Fourteen months ago, as the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta sought a new chief executive officer, I compared the agency to “an aircraft carrier, an enormous craft that requires time to pivot in the water.”
Last June, before Eric Robbins took the helm and began to chart a new course, Federation asked Jewish Atlanta to evaluate the services and programs available in the community and to project needs for the future.
The conclusions, drawn from the responses of 3,364 people, suggest that the status quo has failed segments of the community.
One of the people interviewed for the March 2016 article about Federation’s future said, “Instead of raising money for the annual campaign, make it about directing people to Jewish institutions. … The Federation needs to be the marketing firm for the community.”
Addressing the product comes first, before the marketing.
Robbins, a self-described disruptor, recently told the Atlanta Jewish Times’ Jewish Breakfast Club, “We need to change, to experiment, to fail.”
Suggesting that Federation is needed less (though still needed) for its fundraising prowess than for its potential to coordinate the offerings of several dozen organizations, he added: “What got us here will not get us there.”
Here’s one idea for a new slogan: “Federation: It’s not just for your checkbook anymore.”
The survey found that the long-established, “legacy” organizations do a good job serving the clientele they’ve always served.
However, because Atlanta is a “patchwork of smaller, Jewish communities, NOT one single, unified Jewish community,” the current structure is “not especially welcoming or supportive, especially to those outside the already engaged ‘core.’ ”
Those feeling themselves “on the margins,” as the survey report put it — or “under-engaged,” a phrase used by another Federation official — include the LGBTQ community, Jews who come from outside the United States, singles (particularly older singles), those who are divorced, Jews of color and interfaith households.
The silver lining: “The potential for growing involvement in the Jewish community is high if gaps are filled and underserved needs are met.”
One cloud is the distance people must travel in Atlanta’s nightmarish traffic to reach services and programs.
Another is cost.
“This concern is most often focused on two aspects of Jewish life: the high cost of education and other activities for children (e.g., overnight camp, preschool, Hebrew school), and synagogue membership. Additionally, respondents mention being shut out of the JCC and other Jewish programs and activities because of cost,” the report reads.
Jewish options may be preferred, but non-Jewish choices often are made because they are more affordable and more accessible.
Robbins suggested that, because synagogues are the only brick-and-mortar institutions spread throughout the Jewish community, organizations might expand their reach by situating services and programs in available synagogue facilities.
One trend highlighted by the survey is that, as baby boomers age (and more desire to “age in place”), the services offered to those 65 and older will require adjustment. Compounding that shift, 18 percent of respondents expect to “see their aging parents and/or relatives relocate to the Atlanta Metro area over the next few years.”
As opposed to Federation’s demographics-based reports conducted in 1996 and 2006, this survey focused on programs and services.
Though the report breaks down respondents by such categories as residence, race, income and education, its methodology prevents extrapolating to create a demographic profile of the community, starting with the metro area’s Jewish population.
The 2006 estimate was 120,000. If, as believed, the Jewish community has grown at the same rate as the metro population, then slightly more than 130,000 is a reasonable figure now.
By denomination, 40 percent of the respondents identified with the Conservative movement (compared with the 18 percent of American Jews who identify as such), suggesting that the Conservative congregations did a particularly good job of promoting the survey.
The Reform movement accounted for 36 percent, and 12 percent identified as Orthodox. Those classified as secular/just Jewish accounted for 9 percent, and 3 percent were “other” (Reconstructionist, postdenominational, etc.).