After several months of exploring a merger of the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County and the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County, the leadership of both groups went public with a progress report and an action plan at the annual meeting of the Monmouth federation, held June 19 at the Doubletree Hotel in Tinton Falls.
Aided by a 17-slide PowerPoint presentation, Monmouth’s Ken Philmus, cochair of the Middlesex and Monmouth Merger Exploratory Committee, laid out the rationale in favor of a merger, including a tentative schedule for bringing the matter to a vote by late summer.
The merger would combine the Monmouth federation, which raises over $2 million annually for local and global Jewish causes, and Middlesex, which raises over $2.5 million. Both organizations also play important planning roles among the various agencies, schools, projects who receive federation grants and allocations.
Noting that “major donors and key leadership are excited,” Philmus said a single, larger organization would be in a better position to “handle challenges,” would be more effective in “leveraging professionals and volunteers,” and could take advantage of “opportunities to create operating synergies.”
Suggesting that “mergers are being recommended nationally to better align resources,” Philmus said that “growth of federations has stagnated” and a “merger provides an opportunity for a ‘reset’” that might “reflect a shift in federation’s strategic role and value proposition.”
In an interview conducted a few days after the presentation, Philmus said, “What is changing in the nationwide federation community is that the traditional methods that worked so well in the past are reaching a point of diminishing returns. We firmly believe that, in addition to historical fund-raising approaches, there is a need to clearly focus on developing a more vibrant overall Jewish community and working to involve people at the grass roots level.
“As a merged federation we will have greater resources both financially and operationally to redirect and repurpose efforts to accomplish this,” he emphasized.
Philmus also focused on economies of scale that would result from a merger. Philmus acknowledged the need to reduce administrative expenses, but said a merger could also eliminate duplicate approaches to helping schools in financial difficulty, mounting programs for seniors, and increasing teen involvement.
“Separately, we just don’t have the resources,” he said.
Lee Livingston, Philmus’s counterpart in the Middlesex federation, said the idea to merge was originally discussed when he was federation president about six years ago.
“There were four of us — Gerrie Bamira, the Middlesex executive director; Bob St. Lifer and Joe Hollander from Monmouth; and me. We all realized that the county line was nothing more than an artificial barrier,” he said. “And we hoped that if we broke through that artificial barrier, both Jewish communities could be better served.”
The time wasn’t right, however, and after one preliminary meeting, the merger idea was dropped, said Livingston — until 18 months ago, when it resurfaced. This time, he said, the demographics were more favorable, and there also was “a significant push from major players in the Jewish community with dual interests in both counties.”
Commissioned in 2013, the Joint Merger Exploration Committee held several meetings and sought advice from the Jewish Federations of North America. Following a recommendation to move forward, both counties’ executive committees voted in August to pursue the merger. In October, the Monmouth and Middlesex boards okayed the intent to merge.
A Project Leadership Group is managing the process and created a timetable and action plan. Volunteers are at work on four major areas: finance and resource development, programs and allocations, operations and management, and governance.
Keith Krivitzky, executive director of the Monmouth County federation, said, “The charge was to explore the potential synergies and benefits from a merger, to identify any risks or stumbling blocks and whether they could be overcome, and to make some recommendations as to what a combined community approach could be.”
According to Philmus, due diligence is now complete, and the current goals are to “synthesize the information, socialize, and prepare for a final vote in late summer.”
Susan Antman, who recently was named as the successor to Bamira as executive director of the Middlesex federation, said, “The most compelling reason for merger is to allow both communities to build stronger and broader partnerships that will enable us to more effectively live our mission.”
In addition, she said, “We will have the opportunity to better address macro community challenges, including community engagement, Jewish formal and informal education, and senior and youth services.”
Krivitzky said, “The key challenge to successfully implementing the merger is to build a joint culture that celebrates what Middlesex does well while also embodying the spirit of change and enthusiasm emerging out of Monmouth.”