Lessons from 1997

As I often do, I like to take real life business examples and make them relevant to our work at the Jewish Federation and the opportunity to build Jewish community. There is much we can learn from the for-profit sector, and much we are already doing to emulate their work.

Several weeks ago, Jeffrey Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, published his annual letter to shareholders. It talked about the incredible successes at the company, as well as opportunities for the future. But what I found even more interesting was that it included a link to his original letter to shareholders in 1997 – when they had only 1.5 million customers and revenues of $148 million. His message then, as it is now, is that “It is all about the long-term.”

Bezos wrote, “We believe that a fundamental measure of our success will be the shareholder value we create over the long term…Our decisions have consistently reflected this focus. We first measure ourselves in terms of the metrics most indicative of our market leadership: customer and revenue growth, the degree to which our customers continue to purchase from us on a repeated basis, and the strength of our brand.”

As I read the entirety of Bezos’s letter, I could not help but think about the Jewish Federation and our Jewish community. 

Here is Amazon.com’s basic philosophy from 1997 and how we are working hard in the same way on behalf of the Jewish community:

• We will continue to focus relentlessly on our customers. The Jewish Federation has multiple “customers” that it serves. This includes the Jewish community at-large, our partner agencies, and the donors who make everything possible. We focus on each of these groups every single day to create a stronger Jewish Portland.

• We will continue to measure our programs and the effectiveness of our investments analytically, to jettison those that do not provide acceptable returns, and to step up our investment in those that work best. We will learn from our successes and failures. Appropriate analytics and measurements are areas every Jewish community is working on. With finite financial resources, we must find those programs and services with the greatest benefit to the Jewish community, and perhaps sunset programs which have less impact. Just because something was done for the past 50 years does not mean we must continue it today. At the same time, just because a program has been around for a long time does not mean it is not bringing great benefit.

• We will make bold rather than timid investment decisions where we see a sufficient probability of success. We have already done this with investments in programs such as Jewish day school education, PJ Library, One Happy Camper incentive grants, Jewish Right Start pre-school grants, and Chai Israel grants for teens to go to Israel, and so much more. We look at national data and utilize that to help us make educated decisions. And we will do more in the future.

• We will share when we make bold choices, so that you may evaluate for yourselves whether we are making long-term positive investments. It is our goal to be as transparent as possible. We do this via my weekly remarks and our annual report. We are open to any question about the Jewish Federation. It is our expectation you will regularly evaluate what we do.

• We will work hard to spend wisely and, at the same time, hire and retain versatile and talented employees.  I am proud of the Jewish Federation and how we do our business and manage our resources. We have a small, yet dynamic team of professionals who truly do Herculean work. In all my years in Jewish communal service, I have never worked with a better quality team as I have each year since I came to Portland in 2010. And, of course, we could not do this without the incredible volunteer leaders serving our community.


Bezos concluded his letter with the following, “Though we are optimistic, we must remain vigilant and maintain a sense of urgency. We can only overcome the challenges and hurdles we will face to make our long-term vision for Amazon.com a reality by making large continuing investments to meet an expanding market opportunity.”

The very same holds true for our Jewish community.

On a separate note, if you are new (or kind of new) to the Portland area, our community would love to meet you! You are invited to an informal evening of fun and live music where you can meet and network with people who have also recently moved here co-sponsored by the Mittleman Jewish Community Center and the Jewish Federation. The event is scheduled for Monday, May 7 at 6:30 p.m. at Cellar 503 (4407 SW Corbett Avenue) and is free to attend (appetizers and drinks will be served). Please contact Len Steinberg at lsteinberg@oregonjcc.org for more information and to RSVP.

Finally, I am delighted to announce that Rabbi Shira Stutman will be our speaker at the Jewish Federation’s Annual Meeting on June 14 at 4:30 p.m. at Congregation Neveh Shalom. 

Rabbi Stutman is the Senior Rabbi at Washington, DC’s innovative Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. She was named one of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis” by The Jewish Forward in 2013 and a “Woman to Watch” by Jewish Women International in 2014, and was featured by Tablet Magazine in a 2015 round-up of notable rabbis. When not at Sixth & I, Rabbi Stutman serves as the scholar-in-residence for the National Women’s Philanthropy program of the Jewish Federations of North America and teaches for the Wexner Heritage program. Rabbi Stutman graduated from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 2007, where she was a Wexner Graduate Fellow. 

Shabbat shalom.



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