Above: At the Federation annual meeting, (from left) Jewish Home Life Communities CEO Harley Tabak, incoming Federation CEO Eric Robbins, JF&CS CEO Rick Aranson and Marcus JCC CEO Jared Powers get together. (Photo by Patti Covert, Scenesations Photography)
The Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta will be an inclusive organization leading a Jewish community without barriers to entry once its transformation is complete, incoming CEO Eric Robbins promised during what served as his job acceptance speech at Federation’s annual meeting Tuesday, June 7.
The transformation he plans after he starts at Federation in August will “make this the best Jewish community, the most inspirational, the most inspiredly engaged community,” Robbins told the hundreds of people packed into the auditorium at the Selig Center. “Everybody who wants to be a part of that needs to be a part of that.”
Robbins, whose hiring from Camp Twin Lakes to replace Michael Horowitz was announced a month earlier, thanked the community leaders who built Federation the past 110 years and who had the confidence in him to take over at a critical time.
“This world is changing fast, and the Jewish community is changing maybe even faster,” Robbins said, citing the removal of social barriers to Jews in America, the extent of interfaith marriage and the Internet-driven shift to designated philanthropic giving.
“Institutional Judaism is on significant decline, but people still want community,” said Robbins, who has cited community building, not fundraising, as Federation’s primary mission. “They want to be connected. They want to connect to their faith. They want to connect to their peoplehood. They want to connect to our heritage. And they want to connect to each other, more so than ever.”
The twin values of kehilla (community) and tikkun olam (making the world better) are essential to build that connection and transform Federation, he said.
“This Jewish Federation needs to be more than just your grandparents’ Jewish Federation. Transformation — I can’t tell you what the outcome will look like, but I can tell you what the process will look like, and the process will include you. It will include determining what’s sacred here: What must we hold on to, and what is it OK to let go of?” Robbins said. That effort will involve looking at organizations that are similar to Federation and those that are different for models of how a broad-based community organization should operate in the 21st century.
Robbins said a full vision for Federation must come after the transformation, and “it won’t be my vision; it will be our vision.”
But he offered “guiding points of my life” to provide a glimpse at what he wants that vision to include:
- Compassion. “Those in our community or in Israel or around the world who need help are the absolute priority, and that will be forever.”
- Inclusiveness. “Regardless of your gift, whether you even give a gift, the size of your gift, whether you’ve been involved here before, whether your parents were involved, whatever it is — if you want to be here, you will be welcome.”
- Innovation. “As the institutionalized Jewish community is declining, there’s a place for innovators. They’re disrupting the system, and they’re showing that the people who are not involved and engaged now will come out and will engage. We have to see the innovators, and we have to nurture the innovators.” (One of the community’s innovators is his wife, Ana, the founder of Jewish Kids Groups, who joined him onstage with his daughter, Sasha, and the Weber School’s music director, Drew Cohen, for a rendition of Debbie Friedman’s version of the Shehecheyanu to close the annual meeting.)
- Communal spaces. “We need new spaces to live out our Judaism,” whether that means a Jewish farm or an Israel center.
- Non-Jewish involvement. “We need to be a face to the non-Jewish community. We need to show Atlanta that as a Jewish community, we care.” He cited a conversation the previous Friday with his barber, who said he didn’t have enough money to get a bad tooth treated. Robbins said he took out his phone and introduced the man to the Ben Massell Dental Clinic. “That made my Shabbat, that I could say the Jewish community has a place for him to go, and we should be proud of that.”
- Promotion of Judaism. “We need to turn people on to Judaism. It’s a phenomenal thing. We know. And if they live it and breathe it, they’ll love it, and it will make them better people.”
Robbins said one key to engaging more of Jewish Atlanta is to remove all barriers to gateway events and gateway organizations, such as preschools, day schools, camps, teen programming, Hillel and Birthright Israel.
While Robbins’ speech was the main attraction of Federation’s 110th annual meeting, the event also marked the July 1 transition from Howard Feinsand to Joel Marks as the organization’s top lay leader.
“It’s like being at your own funeral,” Feinsand said after hearing Temple Sinai Rabbi Ron Segal heap praise on him for his two years as chairman.
Feinsand said Federation, with its tightened community campaign schedule, its new Atlanta Jewish Foundation working on planned giving and its “remarkable resource” of 1,300 volunteers, is in a strong position to expand its impact under the leadership of Marks and Robbins.
But he urged patience with the changes to come: “Good things never happen as fast as we’d like.”
Marks, who presented a crystal flame to Feinsand as a thank-you gift, asked the audience for its trust and its help in setting the community tone through a period of change guided by a board he called “the most diverse and representative collection of leadership our community has ever assembled.”
He said he hopes Federation involvement grows to reflect the community makeup that will be revealed by the ongoing survey at IamJewishATL.com.
“Our mission — to engage, care for and strengthen our greater Atlanta Jewish community for the benefit of the Jewish people — is as important today as it was more than 100 years ago. That’s our why, and it’s uniquely ours,” Marks said.
While he was not as expansive as Robbins with the how, Marks did offer the community a lot of E’s to build on: “We will be an empathetic, engaging and exciting organization. We will educate, enable and empower our stakeholder. And we will earnestly serve our community.”
Federation also presented its annual awards:
- The Mary and Max London People Power Award to Creating Connected Communities founder Amy Zeide.
- The Marilyn Shubin Professional Staff Development Award to Stacy Brown, the director of 21st century learning at the Davis Academy.
- The Gerald H. Cohen Community Development Award to Amy Knopf, whose husband, Gary, accepted because she was home with a new baby.
- The Abe Schwartz Young Leadership Award to Avery Kastin.