December 15, 2017
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:
Visit Taglit 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 of Jindas 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:
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, email@example.com. 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.
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:
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. firstname.lastname@example.org
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:
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.
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.
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: email@example.com
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
January 24, 2017
Shabbat Shalom in Toco Hills
As Ana and I continue to learn about Atlanta’s Jewish communities, we spent the cold and icy weekend of January 6-7 “embedded” in what is surely one of Atlanta’s warmest, most vibrant Jewish micro-communities — Toco Hills. We experienced Shabbat from beginning to end, discovering a depth of hospitality and harmony that is beautiful and all too rare. Over the course of 25 hours, we were embraced by a unique Jewish community that is incredibly diverse and cohesive at the same time.
On Shabbat morning, Rabbi Adam Starr graciously offered me a chance to speak at Young Israel of Toco Hills. I commented on the weekly Torah portion, Vayigash, near the end of the Joseph story. In retrospect, I couldn’t have imaged a more relevant teaching than the way Joseph’s fractured family ultimately resolves years of misunderstanding and resentment. In the very next portion Jacob, the patriarch, blesses his sons, acknowledging each brother’s unique role. That kind of unity within diversity is exactly what I saw in Toco Hills.
I’m sure many of you have seen the parade of families streaming up and down LaVista Road on Shabbat, coming and going to synagogue, or carrying potluck dishes on their way to meals with friends. Within the eruv (the ritual enclosure that permits Jewish residents or visitors to carry certain objects in public on Shabbat) that delineates this community are at least five congregations. They range from Reconstructionist, modern and traditional Orthodox, to Sephardic and Persian. On any given Shabbat, you’ll see women covering their heads in scarves, wigs, and hats, or nothing at all. You’ll see men wearing knitted kippahs, black kippahs, fedoras and fur-rimmed shtreimels. It’s a glorious sight.
Because Toco Hills has proximity to the CDC, Emory University and several hospitals, the community is full of men and women who are doctors, lawyers, academics, public health professionals, teachers and innovators. It’s an intellectual oasis. Though many people we met grew up with secular Jewish backgrounds, they’ve chosen this committed, observant Jewish life and are passionate about sharing it.
They care intensely about education, Jewish camp, Israel, the obligation of tzedakah, and each other. When a family is in need, the word goes out across Toco Hills and suddenly meals are delivered, children are driven to school, and prayers are offered. Families are large, but generosity runs deep. An incredible 40% of the donations supporting relief after the fires in Israel came from members of Young Israel of Toco Hills.
Unity within diversity. It’s right here in our Toco Hills Jewish community. And if you want to experience it, just call any of the synagogues along LaVista Road and ask to be invited. I guarantee you’ll find a Shabbat table to join, a warm place to sleep, and an unforgettable Jewish welcome.
All our Atlanta Jewish micro-communities have something to teach, and I look forward to immersing myself each of them.
November 22, 2016
Message From Eric
I love Thanksgiving. And this year, it couldn’t arrive sooner.
At this divisive moment in our history, how desperately we need to connect with the oneness and unity of this sacred day. We are a divided community and we need to heal. Yet we cannot call ourselves pluralistic, diverse, and tolerant if we ignore significant voices in our community and refuse to engage with them in an inclusive dialogue.
Does that mean we never make statements on issues of the day? No. It means that we’re respectful, careful, and mindful of the impact of what we say. And here’s another idea — I just learned about a beautiful new initiative here in Atlanta that uses Shabbat dinner as a platform for healing through thoughtful, constructive conversation. Find out more here.
Thanksgiving also reminds me how much I enjoy the balancing act of living in the Jewish world and the secular world. As Jewish-Americans we actually multiply our opportunities to express our gratitude and connect with each other. We just celebrated the harvest festival of Sukkot with uniquely Jewish symbols — the lulav, the etrog, and the sukkah — as thanks for G-d‘s bounty and protection in a fragile world. Later this week we’ll do the same with iconic American traditions — turkey, cranberry sauce, pumpkins and football.
Similarly, how lucky we are to have two new year celebrations — Rosh Hashanah for self-reflection and gratitude; the secular New Year for a fresh start and a bit of fun. Both are important ways to solidify our commitments to community, family and self.
For me this is the perfect moment to express my thanks to all of you in our community who have given me input and wise counsel over the last 100 days. I am grateful to all who came before me as the builders of this remarkable Jewish community. I am incredibly thankful to the Federation staff, our tireless volunteers, our donors, the staff of our affiliate organizations, the leaders of our synagogues and all of you who’ve engaged me in important conversations wherever I go in Jewish Atlanta. The sheer number of hours you have spent advising me, challenging me, bringing me up to speed, and laying a foundation for my success, is humbling. One thing is crystal clear: our desire to build an even more dynamic, innovative and beloved Atlanta Jewish community hinges on collaboration. My prayer for Thanksgiving is that the new ground we plow together, and the seeds of change we plant, will yield an amazing future harvest for which our children will always be grateful.
October 26, 2016
Writing our next chapter.
It’s the end of my first three months as your CEO. I’m still in listening mode and my days are still packed with breakfasts, coffees, and meetings and conversations with community leaders. Yet I’m energized by the head nods I see when I talk about a more collaborative and less siloed Jewish community infrastructure. It’s equally exciting to learn about some of the creative grassroots Jewish initiatives that are popping up around Atlanta, with the potential to engage Jews we’ve never reached before. Did you know that Intown Atlanta now has a chapter of J-WOW (Jewish Without Walls), a volunteer-led organization that builds Jewish community across denominations and affiliations? Jewish social justice Shabbat dinners are happening around the city, and other Jewish points of connection are bubbling up, from Rosh Chodesh groups to havurahs. Combine all of this with the incredible strength and new leadership of our established organizations, and our next chapter is already being written.
Here’s what I’ve synthesized as fertile areas for change, with some hints to what could become key parts of a new Federation agenda and guiding thoughts for a vision that is emerging:
Please share your thoughts and ideas for Jewish Atlanta’s next chapter with me: email@example.com
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:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Let me know what you’re thinking about!