Form Follows Function

You may recall that at the start of 2014 we shared a concept called Jewish NewCo, but more appropriately known as the Portland Jewish Tomorrow framework. This new communal model could provide more Jewish services, in different ways, while at the same time examine opportunities to reduce costs within the Jewish community. I stated that it was “only an idea” and one that required more thought and discussion. And to help in that process, the Jewish Federation would hire a consultant to assess the concept.

I am pleased to say that in a short 60-day period, our consultant, Lou Feldstein, visited Portland on four different occasions and held individual interviews and small focus groups with a total of 124 people (representing community leaders, agency executives and presidents, various organizational board members, young adults, non-Federation agency representatives, and rabbis). And, this past Monday, Lou reported his initial findings to several small groups (Jewish Portland Tomorrow committee, Jewish Federation Board, agency presidents and agency executives). A full detailed report will be released in mid-April, but I wanted to provide you with some insights/highlights (many will not surprise you) into what were identified by those interviewed as general issues confronting our Jewish community:

  • Our community’s longstanding philanthropists are aging and/or relocating;
  • Giving interests and patterns of younger generations are changing;
  • Portland has a large population of identified, yet not institutionally connected Jews. This is more pronounced among newer and younger members of our community;
  • Jews can go almost anywhere for most of the services and opportunities our Jewish community currently provides.

And two important generational messages:

  • Older members of the Jewish community understand the need for change, but do not necessarily embrace the change if it will impact the particular institution they are passionate about;
  • Younger Gen X and Millennials were strong in their expression of the need for institutional change and far more focused on the delivery of impactful services than maintaining institutions.

The consultant’s findings also include sentiments about our current Jewish programming and organizations, information about the composition of agency Boards, data on the philanthropic giving in our community, and case studies of similar efforts in other Jewish communities. The information and data gathered by the consultant is invaluable and answers many questions we never thought about asking before. You will be able to read all of this in the final report.

There is an old adage – form follows function. When we first announced the Jewish Portland Tomorrow concept it was not well articulated. Sometimes it is easier to talk about things than to write on paper. And, often the individual doing the sharing understands what he/she is talking about (especially after months of in-depth involvement), while for others it is brand new. From the feedback we received, people primarily heard the concept as a new cost-saving structure (form) for our Jewish community. The intended goal of additional resources to enhance Jewish life was lost (function). In fact, one takeaway from the interviews was that a small number of people felt Federation was “creating a solution to a problem that does not exist.”

No process is perfect and hopefully we learn along the way. It may not have been rolled out in the most strategic fashion (there is a back story to that). There were, however, those who immediately contacted me supportive of the concept. At the same time, others felt resentment and frustration. I received correspondence from a few upset community members and took the time to meet with each of them individually (as well as invite their participation in the focus groups). One could argue that despite the Jewish Portland Tomorrow concept being announced, nothing in the community had changed. Yet, there was a sense that this new concept was a fait accompli.

To the Jewish Portland Tomorrow Committee and Jewish Federation Board, it is a bold idea. It is a possible structure for our community to explore. It is a response to the real challenges (and there are many) facing our community. Most of all, it was a conversation starter. I am very proud that the Jewish Portland Tomorrow committee got our community thinking, talking, and struggling about its future. In fact, the consultant’s concluding comments were “This community should see the Jewish Portland Tomorrow effort as a blessing – one that is not only needed, but long overdue.”

So, what are the next steps? As I mentioned earlier, in mid-April we will be releasing the consultant’s full report to the community. I will share it via Marc’s Remarks, as well as post it on the Federation website. Following the report’s release, the community will have its opportunity to share feedback and insights. We expect to have several “town hall forums” and develop small working groups to develop a broad vision for our community going forward. That is not an easy task – but one made easier if everyone puts on their “community hat.” How we implement that vision will also require much thought and attention.

I look forward to sharing more with you in the weeks ahead.

Shabbat shalom.


PS – On Wednesday night, the Jewish Federation’s Women’s Philanthropy, Congregation Shir Tikvah and Congregation Kol Ami co-sponsored a fun and successful outreach event titled, Chit Chat and Charoset: A Taste of Passover. More than 80 women gathered at Shir Tikvah to taste a variety of fabulous Passover desserts and charoset dishes from around the world.  They enjoyed watching the humorous, yet poignant film, Gefilte Fish, which focuses on three generations of women in one family as they discuss “an endangered species,” – the homemade gefilte fish. Rabbi Ariel Stone (Shir Tikvah) and Rabbi Elizabeth Dunsker (Kol Ami) led a powerful discussion as the women talked about their own Passover traditions, memories, and journeys toward Jewish identity.


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