“Thus, as G-d clothed Adam and Eve, federations were concerned about clothing the naked; as Abraham cared for strangers, federations cared for strangers; as G-d buried Moses, Jewish federations supported Jewish burial societies.”
— From an essay by Donald Feldstein in “A Portrait of the American Jewish Community” (1998)
“Money, pardon the expression, is like manure. It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around, encouraging young things to grow.”
— Ephraim Levi, philanthropist (as told by Dolly Levi)

Jewish life is built around rituals. Lighting candles on Shabbat. Fasting on Yom Kippur. Eating matzah during Passover.

Giving to the local Jewish Federation has been a ritual for American Jews for decades.

“By writing a single check for the Annual Campaign, the donor both fulfills a religious duty and contributes to the well-being of the community at home, in Israel, and around the world,” proclaims the website of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.

It’s reasonable to suggest that most of Atlanta’s 120,000-plus Jews have interacted with Federation — as a donor, as a volunteer, or as a recipient of services or a participant in a program by one of 60 social service agencies, schools, communal institutions and other organizations that Federation funds.

“If we didn’t have Federation, we’d have to invent it,” says Howard Feinsand, who heads Federation’s board of trustees.

“If we didn’t have Federation, we’d have to invent it,” says Howard Feinsand, who heads Federation’s board of trustees.

Its boosters like to say: If Federation didn’t exist, we would have to invent it.

Nevertheless, critics and allies — who often are one in the same, including some who asked not to be identified (“I have to work with these people,” one said) — question the relevance and future of the organization. As Federation seeks to clarify its communal purpose, it is searching for a new chief executive officer, preparing a new strategic plan, launching an update of its decade-old community profile and trying to connect with the millennial generation.

Meanwhile, giving to the annual campaign has rebounded in recent years but remains below a high reached nearly a decade ago, and criticism, much of it voiced privately, continues over Federation’s response to last year’s Iran nuclear deal.

The new CEO will take the helm of a charity at the financial heart of Jewish communal life in Atlanta. In its tax statement for fiscal 2013-14 (the most recent published), Federation reported assets of $146.1 million, revenue of nearly $41.3 million (including $39 million in contributions and grants) and expenses of $30.2 million (including $23.1 million in grants and contributions to other organizations and individuals). Nonprofits with 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status use the Internal Revenue Service’s Form 990.

Federation faces challenges from technology. The Internet allows research into organizations serving the Jewish world in a way not possible a generation ago. Why rely on Federation when you can do the homework and make direct donations yourself? Think of this as individualism vs. the collective.

Federation also is challenged by the fundraising prowess of other Jewish organizations, some of which it funds — a situation mitigated by coordinating approaches to major contributors.
Other challenges are demographic, such as the expansion of where Jews live in metro Atlanta, growth in the percentages of young and old, and the trend of non-Orthodox Jews marrying non-Jews. As the makeup of the community changes, so do the needs for services supported by Federation.

Federation’s professional and lay leaders acknowledge that to remain relevant, it must adapt its methods of fundraising and communication to changing realities.

“Our Federation here in Atlanta serves a crucial purpose,” raising a lot of money, facilitating collaboration within the Jewish community and ensuring the community’s continuity for generations to come, said Howard Feinsand, the chairman of the Federation board of trustees. “The Jewish community would be much the worse without the Federation.”

He acknowledged that the Federation model needs to be updated and could do things better. “Show me an organization that can’t. That’s a longer-term issue. There are some philosophic issues,” he said. “There is absolutely no question that the Federation is relevant and always will be relevant because of the people that work for them, that volunteer for them, and it’s the best way that I know of taking care of the Jewish community, better than any agency or school or synagogue.”

In the comments that followed a widely read article at eJewishPhilanthropy.com, provocatively titled “The Ugly Side of Jewish Federations,” an unnamed former executive declared that Federations are confronting “the struggle for relevancy that I believe all umbrella organizations faced then and still today.”

So what should Federation be?

“Instead of raising money for the annual campaign, make it about directing people to Jewish institutions,” said an Atlanta communal insider who asked not to be identified, echoing a comment heard from others. “The Federation needs to be the marketing firm for the community.”

Hiring a CEO

Decisions made in the months ahead will determine how Federation meets its stated mission of “strengthening community” in the future.
Michael Horowitz announced in September that he would be leaving after five years as CEO. His last day was in mid-February.

Until his replacement is named, Sheila Katz Cohen, the chief financial officer, and Amanda Abrams, the senior vice president of strategy planning and impact, are managing Federation operations, including a staff of about 60.

“Things are going very well,” Gerry Benjamin said about the CEO search. Benjamin, a former board president, heads the search committee.

Even before a search firm began its work in January, several candidates had “self-presented” interest in the position, he said.

Benjamin said that in addition to working with staff and some 1,350 volunteers a year, the new chief executive should have an understanding of social media and an ability to attract millennials.

An online posting read: “JFGA seeks a professional with demonstrated experience and success in four critical areas: building partnerships, strengthening and developing relationships, executive leadership and management and organization positioning. S/he must be conversant with a broad range of Jewish community issues locally, nationally and internationally, and be familiar with the systems that address these concerns. The new CEO must have a personal passion for Jewish community, continuity and peoplehood, and must inspire that passion in others. Transparency and integrity are key personal traits.”

No salary was specified. According to Federation’s tax return for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2014, Horowitz received compensation and benefits totaling $334,534, including a base salary of $291,692. He ranked 38th on a list the Forward published in late 2015 of the highest-paid executives of Jewish nonprofits in the country.

Benjamin said Federation expects to pay “market compensation” comparable to the heads of Federations in cities of similar size.

Federation has another vacancy in its executive ranks. Chief Development Officer Michael Balaban left just before Christmas to become the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Broward County in Florida. Benjamin said the hiring of Balaban’s successor will be left to the new CEO.

Benjamin rejected assertions that the Federation model is no longer relevant. “If you subscribe to our joint obligation to provide for Jews anywhere in the world, there is no more efficient way to do it.”

Connecting Donors

According to Federation’s website, “Through the generosity of our supporters, we touch the lives of thousands of people in our local Jewish community, in Israel and overseas. … With measurable results and fiscal sustainability as our guiding principle, we are in a very unique position to allocate funds based on the needs of the entire community.”

Federation allocates money to Jewish day schools and to programs for Jewish students at public high schools; to agencies that feed, clothe and counsel Jews and non-Jews; to programs for Jewish college students and recent graduates; to congregations spanning the denominations of American Judaism; to efforts to support the aging population of Holocaust survivors; to opportunities to enhance life for people with disabilities; and to groups in Israel and other nations.

Funds are earmarked to aid children, families and the elderly, to inspire young people to engage with the Jewish world, and to enhance security at Jewish institutions.

This work is supported by a staff of 53 full-time and seven part-time workers with a 2013-14 payroll of more than $3.72 million — overseen by 128 officers, trustees and other members of the Federation governing body.

The lifeblood of Federation is raised from an estimated 6,000 donors, for whom writing that check or making that pledge on Super Sunday means supporting the welfare of Jews locally, nationally, in Israel and elsewhere in the Diaspora.

When Federation marked the centennial of its predecessor welfare organizations in 2005-06, the annual campaign was going through a sustained period of annual growth, and leaders anticipated raising more than $20 million a year by the end of the decade.

Instead, the economic collapse of 2008 took a toll from which Federation is still recovering.

According to figures provided by Federation, the annual campaign peaked in fiscal 2006-07 at $18.2 million raised from more than 7,100 donors. The next year saw a slump to $15.6 million, and the campaign bottomed out at $14.1 million in 2010-11.

“With improvements in the economy, a repositioning of events, positioning key professionals as senior philanthropic advisers, a re-engagement model for several fundraising divisions, and utilization of targeted initiatives, the most recent campaigns have begun to rebound,” Federation spokeswoman Melissa Miller said.

The 2015 community campaign raised nearly $14.9 million, plus $4.7 million for impact priority areas. Targeted initiatives have included Jewish overnight camps, PJ Library (a program that distributes Jewish children’s books to families), the Holocaust Survivor Support Fund and Birthright Israel.

Miller said fundraising in the current 2016 campaign is ahead of schedule.

But the number of donors is still down almost 15 percent from 2007.

Reaching Millennials

Critical to the future of any charity is attracting millennials, the generation now roughly ages 18 to 34.

In the 2013 Pew Research Center study of American Jews, 68 percent of millennial Jews self-identified as “Jews by religion,” meaning that more than two-thirds considered themselves to be Jewish. The remaining 32 percent were classified as “Jews of no religion.” By comparison, 81 percent of Jewish baby boomers were “Jews by religion.”

Atlanta’s Federation is a legacy organization whose antecedents date back more than 110 years, while tech-savvy millennials are disruptors. The millennials, who outnumber the baby boomers, are said to be more interested in causes than organizations. They are less likely than their elders to be satisfied with writing a check, and they demand greater transparency from recipients of their donations.

As a rabbi working for the Conservative movement wrote, his fellow millennials want to be “co-creators” of their philanthropic experience.

Of the 6,000 donations to Federation last year, about 6 percent came from millennials, a figure likely to increase as their financial fortunes improve. “Even though many millennials have limited discretionary income, we have connected with them in order to build relationships — with us and with the broader Atlanta Jewish community — in anticipation of fostering future giving,” Miller said.

The idea that millennials will give more is validated by the Pew study, in which 56 percent of all Jews surveyed said they made donations to Jewish organizations. Giving by age category ranged from 39 percent among 18- to 29-year-olds to 71 percent among those age 65 and older. Of those earning less than $50,000 per year, 46 percent said they donated to Jewish organizations, compared with 64 percent of those earning more than $150,000.

“There are as many millennials as there are Boomers, and there are many more of them than Gen Xers. Given that millennials are poised to inherit $40 TRILLION, much of which will be donated to charity, the time is now to cultivate these high-capacity, young donors,” reads a report by the Jewish Funders Network.

“With around 80 million millennials coming of age, knowing how they spend their cash on causes is going to be critical for nonprofits. And their spending patterns aren’t the same as their parents,” Elaine Hu reported for National Public Radio.

Making an annual donation because “that’s what we do” is not millennials’ style.

Decades ago, there might have been a meeting at which an individual stood and declared how much his family would donate. That way the donor was identified and recognized as an upstanding member of the community.

In the new model, the meeting, such as it is, happens online. Millennials who see an appeal on a friend’s Facebook page and see that other friends are involved may make a small donation. Their small donations add up, and they become part of the philanthropic world — but not the same world as their parents or as the traditional structure of a Jewish Federation.

“It’s not just the tools; it’s the mindset. … The annual campaign doesn’t make any sense to these people. It’s a daily campaign. It’s a weekly campaign,” a communal veteran with experience raising money said.

Seth Cohen, who serves on the Federation board, says Jewish Federations must simultaneously lead and get out of the way.

Seth Cohen, who serves on the Federation board, says Jewish Federations must simultaneously lead and get out of the way.

“I think to a millennial, who’s grown up in a very different world — one that’s more participatory because of the digital tools that we have — to them they want to feel like they’re making an investment. Not just that they’re investing their capital, but they’re investing emotionally,” Amy Webb, who forecasts digital trends for nonprofit organizations and for-profit companies, told NPR.

That participatory bent propels millennials to invest in causes rather than organizations. “Individuals want to be part of something bigger than themselves but not at the cost of being themselves,” said Seth Cohen, the director of network initiatives for the Schusterman Family Foundation, which supports efforts by young Jewish adults “to create Jewish experiences and communities for themselves and their peers,” according to its website.

Cohen is a Federation board member and former chairman of its allocation committee, as well as former president of the JF&CS board.

He recently was quoted in the English-language edition of the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz in an article about how young Jews in New York are creating their Jewish experiences outside traditional structures. “This is the age of hyper-curation,” Cohen said. “If you can curate everything in your life, why shouldn’t you be able to curate your Jewish experiences?”

Feinsand said that in addition to basic management capabilities, Federation is looking for a CEO who is a “great communicator,” including the ability to reach millennials. “You have people that you need to communicate with and make them understand” their role in the future of Federation’s mission, he said. “You have to use today’s English, today’s media, things that matter” to them.

One successful effort is Federation LEADS (Leadership Education and Development Series), begun in 2014 and led by peer volunteers. Participants ages 22 to 40 years old are divided into groups based on age and where they live to “talk about contemporary Jewish topics that are relevant to millennials who are exploring what their Judaism means for them,” Miller said. “This year, all 50 LEADS leaders have contributed to the campaign. With more than 300 LEADS alumni in a year and a half, we are seeing how young adults are both creating meaningful and lasting friendships and thus participating in more Jewish programming across Atlanta.”

Making One Stop

The first Federation was created in 1895 in Boston and “brought together under one umbrella all the different local fundraising groups,” according to “A Portrait of the American Jewish Community.” This new organization “offered the first one-stop philanthropy ever formed on this continent.”

Today there are 151 local Jewish Federations across the United States and Canada (and some 300 smaller community networks). They collectively raised more than $900 million last year. But four decades earlier in 1974, the year after the Yom Kippur War, Federations raised $686 million, the equivalent of nearly $3.3 billion today.

The inflation-adjusted decline in giving supports critics’ contention that the one-stop-shop model — donors give and Federation allocates — has become outdated.

Last summer, a “long-time Federation professional” using the pen name Uzi ben Gibor posted the eJewishPhilanthropy article “The Ugly Side of Jewish Federations.” Its appearance sparked a lively discussion, including accusations that the author violated the biblical injunction against lashon hara (speaking evil).

In the comments posted with the article, Josh Feigelson, founder and director of Ask Big Questions, an initiative of Hillel International, wrote: “Yes, federations are conservative organizations — because they aim to be big tents. And now we’ve spawned a ‘Jewish innovation sector’ in contradistinction to the ‘non-innovative’ world of federations (painting with a broad brush), and there’s good stuff happening there in congregational life and Jewish education. In many ways, I don’t think Federations should be in the education or congregation business — give block grants and let people be innovative. But they absolutely must be in the businesses that they’re good at — feeding the hungry, housing the poor, healing the sick, tending to the aged. If we tear down this system, I truly fear for the unintended damage we will cause to the most vulnerable in our communities.”

In that same discussion, Balaban, then still in Atlanta, wrote: “I am proud that my Federation in Atlanta and our Leaders recognize that for Federation and community to be relevant our work must be marked by a sense of restlessness, a certain malcontentedness focused on raising the bar of excellence across the breadth and depth of our community and thus transforming Federation. I find this same understanding from my colleagues across the Federated system. …

“Has Federation made our community better — absolutely — whether from the perspective of the family whose child is experiencing the joy of Jewish summer camp for the first time, the young adult exploring Israel, the family that received an interest free loan, the upstart Jewish education program that needed incubating or the senior who lives a more dignified life, we impact and improve lives every day and make the Jewish world a better place.

“Where we need help — all of us, Federation, Synagogues, JCCs, etc. … is that we must foster ownership in our community by the members of our community. Too many individuals opt out (and yes, some of the blame lays with institutions that have been less than welcoming). However, it has been said that ‘no one pays to wash a rental car.’ Building a Jewish community should not be seen simply as charity. We are in the business of building a Jewish community not only for others, but for ourselves. Our work is not only for those less fortunate than we, but for our children’s children, and our grandparents, for our families and our friends — for those who discount our work I say, stop renting, get involved and own the responsibility to have your Federation reflect the vibrancy Jewish life needs it to be.”

Balaban declined to be interviewed for this article.

Steve Rakitt, the former Atlanta Federation leader who is the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, took a contrarian approach: “Federations are legacy institutions that have become countercultural. In an age of rampant individualism, we proudly promote collectivism. In an age of ‘What’s in it for me?’ we ask, ‘What’s in it for the community?’ And at a time when philanthropy is increasingly targeted, we say that no one gift touches more lives. And that is what’s most important. We touch, change and save thousands of lives every day. We convene important communal discussions and take decisive action. We partner with, and support, a vast network of social, educational and Jewish identity-building services and programs which are making a profound difference in Jewish lives and in our communities. We help shape the Jewish future.”

Competing for Dollars

For its efforts to shape that future in 2013-14, Federation received a four-star “highly rated” grade from Charity Navigator, which bills itself as “the nation’s largest and most-utilized evaluator of charities.”

Federation’s score of 93.28 out of 100 was a combination of its marks for financials, accountability and transparency. On the financial side, JFGA’s rating was based on 89.9 percent of its expenses being for programs, with just 4.1 percent going to administrative costs and 5.8 percent for fundraising expenses.

“Ensuring a Jewish Future” accounted for 72.3 percent of program spending, or $19.7 million, according to the fiscal 2013-14 tax forms. The building blocks of that future are education, camp programs and trips, connections with Israel, and aid for Jewish organizations in other countries.

“Caring for Jews in Need” claimed 14.3 percent ($3.9 million). That money supports a safety net for seniors and programs for youths, families and people with special needs.

“Strengthening Jewish Community,” which accounted for 9.9 percent ($2.7 million), trains leadership and promotes participation by adults and youths in communal affairs.

Federation provides substantial portions of the budgets of its recipients, but those schools, social service agencies and other organizations also seek donations on their own, often dipping into the same pool of givers.

To give it a clear path when it launches its annual campaign, Federation enforces a blackout period each September and October, during which Federation, but not the organizations receiving its funds, may solicit donations.

“They have outgrown any one organization’s ability to provide them with all of their funding,” Feinsand said of Federation’s beneficiary agencies. “You can say it’s competition, but we don’t feel it’s competitive. … I don’t think we feel that it’s a zero-sum game and competitive with our affiliates.”

Itai Tsur, who leads the recently renamed Atlanta Jewish Foundation on behalf of Federation, has the responsibility of focusing on planned giving.

Itai Tsur, who leads the recently renamed Atlanta Jewish Foundation on behalf of Federation, has the responsibility of focusing on planned giving.

One method to avoid a zero-sum game is called Create a Jewish Legacy, a model employed in numerous cities. Federation and its affiliates work together “to secure legacy gifts for the community, regardless of the organization or institution that serves as the ultimate beneficiary,” said Itai Tsur, who manages Federation’s endowment as the senior director of the Atlanta Jewish Foundation. “Additionally, for current gifts, we regularly establish endowments and other planned gifts in partnership with other agencies and institutions, regardless of whether Federation is the current or ultimate beneficiary of those gifts.”

Testimonials from Federation affiliates are easily garnered.

Jewish Family & Career Services is one of the largest recipients, getting more than $1.46 million in fiscal 2013-14. “Federation has been and continues to be JF&CS’ largest funder, and we are deeply grateful for this support,” CEO Rick Aranson said. “Funds provided by the Federation enable JF&CS to operate mission-critical programs and services that address unmet community needs. While we appeal to some of the same donors, we don’t feel that this is a competition. We have a generous community, and we rely on donors to make their own decisions regarding their philanthropy.”

Douglas Kuniansky, the chairman of the board of the Marcus Jewish Community Center (more than $1.44 million in fiscal 2013-14), downplayed any competition. “The MJCCA and JFGA work as a collaborative, a partnership. Not only does JFGA provide much-needed funding to the MJCCA so we can deliver our crucial programming and services, but we also work together to fulfill needs in the greater Atlanta community. JFGA monitors the needs of the Jewish community, and they look to the MJCCA to deliver programs and services that address those needs. A perfect example is the special needs and inclusion programming we are now offering. JFGA’s Jewish Abilities Alliance evaluated the needs of a specific population, and we are one of the agencies delivering the services to address those needs.

“The challenge for our community isn’t organizations competing for community dollars, but rather expanding the community’s donor base. We need for Jews throughout greater Atlanta to understand the value of strengthening our community by supporting all of these important Jewish organizations.”

Amy Shafron, the head of school at the Davis Academy, said: “These funds are essential in helping ensure Davis’ commitment not only to educational excellence, but also to Jewish continuity. The Federation’s community campaign funds provide tuition assistance for families who may otherwise not have access to a Jewish day school education, and while these funds do not meet the totality of the school’s fundraising needs, they are truly vital.”

“We appreciate the allocation from the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta that supports the ongoing expansion of the curriculum and programming of the Weber School,” said Rabbi Ed Harwitz, the high school’s head of school.

The Atlanta Jewish Music Festival, now in the middle of its seventh spring festival, has benefited from mini-grants. AJMF’s founder and executive director, Russell Gottschalk, said Federation funding “plays a huge role in the success and vitality of AJMF. … But if you look at the numbers, their annual support is a small slice of our revenue. So I would argue that the act of JFGA’s funding means more than their actual funds. Validation from a legacy, community-wide organization like JFGA opens doors to other potential supporters.”

Gottschalk’s bottom line: “I think their cash is helpful, but their cachet is more important.”

Choosing Recipients

Federation has “many different criteria for receiving a grant/donation and a multitude of ways to receive,” Senior VP Abrams said. “In addition, our partners are evaluated to ensure the work we fund aligns with our mission and ensure that what Federation funds is meeting its intended outcomes, as defined by the organization.”

Davis Academy Head of School Amy Shafron says the funds Federation provides to the Reform day school, while covering only part of the budget, “are truly vital.”

Davis Academy Head of School Amy Shafron says the funds Federation provides to the Reform day school, while covering only part of the budget, “are truly vital.”

But not every recipient listed on its Form 990 appears aligned with Federation’s stated purposes: “Ensuring a Jewish Future”; “Caring for Jews in Need”; and “Strengthening Jewish Community.” That’s because the tax form properly groups campaign fund distributions with donor-advised funds.

The average donor, uninitiated in the business of philanthropy, might be surprised when reading the fiscal 2013-14 tax form by donations such as:
• $63,000 (after $35,000 in fiscal 2012-13) to the University of Kentucky Athletic Association’s K Fund.
• $95,000 to the VMP Nutrition Foundation, connected to a Fort Worth, Texas, manufacturer of nutritional supplements.
• $29,320 (after $721,800 in fiscal 2012-13) to Planned Parenthood.

Or donations in previous years to the booster club for the baseball team at Walton High School, the Clinton Foundation and Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.

All came from donor-advised funds, a tool of growing popularity in philanthropy.

A donor-advised fund begins with an irrevocable donation of cash or securities to Federation, which then owns the assets.

“The donor and designated advisors may recommend distributions from the fund to public charities whose purposes generally are in furtherance of the purposes of Federation. These recommendations are advisory only, and Federation has the final authority to approve the grant recommendations,” Federation’s website reads.

Tsur, who oversees this program, said Federation “vets the organizations and programs that donors suggest and reserves the right to follow or not follow those suggestions on a case-by-case basis.”
Tax forms list the largest contributions but do not name the donors or specify whether their gifts went to the community campaign or to donor-advised funds. But sometimes you can spot connections. Federation’s largest grant in fiscal 2013-14 was $7.29 million to the American Friends of the Israel Democracy Institute, whose international chairman is Bernie Marcus, co-founder of the Home Depot and Federation life trustee. The largest gift Federation received that year was 100,000 shares of Home Depot stock, valued at close to $7.62 million. The next largest gift was more than $4.95 million in stock in the financial technology firm GreenSky Founders.

Federation charges a fee for its handling of donor-advised funds and takes care of the paperwork and administration. In addition to the tax incentives for charitable giving, donors gain the ability to remain anonymous by giving through such funds.

Federation follows the law in not differentiating on its tax forms between grants from donor-advised funds and those from the community campaign. If you want to know, you have to ask.

Federation listed 389 donor-advised funds and similar accounts on its fiscal 2013-14 Form 990. Grants totaling nearly $16.3 million were made from donor-advised funds, including $3.7 million to Federation programs (beyond the $22.7 million in grants and donations Federation made to other organizations in 2013-14).

The math illustrates the importance of donor-advised funds: $12.6 million from those funds accounted for 55 percent of Federation’s grants and donations in 2013-14 and 41 percent of its total program expenditures.

“Our hope is that as much of this philanthropy will go to benefit mission-aligned causes, but recognize that as this is a giving mechanism, and the primary source of giving for many of our donors, donor-advised funds are used to make funding recommendations for a variety of different causes, Jewish and otherwise,” Federation spokeswoman Miller said.

Supporting Israel

Outside Atlanta, Israel is Federation’s largest beneficiary.

Victory in the 1967 Six-Day War sparked a surge of Jewish pride and made aiding Israel a priority for Federations. The Forward reported that in 1974, two-thirds of the money raised by Federations nationally was sent to Israel and other overseas venues. Last year, that figure reportedly was about one-sixth.

Atlanta’s percentage to Israel and elsewhere overseas was 37 percent, more than double the national figure, in the 2015 allocation process, Miller said.

Federation in fiscal 2013-14 sent shy of $3.4 million to umbrella organization Jewish Federations of North America. In addition to dues, a large portion of that money was designated for the Jewish Agency for Israel ($2.27 million), which connects Jews to Israel, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee ($1.04 million), an international relief organization.

Federation’s vice president of philanthropic advancement, Susan Moray, touted the impact of donations to Israel in a blog reviewing her recent visit with colleagues from other communities.

“On our trip I was shown the power of our Federation dollars as they are tackling some of these critical issues. Our overseas partners are working on our behalf to ensure pluralism is taken seriously and that there is true freedom of religion. They have ensured that Jewish marriages, not just common-law ones, are recognized even for people who choose to marry in a ceremony that is not consistent with the Rabbinate’s guidelines. They have created a community center that is building stronger relationships between Jewish Israelis and Israeli Arabs. They are developing employment programs to transition Haredi men into the work force, and educational programs for their sons,” Moray wrote.

Taking Stands

Atlanta’s decision to join last year’s chorus of Federations that issued statements opposing or expressing concern about the international nuclear weapons agreement with Iran was not universally applauded.

In an Aug. 18 statement Federation acknowledged “that its views cannot be assumed to represent the views and opinions of the entire Atlanta Jewish Community. Many thoughtful and well-meaning people have or will reach different conclusions. But as longtime and strong supporters of the people of the State of Israel, the Executive Committee of Federation believes that it must express its concerns, doing so as a matter of policy and not political partisanship.”

Federation officials said the organization was not pressured by Jewish Federations of North America or other parties to issue the statement.

The Atlanta Federation urged “Congress to give this accord its utmost scrutiny” and added, “While some commentary has suggested that the sole alternative to accepting this deal as presented is war, we believe that other options and possibilities are available to address the numerous legitimate concerns raised by so many and thus do not support the JCPOA as it is currently written.”

Horowitz discussed the reaction to the statement in a blog post nine days later. “I received many emails and comments. Many thanked us for taking that position, but others were highly critical because our statement was ‘too weak’ and did not clearly say that we were opposed. Some of those threatened to pull their financial support of Federation, suggesting that not providing help to care for those in need and build a strong Jewish future was the appropriate way to ‘punish us’ for having taken a position. Many of those emails used inappropriate comments about our President and others. Others were highly critical of our position arguing in favor of the deal, but once again, used terms, words and phrases that went beyond policy debate and labeled those opposed inappropriately. And finally, many simply were offended that we made any statement, suggesting that Federation was not in the business of doing so. Some of those emails came from those who oppose the agreement, but the vast majority came from those who support it. And once again, many threatened to pull their financial support to Federation.”

Six months later, Feinsand said, “There are times when the Federation is looked at by many in the community to take a position, and we talked about this at great length in the executive committee of the Federation and understood that the Federation could not take a position on either side and agreed to issue and did issue a neutral statement.”

Counting Population

A decade after funding its last Jewish population study of Greater Atlanta, Federation has contracted for an update. The new data will help planners understand the Jewish community it serves and sometimes represents.

The 2006 survey’s estimate of 119,800 “Jewish persons” in 61,300 Jewish households lifted Atlanta to the 11th-largest Jewish community in the United States from 17th in 1996. The population had increased 56 percent from the 1996 estimate of 78,000 Jews.

The Jewish community grew as the metro area grew: Jewish households accounted for 4.3 percent of all households in 2006 and 4.4 percent in 1996.

Although annual population estimates are questionable — the 2010 census set the Atlanta metro population lower than the Census Bureau’s estimates for the previous two years — the area is believed to have grown about 10 percent in the past decade. Similar growth in the Jewish population would result in a community of more than 130,000.

The new survey may redefine what Jewish Atlanta looks like by showing, among other things:
• Whether the community continues to attract newcomers (31 percent of households had come to Atlanta between 1996 and 2006, compared with 21 percent who had been here at least 40 years).
• Whether the segment of the community 65 and older (12 percent in 2006) has increased as baby boomers have aged and retired parents have moved to Atlanta to be near family. One communal insider warned that the community may face a critical need for aging services the next five years.
• Whether anecdotal evidence accurately reflects an increase in the Jewish population south of the city (about 4.5 percent in 2006).
• Whether intermarried households (50 percent of married couples in 2006, up from 37 percent in 1996) and those intermarrieds raising children (41 percent of children under age 18 in the 2006 survey) continue to grow.

The updated survey will help Federation implement a three-year strategic plan expected to be complete this spring, timed to the arrival of the new CEO.

“We will be developing initiatives focused on things like better use of technology to improve the donor experience, increased opportunities for transformational gifts beyond the unrestricted annual campaign, more focus on endowed giving opportunities as one might see at an institution of higher education or in the medical world, and providing more opportunities for donors to increase their philanthropic giving through Federation in support of identified community needs that align with that donor’s interests,” Abrams said.

Steering the Future

If you compare Federation to an aircraft carrier, an enormous craft that requires time to pivot in the water, you understand that any change will come gradually. The risk, as more than one person interviewed warned, is that by the time Federation adapts to the changing community and world of philanthropy, smaller and more flexible organizations could fill the gaps and render Federation less important.

There is no consensus on how Federation should chart its course, but those interviewed generally agreed that wider community involvement — in programs that enhance life as a Jew and in programs that enhance communal opportunities — will be critical. Federation’s future will begin as a new CEO is hired, a new strategic plan is put into place and a new community study provides necessary data.

In 2009, Seth Cohen was not optimistic about the future of Jewish Federations. “We must have the strength to come to a fundamental realization about the state of the Federation Movement as embodied by our current Federation system — it is dead,” Cohen wrote in an article republished by eJewishPhilanthropy. “But in its death, it presents an opportunity for it to be reborn. While the basis of its need still exists, we have long ago outgrown the humble origins of the Federation system. The history of its birth, its growth, and its decline is a great chapter in American Jewry. But it is only a chapter. … There must be another.”

Now with the Schusterman Foundation, with offices at Atlantic Station, Cohen said: “The Federations, to be relevant, need to simultaneously do the impossible task of leading, following and getting out of the way, all at the same time. That means making use of tools available, including social media, to lead the conversation; follow when other agencies are leading or highlighting an issue; and, when things develop in which the Federation has no role, get out of the way and don’t impede.”

Feinsand envisions Federation maintaining its role.
“There are parts of the community that are in need that are part of our mission, that are part of the Jewish community mission, that are not covered by the organizations. … There are gaps. We serve those gaps. We identify those gaps,” he said. “There’s no organization in the community that covers everything. Our mission is to look at the whole community and always will be. … If we didn’t have Federation, we’d have to invent it. There’s just things that you need to have a central organization for.”