As a resident of Fanwood and as the next top professional of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, succeeding 19-year veteran Max Kleinman, Dov Ben-Shimon says he understands the successes he’ll inherit and the challenges that are ahead.
“I am fully aware of the huge shoes I am expected to fulfill, the incredible achievement Max has had, and I am humbled by the opportunity,” he said June 9. “I am also aware of the achievement of the professional staff and how hard they work every day to make this community even more successful. Finally, I am looking forward to the deep cooperation and partnership with our partner agencies and other institutions in our community.”
Ben-Shimon said there are three areas he’ll be particularly focused on between now and when he assumes the post in the fall: outreach to the unaffiliated, expanding the donor base, and deepening the Jewish values with which professionals and lay leaders approach their work and voluntarism. He spoke about these and other priorities with NJJN editor-in-chief Andrew Silow-Carroll; below is a lightly edited transcript of their conversation.
NJJN: As a resident here for seven years, what have you learned about the community and especially about what had been, before the merger of the MetroWest and Central NJ federations, the historic Central territory?
Ben-Shimon: I’ve been blessed to have raised my children in this community. I told the search committee that there were two reasons I wanted the job, and their names are Eitan and Yael, our six-year-old twins. I wanted my children to grow up Jewishly in this community, with a strong, thriving, and healthy Jewish community that understands the value of leadership and service.
And being an active member of Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim in Cranford and of the Scotch Plains JCC, I’ve gotten to see to see the dynamism of Jewish life here.
NJJN: From what you know or have experienced of the merger, how do you think it is going?
Ben-Shimon: I am aware of some of the concerns and grateful that many of the leaders of Central have reached out to me and shared their hopes and aspirations. I am aware that there have been incredible successes in this merger and still much left to do. It’s no easy task, but with a merger between two highly prominent and visible federations with two different cultures, there are always going to be challenges that we cannot meet overnight. But with good will and hard work we can continue the successes of the merger and rise to meet the challenges that are ahead.
NJJN: It’s no secret that most federations are struggling to attract younger donors and to keep the campaign growing in the face of competition from other charities, Jewish and non-Jewish. How do you plan to grow the campaign?
Ben-Shimon: The competition we face is not with other Jewish organizations. I’ve been a professional fund-raiser for Jewish organizations for 17 years, and I have never felt that Jewish organizations are in competition with each other. If you give to one or two or three, you will understandably give to a fourth. Once on the path you’ll understand it. When someone is already highly identified and in love with the Jewish world, the conversation is easy for us.
The byword is collaboration. The challenge of the federations, and the JCCs, and the synagogues, and the organizations is to bring in the unaffiliated.
NJJN: So how do you do that, especially when some are more interested in so-called “boutique” giving as opposed to umbrella giving?
Ben-Shimon: Two steps. A lot of my colleagues in professional and lay leadership are expressing a desire to help make the federation more efficient in its fund-raising efforts. That means making sure we are speaking in a coordinated voice, that we improve our databases, our messaging, and our branding.
The other level is in helping constituencies — donors, supporters, and lay leaders — fall in love with us again. It is not an enticing prospect when a federation comes to you once a year and just asks for money. We need to rethink how the federation and the agencies dialogue with the community as a whole. How do we reach out and share the successes and achievements and horizons with as many members of the Jewish community as we can?
NJJN: I heard that you “love” fund-raising. Why?
Ben-Shimon: It allows me to see people’s deepest hope and love and reminds me that Jewish philanthropy is all about our donors and leadership and not so much about our organizations. It’s an incredible z’chut [privilege] to work in Jewish communal service and see the Jewish path that our donors and leaders are taking, and to help escort them along that path. Fund-raising is one aspect of that journey.
NJJN: Your recent background is with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which has an international focus. Are you prepared for the domestic challenges of raising money for local needs, like schools, family service, and the elderly? What do you see as the right balance of the domestic, Israel, and international?
Ben-Shimon: I don’t believe in drawing a radius around the Jewish community and saying, “This is all we have.” Once we start setting up strict funding barriers between local, national, international, and Israel causes, we are cheapening the value of what a Jewish community can aspire to. For me, the dialogue we have to have has to be wider and more reflective of the values we have as Jews. We don’t draw borders around caring in the Jewish world. We have much wider horizons. We won’t be able to help Israel and the world if we don’t have a strong Jewish community at home. On the other hand, if we don’t have a strong Israel and strong connections to a diverse Jewish world that makes us proud, we won’t have the values that make us a strong Jewish community at home.
We live in one of the most Zionist communities in North America, and I think one of the reasons is because we are a very wide-horizoned people. We look at the world in a very sophisticated manner. We have deep ties to Israel and are not constrained with a small-scale view of who we are as Jews in New Jersey.