rabbis, program directors, and change makers from every stream of Judaism. Collectively, we are The Front Porch in Israel — #TFPinIsrael if you want to follow us on Facebook and Instagram, and I hope you will.
We are traveling to Israel with a unique kavannah(intention), not as tourists, but as curious and committed partners. We have a mindset to build bonds as a community of leaders, affirm and deepen our ties to Israel, and immerse ourselves in Israeli innovation. Our trip has no time allotted for shopping or sightseeing, but it does include time for difficult conversations, for small group work and personal reflection. As we coalesce as a group, we’ll be creating a precious infrastructure of human capital and relationships, so that when we come home, we’ll be primed and ready to co-create the 21st century Jewish community Atlanta needs to become.
In my view, this is the most consequential trip Jewish Atlanta has ever undertaken. We’re going to Tel Aviv, Lod, Yokneam, Gush Etzion, Jerusalem, the Belz Synagogue, meeting with Palestinian peace activitists, and touring an IDF field hospital. Our itinerary plows new ground, connecting us with latest Israeli experiences on immigrant absorption, urban renewal, technology, senior care, LGBTQ communities, and the challenge of religious pluralism. Every day we’ll be reflecting on what we’ve seen and extracting big insights — what are the big shifts from 20th to 21st century Israel? What is our responsibility to each other? What would a “living bridge” between Atlanta and Israel look like?
Here’s a sample day from our itinerary:
Monday, January 29:
VisitTaglit Innovation Center, a major player in Israeli research and development and entrepreneurship. Stop at Impact Labs to understand how the outsized impact of Israeli innovation has met human needs around the world.
Exploration ofJindas Urban Regeneration, a project in the multi-cultural city of Lod to promote the city’s vitality as a model for success in Israel and its influence on surrounding neighborhoods.
And that’s just the first day!
As Atlantans, we’re tremendously proud to be the home of one of the most vibrant, and diverse communities in North America – just ask any of the 10,000 Israelis who have moved here to study or work and experience our way of life. Now it is our chance to turn the camera on Israel, to travel with hearts and eyes wide open, and bring our insights home. We can’t wait to report back to you and share what we’ve seen, what we’ve felt, and how it has changed us.
December 19, 2017
Eight Places of Light
Happy seventh night of Hanukkah! I hope your holiday has been full of lights, family and latkes. Ana, Sasha and I especially love our neighborhood Hanukkah celebrations like Chabad Intown’s public menorah lighting, and we also had a blast at Congregation Or Ve Shalom’s Hanukkah Bazaar and stuffing ourselves silly with their amazing bourekas – filled pastries from the Sephardic Jewish tradition. The new Atlanta Jewish Connector calendar is bursting with Hanukkah events, literally every night. In fact, tonight Federation is hosting a celebration at Congregation Etz Chaim. Our community is aglow with places of light, and so is Federation. After seventeen months as President and CEO, and in the spirit of Hanukkah, I want to lift up eight places where we are lighting new pathways:
1) We are building a dynamic and dedicated professional team at Federation. We have collectively written our own internal mission statement expressing the kind of workplace we want to be: We want to be passionate and supportive so we can attract great talent and have the right tools to be successful to make Federation relevant and responsive to our community. We are all committed to expanding our skills, working collaboratively, and listening to the community. I am grateful for everyone’s commitment every day.
2) The Federation board has changed its governance structure in line with best practices. We have sharpened and recommitted our members to what it means to serve on the Board of Trustees.
3) In a few weeks, 70 community leaders from across Jewish Atlanta are traveling to Israel together as part of our work on The Front Porch. The trip is a deep dive into social innovation and entrepreneurship in “start-up nation,” but equally important, the trip is a crucial opportunity for our leaders to build lasting relationships. It’s the best way I know for us to become the collaborative community we need to be and to fortify our bridges to Israel.
4) Since August, more than 120 people from all corners of our community have signed on to participate in our Front Porch initiative. Collectively they’ve given hundreds of hours of their time to help us explore, analyze and reimagine our Atlanta Jewish ecosystem. Their commitment to making Jewish Atlanta better for everyone has been remarkable. They’ve hosted 18 Listening Forums, immersed themselves in Jewish Atlanta, and signed up for more than a dozen Learning Journeys outside our community to gain insight into innovation and change. Our third platform, Regenerating Federation, has just launched and will be taking us to the next step, synthesizing our learning and clearly defining our purpose and value proposition to the community.
5) Over the holiday school break, Atlanta’s bold new Jewish Teen Initiative, now called JumpSpark, will debut. JumpSpark’s first event has a sports focus. It will engage teens on a four day behind the scenes exploration the sports industry. Participants will meet coaches and sports marketing professionals. They’ll tour Mercedes Benz Stadium, SunTrust Park, and the College Football Hall of Fame. These immersive experiences let teens explore ideas, careers, and Jewish core values in a group of peers. We couldn’t be more excited to see JumpSpark get this off the ground.
6) Back in August we created a new kind of community event called The Collective. It was a fun and creative celebration of the rich community partnerships and incredible human capital that make Jewish Atlanta so strong. Representatives from across the community came together and honored our collective strength. The message was clear — we are bigger and better together!
7) The explosive growth of Atlanta’s PJ Library program thrills me and puts Atlanta on the map as one of the most successful PJ communities in North America. We’ve now expanded the program to reach 9-11 year-olds through PJ Our Way, where middle grade readers can select their own books each month. PJ Library has recently launched PJ Baby Connector, deploying moms who are reaching out across Atlanta to engage families with children under the age of three. They are building Jewish community and friendships in a grassroots way, creating events and playdates that help families find meaningful Jewish connections.
8) This year Federation did its Super Sunday phone-a-thon differently. Reimagined as TikkunATL, it was a five-day push where volunteers made calls in locations across Atlanta and engaged in service projects. We also made campaign giving more flexible for donors. One new giving option is the Jewish Innovation Fund, where donors can invest in and accelerate Jewish innovation and incubate new ideas, projects and technologies. The fund has substantially grown the amount of money we can allocate to invest in new ideas and it has attracted many donors who’ve never given before. Things are moving quickly: Jewish Innovation Fund intends to issue a request for proposals early in 2018, open to any agency or program in Atlanta. We’re on a path to jumpstart creative ideas.
I’m full of optimism about where we’re going, because at last, we’re listening to each other, challenging old assumptions, and learning from each other. From my house to your house, I wish you a new year of even greater light that will strengthen all of us to build the community we want and need.
November 28, 2017
Learning from Los Angeles
Earlier this month a delegation Federation leaders and professionals traveled to Los Angeles for the “mother” of all Jewish professional conferences, the General Assembly of Jewish Federations, better known as the GA. This annual gathering of the “tribe” is an opportunity to connect with our colleagues and to hear thought leaders from across the Jewish world. But for me, it was especially good to be in Los Angeles because, like us, Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has taken a hard look at itself and is making big strides towards becoming a 21st Century Jewish Federation. Our team’s visit to Jewish Federation of Los Angeles was definitely a Front Porch-style Learning Journey that revealed valuable clues about institutional change. An opening plenary keynote talk by Rabbi Ed Feinstein, also left a big impression on me. Here’s why.
Rabbi Feinstein, who is the senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California, made an impassioned plea for a Jewish communal return to shared values and a deeper sense of collective Jewish meaning. Feinstein was blunt. “Our disease is a loss of character and commitment,” he said. “We cannot continue to operate our federations in an atmosphere of crisis and fear. It’s the wrong language.” Instead, Rabbi Feinstein says, we must make the case for Judaism not through marketing strategy but by reasserting our Jewish vision of covenant, responsibility, and purpose.
In Los Angeles our Atlanta team visited Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and spent time with Jay Sanderson, who has been CEO there for eight years. Jay is a marketing guy who comes from outside the Federation system. He was an out-of-the-box choice for Los Angeles, and he’s already had big impact. Like Atlanta, L.A. has a sprawling geography, an aging and diminishing base of major donors, and an explosion of young adult professionals who are proud to be Jewish, but largely unconnected to Jewish Institutions. Jay’s first priority was putting his professionals on the same page — literally getting them to speak the same language, with clear messaging that supports their mission. He has broadened the donor base horizontally, activating cultivation and engagement initiatives to target the next generation. The L.A. engagement team has a strong geographic strategy — they work specific communities, not just demographic groups. Jay blogs, he’s launched a podcast, and we’ll be watching him closely.
What stands out most from the GA is the feeling that hard conversations were actually happening, not being swept under the rug. A new statement broadening support for Religious Pluralism in Israel came out of the plenary. Interfaith marriage, Jews of Color, the challenge of welcoming more people to Judaism, all were on the agenda. There was communal pride in the robust Jewish response to the Hurricanes. Young adults and new platforms for engagement like Honeymoon Israel, PJ Library, Moishe House, and One Table, were loud, proud, and leading the way.
I came home energized and excited, especially as our Front Porch work gains intensity. Here in Atlanta, we too are having hard conversations, asking difficult questions, and letting go of a crisis and fear mindset that no longer serves us. Several of us did a deep dive with other colleagues into the opportunities and challenges of Jewish day schools. In the coming months, Front Porchers are engaging in more than 25 immersive explorations both inside and outside our Jewish ecosystem to learn about institutional challenge and change. In January, we are taking 80 Atlanta community leaders to Israel on their own unique Learning Journey to see Israeli innovation in action. And in March we’ll be moving our most promising Front Porch insights and ideas to action.
As we wade through the waters of Jewish disruption and change together, I know we’ll be different when we reach the other side. We will have a deeper understanding of the nature of Jewishness, the purpose of our federation, as Rabbi Feinstein challenges us, a clearer sense of how Jewish tradition can help us live better lives.
October 24, 2017
What I Learned at Hamburger University
A few weeks ago I spent some time at Hamburger University, McDonald’s Center of Training Excellence in Elk Grove, IL. It’s all part of my Leading Edge mentorship program which strengthens Jewish CEO’s. A major Jewish funder was with our group and I asked what he would do if he was running a Federation. “I would have a big party and celebrate everything you’ve accomplished over the years,” he said. “I’d stop looking at the past, stop looking at the present, and only look at the future. We’ve lost a whole generation of Jews by looking backward, and it’s time to let that go. You can’t look at the future without seeing how drastically it is changing. The pace of change is so rapid now that we can’t think about what the next century will look like. But we can see what the next decade will look like.” I haven’t stopped thinking about his words. And that was only my first morning at Hamburger U.
A historian joined us at Hamburger U. He noted that Jewish communities generally thrive during times of crisis. We have seen that right here in Atlanta. It brought to light that we are not in a crisis right now, and that our energy is low.
A Harvard professor introduced the provocative idea that leadership is actually about “distributing loss” and “managing the rate at which people can handle disappointment.” That resonated with me. If we need to let go in order to move forward, there will inevitably be a feeling of collective loss. As a leader, I need to think about that.
A Microsoft executive asked us, what is your signature idea? She talked about Apple and how all their products are designed to be beautiful, inside and outside. What is Federation’s signature idea? That’s precisely what we’re working on so fervently and collectively with The Front Porch. It made me think that maybe, just maybe, some keys to the Jewish future will emerge from a “legacy” organization like Federation. We know we are challenged, but maybe the answer lies within us and Atlanta can be the place where institutional change really happens.
Hamburger University put me in contact with other CEOs of Jewish organizations who, like me, are new to their roles. Together we talked long and hard about why we do this work, and we agreed that Jews have a crazy, searing desire, deep in our DNA, to solve the world’s problems. It’s something to be proud of, and if that alone doesn’t motivate you to create an incredible Jewish ecosystem, then I don’t know what will. We must stay rooted in our Judaism and our people.
Back in Atlanta, with all these ideas still swirling, I went to yoga and my yoga teacher said, “If you are going to be a perfectionist, you will never be content.” Boom! Another big insight for me.
We have so much to figure out. We may not get it perfect but we will get it right. I am charging us to recognize that we have a crisis — and the crisis is that we don’t have a crisis and that we need to repair our community without an external catastrophe happening in the Jewish world.
Jewish Atlanta is a gem. There are so many beautiful things to keep here but also so many things we need to let go of. In the process, I charge us to not aim for perfection —and not to allow mediocrity — but to build an ecosystem that allows Judaism thrive not just for us, but also for the next generation. Let’s be the model for what Jewish life can look like in North America.
September 26, 2017
What Limmud Can Teach Us
The month of September has been so Jewishly rich for me. Two consecutive weekend experiences fill me with pride, hope, and tremendous optimism about what we can accomplish when we provide people with platforms that encourage them to unleash their creativity, generosity and leadership. One was Limmud Atlanta + Southeast. The other was our Jewish community’s heroic volunteer response to Hurricane Irma.
Over Labor Day weekend I attended the 10th annual Limmud Atlanta + Southeast learning event at Ramah Darom. Limmud, which began in the UK in 1980, is British Jewry’s greatest export. What is Limmud? Imagine if Jewish camp, Jewish arts and culture, and Jewish studies had a baby — that’s sort of what Limmud is. Our Limmud Atlanta community is diverse in age and ideology. We always make it possible for the most observant to attend (kosher food, multiple minyans, and respect for Shabbat in all public spaces) but the Limmud program represents no denomination and it prioritizes multiple points of view.
Most amazing of all, Limmud runs nearly 100% on volunteer power.* Shocker — nobody who is a presenter at Limmud is paid. A handful of “invited presenters” are reimbursed for their travel, and the majority of our presenters are local or regional and they pay to come like everyone else. Shocker — the average age of the Limmud leadership is under 40. Shocker — Limmud just about breaks even and chugs along on donations, without a major funder.
Several people took the lead to launch Limmud in Atlanta in 2007. With no paid staff we put on the first one-day Limmud event at Oglethorpe University. We offered more than 50 sessions, ran a day camp for kids, and 600 people attended. A decade later we’ve evolved to a multi-day event at Ramah Darom. We have a “gan” for babies, a day camp for kids, a teen program, and we offer adult learning of the highest quality. We schmooze on Ramah Darom’s front porch at night, sing z’mirot after dinner, and make music together. Limmud has spawned engagements, marriages, babies, and a cohort of kids who have grown up loving Limmud and wouldn’t miss it. Just ask my daughter Sasha, age 12, she’s one of them.
What makes Limmud different from other learning events is that Limmud meets everyone right where they are. Sessions can be serious or playful. Nobody is pushes you to be anything other than what you are, more observant, less observant. Limmud vigorously discourages ego — titles are dropped and there is never a sense that any person is more important than the next. Learning is a high priority, but so is having fun. Why can’t we do more of this?
Limmud is the template I love for Jewish engagement. It proves that when you empower passionate people to build the programs they want, to their own specifications, without the heavy hand of big institutions, remarkable things can happen. We’ve seen that creativity and entrepreneurship in Atlanta with the volunteer-led Jewish Moms of Atlanta Facebook Group, Community Bucket, The Jewish Fertility Foundation, Helping Feed Atlanta, Sixth Point, MACoM, and more. I call it the “Limmud-effect.”
I experienced the “Limmud-effect” again two weekends ago, in another volunteer-driven effort, as Jewish Atlanta mobilized to help hurricane evacuees from Florida. Wielding spreadsheets, working the Internet, Facebook and the phones, our rabbis, our congregations and many individuals, provided shelter to more than 1,000 Jews fleeing the hurricane. With targeted outreach to the Orthodox Jews in Florida, Atlanta’s observant communities offered radical hospitality, opening their homes and spare bedrooms to people they didn’t know, and making real the Jewish commandment to welcome the stranger.
In both cases, Limmud and the hurricane, infrastructure was minimal and volunteer engagement was maximal. No one was a service provider, no one was a customer, everyone just pitched in and helped. To be sure, the Limmud model doesn’t work to meet all human needs, but it has a great deal to teach us about community building. Let’s see where it can take us in 5778.
*LImmud Atlanta employs a 10 hour-a-week administrator whose hours increase in the weeks leading up to the event.
August 22, 2017
Day One Thinking
This month marks the end of my first year as President & CEO of Federation, and today marks the first official meeting of community platforms for The Front Porch: Unlocking the (Incredible) Potential of Jewish Atlanta. We’ve come a long way. Today in our building, we’ll welcome 110 people who’ve agreed to participate in The Front Porch over the next nine months, as together we strategize how build on our strengths and honor our history, while seriously redefining how we will meet 21st century Jewish community needs.
One year ago, in my blog, I wrote: 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. And I listed these as some of my priorities:
- 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.
- Setting the table for transformation 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.
New priorities have also emerged, but it’s tremendously satisfying to see we’ve made good progress on many of them. The Front Porch process keeps the momentum going.
Over the past year I’ve been thinking hard about change. I keep returning to the ideas of Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos and his philosophy of “Day 1 Thinking.” Bezos says that successful organizations never lose their original startup mentality. Day 1 organizations take nothing for granted, they embrace new ideas, they question old assumptions and make customer/client needs their top priority.
Federation is hardly a startup, but there’s plenty of wisdom for us here as we move forward in the coming year.
Leading organizational change is always uncomfortable, but I believe we in Atlanta are particularly well suited for innovation. Our city, once known as Terminus because so many train lines converged here, has a long history as a transportation crossroads. This metro area thrives as a global gateway that welcomes new people and incubates new ideas. The Jewish community’s most successful entrepreneurs found an openness here and a climate conducive to innovation. They well understand that Federation can no longer march in place. And we won’t. Now It’s our collective imperative to take Atlanta’s incredible network of agencies and programs and build a truly collaborative Jewish ecosystem.
So, in the coming months, as we bring all corners of the Jewish community onto the Front Porch to grapple with change, we must avoid Day 2 thinking, which Bezos says leads to stasis and irrelevance. Our community is too precious, and our work is too important, for Federation to become a Day 2 organization.
July 18, 2017
In Israel and across the Jewish world, with new eyes.
I have been to Israel at least a dozen times, but the trip I just returned from was transformational. A few weeks ago, I arrived in Israel with my wife Ana, and my 11-year-old daughter, Sasha. We spent a week in Israel and then traveled to Eastern Europe for 10 days to visit Jewish communities in Hungary, Croatia, Belarus and Ukraine. It’s always emotional to land in Israel, even when you’re flying from Atlanta. But as I flew back to Israel from Central and Eastern Europe, from the heart of what a century ago was the center of the Jewish world, I knew I was following the path that so many others had taken before me. I was going home.
This journey also came at a deeply meaningful time for me, as I am concluding my first year leading Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. It’s an incredible responsibility to be the leader of a major Jewish community at a time of enormous change and dynamism in Jewish life, in the Federation movement, and across the Jewish world. For me, it’s been a year of intense self-reflection on Jewish identity. Driven by optimism and idealism, I continue to develop a better understanding of who we are as a Jewish people and how we should define our common future.
It was a joy to begin my Israel trip in our partnership region, Yokneam-Meggido, in the lower Galilee. I was deeply moved by the college students from our home state of Georgia, all of whom came to Israel to pursue summer internships and strengthen their bonds with the Jewish people and Jewish state. They were spending Shabbat with Israeli families and nurturing relationships I know will last a lifetime.
Do not miss Lotem, on your next trip to Israel! It’s a program that makes nature accessible for individuals with mental and physical challenges. I was moved to tears when a young woman shared her struggle with schizophrenia and how working at Lotem was the best medicine. It reminded me so much of my work at Camp Twin Lakes and I was proud that our community supports this initiative. I met social workers, community leaders, parents of special needs children, and new immigrants from Ethiopia, all yearning to strengthen their local communities and maintain strong connections with their brothers and sisters across the Jewish world.
Politics caught up with me when I attended the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) board meeting. It opened on the same day as two controversial decisions in the Israeli government. First, the Cabinet voted to withdraw its earlier decision to recognize a prayer space at the Kotel/Western Wall that would be open to women, men, and families, to pray together and celebrate simchas at this sacred site; and second, a decision was made to advance legislation that would further tighten the ultra-orthodox monopoly on conversions.
Whether you were in Jerusalem, or home in Atlanta, these decisions felt like an insult and an act of delegitimization of the pluralistic Jewish community our Federation represents. Not since the “Who Is a Jew” upheaval of the late 1980’s has there been such a crisis of confidence between Israeli leaders and Jewish communities in the Diaspora.
I immediately mobilized our community and others in the Southeast and we drafted a letter to the Prime Minister, sent via the Consul General in Atlanta, to make clear the depth of our community’s disappointment with these decisions. Thousands of Israelis, including many from the Israeli branches of the Conservative and Reform movements, gathered in front of the Prime Minister’s residence after Shabbat in a dramatic demonstration in support of religious pluralism. I decided to join and brought Sasha along. It was important and empowering.
With these matters still on my mind, I took Sasha to Yad Vashem to learn about the Shoah. I have visited many times, but it was different to experience it through the eyes of an 11-year-old. As adults, we want to emphasize all that is positive about being Jewish, but the Holocaust and its devastating scars are also part of our story, and now it is Sasha’s as well. The visit also added an important historical perspective about European Jewry that framed our next stops in Budapest, Croatia, Minsk and Kiev.
Over the next number of days, I had an opportunity to journey to the West Bank, a part of the land of Israel where I had spent relatively little time on my many previous visits. Together with 25 American and Israeli Jewish community leaders I engaged in an interactive dialogue and listening experience with Palestinians. It was intense. Joining this dialogue provided an important, balanced and safe Jewish framework for engaging Palestinians about the “conflict,” an issue we all worry about back home in Atlanta. It reinforced the vital importance of mutual understanding, respectful dialogue and the urgency of finding a peaceful resolution of the conflict – which I believe is one of the toughest, most complex issues facing Israel and the Jewish people. In many respects, the experience strengthened my personal commitment to Israel, it humanized the “other” side, and it renewed my support for a strong American peacemaking role.
We have a generation of young Jews coming of age who are asking hard questions about Israel and the conflict. We can let them get their answers from the media – or even the more problematic “social media” – or we can try another approach. I don’t believe the young people should hear things on our terms. We need to provide space for our young people to have dialog and open discussion hearing all sides to this difficult and complex issue. We may be surprised that out of such a commitment to open and active dialogue there emerges a generation who can make a lasting contribution toward promoting peace, securing Israel’s future and solving this conflict.
On to Budapest and, wow, what a vibrant city! Its Jewish community rivals Atlanta, complete with a Moishe House and an innovation hub. All of this against the unsettling backdrop of billboards that recently sprung up targeting Hungarian-American Jew, George Soros, replete with anti-Semitic undertones. We visited an incredibly moving Holocaust memorial and a former Jewish ghetto that has become the hippest part of town. I also had the special experience of observing my mother’s yahrzeit at one of Budapest’s thriving Orthodox minyans.
Just a couple of hours outside Budapest sits the unforgettable Camp Szarvas. I’m a camp guy and I’ve seen plenty of camps in action, but Szarvas was truly unique. Here young Jews from all over the world come together to share a common summer camp experience. The music and dancing in the dining hall after lunch reminded me of every camp I have ever been a part of, but with a difference. Here everyone was celebrating a shared heritage and connection, in a land where, only 70 years ago, the Nazis tried to exterminate us. On the very ground where we were nearly annihilated, I was surrounded by young Jews who were looking to the future. The dancing never felt so alive.
From Hungary, I went on to Minsk, Belarus and Kiev, Ukraine for first-hand encounters with many of the programs supported by our Atlanta community. It was like visiting family — so warm, it was as if I knew these people all my life. These seniors reminded me of my early career when I directed Camp Isabella Freedman, a residential camp for older adults.
Thanks to technology, I stayed connected with Federation professionals and community leaders throughout the trip, particularly as Federation prepares to launch The Front Porch, our community-wide process to build a more vibrant and relevant Atlanta Jewish ecosystem for the next century. With The Front Porch, we are doing bold work – venturing into unknown territory and facing head-on the challenges that lie ahead, for our community and those around the country.
While I was on my trip, e-Jewish Philanthropy, a popular blog about Jewish nonprofits, published an article that pronounced collective giving and the Federation movement “dead,” citing data about flat or declining campaigns in several North American communities. I remain an optimist. I am bullish on the Jewish future and Federation’s role in shaping it. I will never forget the feeling of “return” I experienced coming back to Israel from Eastern Europe. I will never forget the miracle of young Jews in Minsk and Ukraine who are literally rebuilding Jewish life. I continue to draw energy and inspiration from our community’s next generation ambassadors in Israel. This trip illuminated that ours is a story of generations of growth, trauma, wandering, renewal and renaissance.
As a leader, it was exactly what I needed to remind myself that, to make giant leaps, we must take risks, that adapting to change is an essential part of our Jewish DNA. Generations ahead of us will need the chutzpah and vision we bring to this moment. I can’t wait to dive in with all you as together we write the next chapter of Jewish Atlanta’s incredible story.
June 20, 2017
Savoring summer. Preparing for fall.
As a lifelong lover of camp, summer is my favorite time of year. For me, it’s always been a time of personal growth — trying new things, visiting new places and meeting new people. I hope this summer will also be your time for personal renewal and growth.
I’m about to leave for a three-week trip to Israel, Budapest, Minsk and Kiev for a firsthand look at Federation’s amazing work in Europe and Israel. Before I go, I wanted to give you an update on Our Front Porch: Unlocking the (Incredible) Potential of Jewish Atlanta, the next stage of our work on re-imagining Jewish Atlanta and the relevance of Federation. The name is intentionally playful, signaling that we welcome everyone to join us in this important task
Beginning in August, and continuing through March 2018, we’ll be bringing all corners of the Jewish community onto the Front Porch to help map our future. Our meetings will be organized into several Platform Teams. The teams will include historic community partners, Jewish thought leaders, donors, board members, and other professionals, but we are also inviting people who might think of themselves on the fringes of the Jewish world — people of all ages, demographics and political points of view. We know that we won’t get it right unless we hear from a variety of voices. You can learn more about the process, and the time commitments we require, from Jodi Mansbach, Federation’s Chief Impact Officer, who is spearheading this effort at 404-870-1604 or email Jodi, firstname.lastname@example.org. I urge you to get involved.
I’m thrilled to see a true spirit of collaboration erupting all over town. Without a doubt, my most impactful and satisfying experiences as CEO at Camp Twin Lakes were about breaking down silos and creating collaborations that expanded every partner’s capacity. Here’s just a sampling of what I’m seeing around Jewish Atlanta.
- For the first time in memory, the CEOs of the MJCCA, Federation, Jewish Home Life Communities and JF&CS have a regular meeting together. It has moved mountains between us!
- The upcoming Community Leaders Trip to Israel (January 27-Febuary 3, 2018) will bring lay and professional community leaders, from our agencies, synagogues, and organizations to Israel together. We want to build relationships, create dialogue, and foster a love of Israel in our community. This is not a mission, it’s a communal leadership experience. Details to come.
- Around Aging and Disabilities, Federation took the lead to convene stakeholders from across the Jewish and non-Jewish community. We are now sharing data and prioritizing the greatest needs for maximum impact.
- Federation Under 40 recently partnered with One Table, PJ Library and Birthright Israel Atlanta Alumni Network, to host Shabbat Across the City. Thirty households stepped up to host Shabbat dinners, welcoming newcomers and creating a warm platform for discussion and friendship.
- “Farmer” Emily Blustein, Federation’s JOFEE Fellow, has been doing environmental education at our day schools and will be in residence at Ramah Darom all summer. She’s bringing Jewish values of environmental stewardship to adults, kids, families and seniors across our community.
- The MJCCA is bringing programming intown. They’re partnering with intown networks, established programs, and Jewish activists to build an even stronger Jewish community in our dynamic urban core.
There’s so much good work going on in Jewish Atlanta! Savor every sweet minute of summer, because school isn’t the only thing that starts in August. Our Front Porch teams convene in August and Campaign 2018 kicks off on September 5. What an exciting time this is!
May 23, 2017
Building Community from Within
I’m a firm believer that to become agents of change, we first need to change ourselves. It’s true in our personal lives as well as our professional lives. This kind of inner work is a delicate, sometimes even painful process, but it’s absolutely essential for lasting change. So, with a commitment do our inner work, Federation staff embarked on a process of internal change at a two-day retreat that we believe is a first step towards transforming the way we work together. It required honesty, trust, deep listening, and the ability to let go of the past.
The Jewish world talks a lot about the power of “immersive experiences” to ignite change. That’s why I wanted our staff to do our internal work in a place that would let us be immersive. We held our staff retreat at Ramah Darom, a Jewish summer camp and year-round retreat center that nourishes the spirit for kids and people of all ages. Freed from our desks, our commutes, and our phones, and even with the persistent rain, everyone responded to the beauty of early spring in the north Georgia Mountains. Nearly fifty of us spent two days in a facilitated process that is moving us forward to change our office culture and ultimately change the way we work across the community.
We didn’t do this work alone. Working with Liz Alperin Solms, Michele Reiner, and Grace Shim of Insyte Partners (the consulting group that is shaping Federation’s institutional transformation process) we were guided through small group work, team building exercises and larger discussions that allowed everyone to give voice to what is in their hearts and minds.
On our collective agenda:
- Break down silos
- Engage everyone in the solutions
- Honor multiple perspectives, no one way is right
- Commit to excellence and professional growth
- Inspire each other to shift the culture
In this relaxed and informal environment, anybody who wished to convene a small discussion group on any topic that burned inside them, was empowered do so. And people did! I was thrilled to hear new voices and new ideas emerge.
I cannot stress enough that our inner transformation as a Federation team lays the foundation for revitalizing how we work with the rest of Jewish Atlanta. Together we’ll wrestle with how we reshape the incredible infrastructure that already exists, and move forward to become the inclusive, loving and effective Jewish community that values and inspires everyone. Our work will accelerate over the next few months as Insyte Partners helps us bring more voices to the table.
Later in June, we’ll be convening community meetings around town to lay out the timetable and the component parts of the transformation plan. It’s my fervent hope you’ll want to be part of it. Shoot me an email if you have any questions, and let me know how you’d like to be involved. email@example.com
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: firstname.lastname@example.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.
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.
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 6 – Boycott, 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.
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 email@example.com.
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: firstname.lastname@example.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 email@example.com. Let me know what you’re thinking about!