As someone who has traveled many times to Israel and knows it intimately, seeing the country through the federation lens for the first time provided an unanticipated reaction.
When offered the opportunity to join the year-long Marion and Norman Tanzman Leadership Development Program for Women of the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey, I enthusiastically accepted.
I and the seven other fellows — Marsha Cohen, Sandy Cohen, Cindy Gittleman, Linda Gotlib, Bonnie Leff, Cheryl Minkoff, and Marcia Schwartz — share a passion for our Jewish community and have all assumed leadership roles at synagogues and community organizations. We attend monthly meetings to learn about the federation and our global Jewish community, and traveled to Israel May 7-16 to observe the organization’s support of critical services there. Upon completion of the program, we expect to be fully prepared to assume leadership roles throughout the organization.
Every year the federation grants funding through agencies, organizations, and synagogues throughout Middlesex and Monmouth counties, in Israel, and around the world. Volunteer feedback is actively incorporated into decision-making; committees are tasked with determining which projects best demonstrate impact and merit funding.
Most of the organization’s overseas funding is channeled through two large beneficiary agencies: the Jewish Agency for Israel and American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. In addition, the locally-based Overseas Impact committee meets annually to determine which overseas programs should receive direct funding. Last year, the committee focused primarily on youth at risk in Israel, including those with special needs and those who are in the LGBTQ community. While in Israel, our group met with organizations that receive funding, as well as those who do not.
One of our sessions prior to the trip had laid the foundation for our participation in the federation allocations process, but it took several site visits in Israel for the challenge of prioritization to sink in.
We embarked upon a jam-packed marathon of encounters with programs seeking to remedy a host of serious problems facing Israeli society. Our experience far exceeded anything we could have imagined. The work being done truly saves lives.
We met clients who spoke of being publicly ostracized and called “crazy” by members of their community because of the stigma of mental illness. We met a 24-year-old American olah (immigrant) who left her family to live on the streets of Jerusalem because she couldn’t cope with life at home. We met the mom of a 17-year-old with special needs who started a camp and socialization program because no programs existed in their town that offered support and help.
We met a Jewish Israeli and a Palestinian who are encouraging dialogue between their communities, because they fear life is untenable without such interaction. We met a Jewish Israeli parent who sends her children to an integrated school of Jewish and Arab youngsters because she hopes that the children will learn to live together in peace. We visited a “warm house” in Tel Aviv for teens on the verge of dropping out of school and the army. We met people who are working to make Israel a place for everyone, and those who focus on the neediest in a thoughtful and systematic way.
As future federation leaders, we are now sharing our observations with the Overseas Impact committee as part of the evaluation process that is so critical when making funding decisions.
We all make choices about our philanthropic acts. I know I want my dollars to have the greatest impact on our community both at home and abroad. But what’s more important? How do we decide which issues are most critical? How do we strike a balance between what tugs at us personally and the choices we make for the greater good?
The federation Overseas committee will explore these issues in the next few weeks — as we did on the ground a short time ago — to make decisions about directing funds. I look forward to seeing their choices.