Federation looks back at 5778, ahead to ’79

Federation looks back at 5778, ahead to ’79

An interview with Keith Krivitzky, CEO of the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey

Gabe Kahn is the editor of The New Jersey Jewish News.

Keith Krivitzky is CEO of the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey, a multimillion-dollar enterprise that serves the 120,000-plus Jews in greater Middlesex and Monmouth counties. Prior to assuming this role, Krivitzky was executive director of the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County; vice president of the Center for Jewish Philanthropy at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle; associate director of development at the Hillel International Center; director of Hillel’s Taglit-Birthright Israel trips; and director of development for Hillel’s International Programs.

Krivitzky has amassed more than 25 years of experience in development and innovation for non-profit organizations, has a B.A. in Politics & Near Eastern Studies from Princeton, and an M.B.A. from the Smith School of Business, University of Maryland. He contributes articles frequently to Jewish publications and speaks before numerous professional and volunteer groups.

In the days leading up to Rosh HaShanah, NJJN had the opportunity to sit down with Krivitzky to discuss the year that was for the Central N.J. Jewish community and the Federation, and the challenges — and opportunities — he envisions in the year to come:

NJJN: What are the biggest challenges you see facing the Jewish community?
Keith Krivitzky: Unfortunately, there are several. From demographics — including a growing senior segment of our population, increasing needs for Holocaust survivors, and synagogues struggling with membership — to growing divisions and differing politics within our community to a decrease in Jewish identification and connection. It feels like something of a perfect storm.

Particularly concerning is the growing divide between Jews in this country and in Israel. It used to be that these two communities felt their fates were tied; now Jews here and in Israel feel more distance or alienated from the other. Many, perhaps most, Jews in our community these days don’t know what they think about Israel, or worse, why they should care. And many, perhaps most, Jews in Israel feel less supported or dependent on their fellow Jews living in America. The question is how can we bridge this distance and still get along as one extended Jewish family?

But challenges such as these are why our Federation is here. We focus on the issues and problems that face the Jewish people and seek to help and address crises and challenges. That’s our role and we are uniquely positioned to have an impact in these areas. And I remain an optimist. As a colleague recently said, the glass may be half-empty, but we can fill the glass, possibly for the first time in the history of our people.

NJJN: Building on that positive note, what are the opportunities?
Krivitzky: There is much our community has to celebrate, and we need to share those aspects more often, demonstrate hakarat hatov (recognizing what’s good), since that also will encourage more people to get engaged Jewishly. Most Jews haven’t made a conscious decision that they are not interested in Jewish life or activity — they just haven’t been offered a compelling option. It’s our responsibility to change that, but it will take new and different

There are great ways for people in our community to get involved and make a difference. Some quick examples: We have two new youth ambassadors coming from Israel, Maya and Dana, who will be building bridges with Israel and the variety of people and flavors comprising Israeli society — especially among kids and youth. We are launching a Jewish Chamber of Commerce to establish more professional networking opportunities in the area. More than 150 people from the Heart of NJ will be traveling with us on our Journey to the Four Corners of Israel. And we are expanding our teen philanthropy and leadership

NJJN: Regarding philanthropy, is the model of umbrella giving passé?Krivitzky: Today’s Federation is not like our parents’ federations, or that of our grandparents. The core mission is the same — strengthening the Jewish people and helping those in our community least able to help themselves. But today’s circumstances are different, the needs have changed — and in many cases are even more pressing — and so the Federation’s approach needs to evolve.

People want to support particular programs or causes. We enable people to support targeted efforts to address what we see as the key issues facing our Jewish community and the Jewish people — from fighting anti-Semitism to building bridges with Israel…and through our annual campaign we ensure that our patrons’ dollars go where they are needed most.

NJJN: How does the Federation handle the delicate external issues affecting the community, such as the divided political climate, the Iran deal, or the situation in Israel, which now includes the nation-state law? Krivitzky: The Federation is focused on our mission of strengthening the Jewish community. We do so in some key ways: caring for the most vulnerable among our extended Jewish family; connecting Jews to the Jewish people, especially younger Jews; responding to crises affecting our community; combatting anti-Semitism; and building bridges with Israel — and building a commitment within our community to sustain and support all of this.

But despite our desire to keep our eyes on our mission at all times, there are always — and, increasingly, it seems — curveballs that come our way, some of which demand, or at least deserve, a response. Also, it seems that more and more people in our community and society create a litmus test for their support or loyalty to Federation: “Unless you make a public statement that is consistent with my position on issue A, B, or C, I won’t support you.” This type of “consumer-demand-I-want-what-I-want-now” expectation is dangerous, and not just for an organization like ours that seeks to meet the very real and apolitical needs of our community. Would you say to a parent or a sibling or a child, “If you don’t agree with me or take this step, then I won’t be supportive or responsive to anything else you care about”? I doubt it. Yet more and more people are drawing these lines in the sand.

On a practical level, we don’t take stands on political issues. That’s not our role and it’s not our place. We only get involved when there are key issues that impact our mission, where a core Jewish value is at stake, or where there is broad agreement in our community — and usually all three considerations are in play. Additionally, to paraphrase a wise man, we don’t see our job as telling people what to think; our role is to show people what to think about. So we try to emphasize education and engagement, rather than spending our time and energy on making statements. That was what we did during the Iran deal controversy, and it worked well in our community, especially as compared to others.

NJJN: How does Israel fit in? In the past, the Federation pressed its constituents to support the developing and struggling state, but that sell doesn’t work as well now that Israel is a modern powerhouse. How does the Federation adjust to this changing reality?
Krivitzky: The Federation is committed to helping Jews in need wherever and whenever that may be, including Jews in Israel, now the largest population of Jews in the world. A portion of our funding to care for the vulnerable is allocated toward Jewish people outside of our immediate area, and in Israel we provide critical baseline support to our traditional partners (the Jewish Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) to help those Jews most in need — and we have a targeted grants program to assist organizations and programs that are meeting some of the many gaps that still exist in Israeli society, from special needs to at-risk youth. We invite people to become involved in these efforts and learn more.

NJJN: What were some of the Federation highlights from 5778?
Krivitzky: The most basic highlight I can share is that we affected more people in this past year than ever — in terms of the number of vulnerable Jews served by our partners, the number of kids who received scholarships to camp or for educational programs in Israel, and the number of people who participated in a PJ Library program or our Life & Legacy program. There is more to the story than numbers, but we are delivering on our core priority areas every day, and that is something we can be proud of.

Beyond that, we had a very successful Interfaith Clergy Journey to Israel, we are sponsoring one of the most extensive array of Israel@70 programs anywhere, we’ve provided significant additional support to enhance the security of community institutions, and we’ve responded to crises such as hurricanes and anti-Semitism.

NJJN: What were your biggest challenges?
Krivitzky: Sometimes I think it would be great if the world would stay still long enough for us to catch our breaths. But that doesn’t happen. The world around us is more complicated and unsettled than ever. There is significant financial uncertainty given the new federal tax plan, more key supporters are moving to Florida, and many individuals are focusing their philanthropy on advocacy and politics.

And yet the Federation’s responsibilities keep growing, from increased needs for Holocaust survivors and senior services to the challenge of providing effective opportunities to engage and educate kids in Jewish life. Combine this with a rise in the number of anti-Semitic incidents in our area and a growing chasm between the Israel and diaspora communities…and we have our work cut out for us.

This is the new normal. And we try and stay focused on our core mission and priorities in the community — even with increased uncertainty with regard to philanthropic support.

NJJN: What is the most challenging part of being the chief executive of the Federation, and what have you learned about the overall community?Krivitzky: The first key lesson is that there is no one Jewish community. We Jews are a diverse — and cantankerous — lot. We’re also increasingly vocal about our differences, if one can believe that. The Federation does its best to be a good partner and fair player with all segments of our community, and I think we do a good job of that.

A key question is, in a time where there is no real consensus: What do we stand for? Politically, the Jewish community is nowhere near as homogeneous as in the past, and religiously, we are all over the map. Same thing geographically. What are those things which can unite and speak to everyone?

I think the Federation tries to find that space in the center that connects all of these different groups and differing personalities. We stand for our extended Jewish family, with all of its diversity and mishegas, and we intend to take care of them. That means focusing on caring for our most vulnerable, making and maintaining personal connections, and responding to crises that affect our family.

And I think this family concept is something that is needed more than ever in society at large. Families provide context, values, and a home for people that can keep them grounded. More and more in our society we see consequences of what happens when people don’t have that communal center, from shootings to the opioid epidemic to suicides — that, too, is where our work in the Jewish community, with our family, can have a positive impact in the broader community, both by serving as an example, and as a contributor. 

To contact Krivitzky or to subscribe to his weekly leadership briefing, email keithk@jewishheartnj.org.

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