Jewish Portland Tomorrow

I am delighted to report that our campaign is off to its fastest start in Federation history. As of today we have raised in excess of $2.8 million – that means in three short months we have closed 85% of our campaign. Thank you to those who have already made their commitment. We hope that everyone in our Jewish community will join us in strengthening Jewish Portland and the Jewish people.

For the last 3+ years I have written my weekly remarks and shared many thoughts about Jewish life and other subjects. As I promised two weeks ago, I will share thoughts on Jewish Portland Tomorrow – a potential future vision for meeting the interests and needs of Jewish life in Portland.

This Marc’s Remarks may have been the most challenging to write. I am sure it will generate plenty of conversation – both positive and negative. There will be lots of questions and concerns. People may agree or disagree. However, in order to strengthen Jewish Portland, it is necessary to have these difficult conversations.

Today, according to most studies of Jewish communal life, we are losing “market share.” Fewer and fewer Jews are engaging in Jewish life, at least the way we currently define it. We have moved, not surprisingly so, away from a “sheltered” Jewish community where Jewish organizations were started predominantly because “Jews took care of Jews” or we were not allowed to participate in general communal organizations. We created an incredible “cradle to grave” system that met the needs of the Jewish community of that time period   but does it truly meet the needs for today and tomorrow?

Our community alone has 40+ Jewish organizations. Each is striving to meet the needs of its (growing/shrinking) membership or to provide programs and services to the community. In too many ways, each organization is focused on their own needs (including funding), and dare I say, survival. This minimizes our community’s capacity to create an overarching strategy for how to respond to the Jewish community of tomorrow. As one person said to me recently, “If we landed in Portland and there was no Jewish communal infrastructure, would we create what we have today?”

My initial two years were focused on learning more about Jewish Portland. I then approached Jay Zidell, one of our community’s most generous philanthropists, about leading an effort to create a future vision for Jewish Portland. In January 2013 a committee of ten dedicated community leaders began to examine Jewish Portland today and to help create a vision for its future. Over a five-month period, the group met every other week to discuss trends and ideas that ultimately led to the development of several key recommendations that appear later in this post. Underlying the development of these recommendations are daunting trends in our community (and in many Jewish communities around the country):

  • We have an aging major donor base. Over the past seven years our total Jewish community has seen a reduction in overall philanthropic giving (excluding capital campaigns). Although our community is growing in population, many of our community’s elders have passed away and their generous contributions are no longer (an important case for legacy/endowment giving). Their children and grandchildren may not have the same interest, resources, nor connection to carry on their parents’ philanthropy.
  • If we look across our Jewish community, the majority of support for our Jewish communal system is coming from a small number of families. In some cases, 50%+ of what an organization may raise in a year could come from five or less families.
  • The cost of our Jewish communal infrastructure (buildings, staffing, program expenses) continues to escalate while dollars (philanthropic, membership fees and program revenue) remain relatively constant or may be diminishing.
  • There is a running theme of “what is mine is mine” – including programming, space and donors. Many organizations want to “run their own __________” (you fill in the blank) instead of finding ways to partner with others to share costs or to encourage greater participation. And the “overhead costs” for communal buildings is a major challenge.
  • We question whether we are seeing large numbers of new people participating in Jewish life – we seem to see many of the same people involved in multiple organizations and activities.
  • It is no longer about the “name on the marquis.” We cannot rest on the historic success of organizations and their Jewish name brand. People today are looking for the highest quality, most affordable, and convenient services to meet their needs – whether in the Jewish community or not.

It is time to reimagine Jewish Portland…
and to create a communal system unlike any other.


What does this mean? Jewish NewCo (a name for discussion purposes only)   The creation of a new consolidated organization (Jewish Federation, its partner agencies and others) that focuses on Jewish social services, Jewish life and learning, Jewish philanthropy, and manages the back office expenses for our community. As part of this plan, the Jewish Federation will be morphed into Jewish NewCo. This new organization will serve as the hub for lifelong access to innovative and exceptional Jewish experiences. Think of it as or what a university may offer   a one-stop place for all things Jewish.

(Note – The committee did not feel comfortable examining the synagogue community, yet it does believe that there are ways synagogues can benefit in this enterprise.)

This single overarching Jewish organization provides an integrated and efficient approach to Jewish culture, learning, social services, philanthropy, and connections to Israel. We can operate more efficiently by reducing duplication of services and back-office expenses. We can raise additional money with a more sophisticated approach to financial resource development. And any cost savings or new dollars will be invested right back into the community for more Jewish experiences and programs.

Our goal is to make our Jewish community more:

  • Accessible (lower costs, “programming without walls”)
  • Inclusive (interfaith families, LGBTQ community, people with disabilities)
  • Meaningful and Inspiring
  • Fun (a running theme throughout the meetings).

It is time for a communal reboot. We must recognize that the sum is greater than the parts! But right now, “turf” and history are in the way.

In recent weeks, meetings took place with leadership from several of the Federation partner agencies to share these ideas and gather preliminary opinions. Not surprisingly, the reactions included legitimate questions. It was suggested that the Jewish Federation hire a consultant to gather more feedback and to add “more meat on the bone.” Immediately, the Jewish Federation Governing Board did just that not only formally endorsing the concept but also allocating funds to hire an outside consultant. The consultant (someone who understands the Federation system and has also been an Executive Director of a Federation partner agency in another community) will begin his work in mid-January and deliver a full report by the end of March 2014.

We are confident in this process and have taken all steps to ensure its effectiveness in a timely manner. It is our intention that the community will have the opportunity to provide its input.

After we receive the consultant’s report, we can then share more specific details. Maybe Jewish NewCo is a good idea or maybe it is not? Maybe there will be tweaks? But what the community must recognize is that the status quo will not lead to a sustainable future.

When we presented this concept to community organizations we shared a photo of a crying baby. The message – the only people who like change are babies with a wet diaper. Change is difficult. What must guide us, however, is not history, “turf,” or a personal passion for a single organization – but detailed studies (i.e. Pew Study) that clearly articulate the changing nature of Jewish life. Data matters! We must challenge ourselves to respond accordingly or we will be sitting in denial or suspended animation.

Rabbi Aaron Bisno, a leading rabbi in Pittsburgh, wrote on May 8, 2011 an article titled, “It’s Time for a Courageous Conversation.”

The challenge before us is clear. The more successful an organization becomes, the more difficult it is for its leaders to recognize when things must change. By every measure, the American Jewish community hit the leather off the ball in the 20th Century, and now, let’s admit it, we’re simply ‘so 20th century’. Therefore, change we must.

We are not able to support all of our congregations and communal organizations as presently configured; and we cannot continue to rely upon business models that no longer abide. Indeed, believing otherwise has become no small part of our problem.

The rub is that as recently as a single generation ago, it was appropriate, and even useful, for the Jewish community to have as many organizations, buildings and staff as we have today. But now into a second decade of a new century, with what every assumption and belief upon which our community was founded now challenged, it is simply no longer useful for us to think in terms of “my organization versus yours."

At a moment of seismic communal challenge such as we are presently experiencing, we can ill afford to be more concerned respectively with what any one entity among us will lose than we are focused collectively on what is required of all of us to ensure the ongoing health, vitality, and future of the Jewish community as a whole.

I applaud the efforts of this leadership committee. They understood Rabbi Bisno’s call to action and see the true challenges facing our Jewish community. They have taken the lead – created a bold idea for our future – and now it is time for Portland’s courageous conversation to proceed to the next level. We must acknowledge our incredible past as well as the enormous challenges before us. We cannot stop here, as every segment of our community – individual and institutional   must join in being part of the new solution that our community needs now.

I will have more to share in upcoming weeks. And, as always, I encourage your thoughts and feedback.

Best wishes to you and your family for a healthy, happy and successful new year. May this be a year of bold steps that lead to an even stronger Jewish community going forward.

Shabbat shalom.



Add Comment