The focus shifted from “why” to “how” at the second of two town hall meetings dealing with the planned merger of the Jewish federations of Greater Middlesex and Monmouth counties.
With about 15 people attending — with representation divided almost equally between the two federations — the meeting, held July 29 at the Holmdel offices of the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County, felt more like a planning group session than an open forum.
The contrast was apparent between this and the first meeting, held a week earlier at the South River offices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, where about 100 individuals, many of whom knew little about the proposal, turned out seeking answers.
Attendees at the July 29 gathering spent most of the evening sharing thoughts on how to smooth the process.
“By bringing these two federations together, I think we can show that two plus two equals five,” said Ken Philmus, the Monmouth federation’s cochair of a joint committee that began exploring the merger possibility more than a year ago.
A total of about 120,000 Jews live in the two counties, but only a “small percentage” are connected to the kinds of activities and aid that only federation can provide, said Philmus.
Leaders of both bodies understand that opportunities sometimes must be passed up because of limited resources, he added.
Philmus also suggested that traditional approaches to fund-raising have lost some of their punch and that fresher, more technologically focused strategies are called for. He also said that in some instances staff could be more effective than volunteers in fund-raising efforts.
“In my heart of hearts, I believe that over time a larger, merged federation would be able to bring in higher levels of contributions, enabling it to accomplish more for the community,” Philmus said.
“When federation gets it right, it is particularly well situated to get things done,” said Keith Krivitzky, executive director of the Monmouth federation.
In Krivitzky’s view, the key question is not “Why don’t people give more?” but “Why don’t people connect more?”
Noting that probably 60 percent or more of the area’s Jews find “nothing compelling” about becoming active in the Jewish community, he said, “If we create the connections, the donations will come.”
In the meantime, many at the meeting acknowledged that a merger involves change, and some people find change difficult to swallow.
“As someone who lived through a failed merger attempt some years ago, I can tell you that combining two organizations is not as easy as throwing a switch,” said Eliot Spack of Edison, who before his retirement in 2006 was executive director of the former Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education, which sought a merger with another Jewish organization in 2009.
“I once attended a federation General Assembly where I heard someone say, ‘We’re going to have to change, and when we do, the greatest resistance will come from those with the strongest recognition of the need to change,’” said Lee Livingston, the Middlesex cochair on the exploratory committee.
Attendees at the July 29 meeting were in agreement that proactive steps would be needed to bring the cultures of both federations into harmony.
Krivitzky said that part of the answer is to not attempt to do everything at once, but to allow time to play a role. Nevertheless, he said, there is a target date of Jan. 1, 2015, for the debut of a merged federation working under a single banner and a new name (which has yet to be chosen).
Reactions of people at the meeting suggested that “full integration” might be too ambitious a goal by that early date. For example, Middlesex federation executive director Susan Antman said, “No organization need have any fear that funding would be pulled midstream.”
Jeff Schwartz, who chairs the financial resources development committee of the Middlesex federation, said allocations would be unchanged through June 30, 2015. One complication is that the two federations observe different fiscal years, and that must be adjusted going forward.
“We need to do a substantial amount of legal work preliminary to merger,” said Philmus.
“We must be sure to comply with state laws,” added Livingston. “There are many requirements in place now that were not there two or three decades ago.”