Gone are the days when Jewish federations portrayed themselves as synonymous with and fully representative of the communities they served.
Reflecting a scaled-down sense of hubris and heightened notion of Jewish peoplehood, the new executive vice president and CEO of UJA-Federation of New York is calling for more linkages between the federation and such “gateway” institutions as synagogues, JCCs, camps and Hillels to create “caring, inspired” communities.
“Our role is not to be the Jewish community,” wrote John Ruskay in remarks prepared for his presentation Dec. 8 at the annual meeting of the UJA-Federation General Assembly. “The federation neither owns the community nor manages the entire community.”
Rather, he wrote, federation’s purpose, in addition to providing the essential infrastructure, is “to identify goals, serve as a convenor, become a valued resource, prod, goad, and provide resources for fulfilling our historic responsibilities and the community-building now required.”
In a symbolic effort to highlight federation’s increasingly inclusive role, Ruskay opened the meeting to the community and invited four local leaders to respond to his State-of-the-Union-style remarks in a round-table discussion.
He also asked singer Debbie Friedman to provide entertainment following the conversation.
The respondents are major philanthropist Michael Steinhardt; Jewish Child Care Association chair Joyce Kramer; Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of the Orthodox Upper East Side Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun; and Shifra Bronznick, an activist for a variety of liberal and feminist Jewish causes.
In his talk Ruskay, who succeeded Stephen Solender as professional head of UJA-Federation last month, emphasizes the interconnectedness of Jews around the world and the need to create caring communities, support the renewal of Jewish life and strengthen Jewish people as part of a “sacred agenda.”
The speech is peppered with Hebrew phrases and biblical references to concepts of klal Yisrael, or Jewish unity, giving it the flavor, at times, of a sermon.
It reflects Ruskay’s professional background with religious institutions — he was vice chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary — rather than the social service network.
Perhaps most striking is the implicit message that the world’s largest local fund-raising organization, which last year raised $228 million, can only succeed by ensuring the infusion of Jewish values and meaningful Jewish lives among the next generation.
“Judaism in all its riches is a dead language,” he asserts, “unless it is the language of a living community.”
Ruskay announces the convening of a group of senior rabbis and communal professionals to address ways to “better connect the wealth of our human resources service agencies to our key ‘gateway’ institutions.’ ”
The group includes Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement; Rabbi Gerald Skolnick of the Conservative Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens; Hillel president Richard Joel; Alan Finkelstein, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Center Association of North America; Al Miller, president and CEO of FEGS, the Federation Employment and Guidance Service; Alan Siskind, executive vice president of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services; Vivian Ehrlich, executive director of Dorot; and William Rapfogel, executive vice president of the Metropolitan Council on New York Poverty.
The idea is to supply synagogues, Hillels and JCCs with social workers, pastoral counselors or therapists to humanize the institutions, help people with specific interests or problems, and in so doing bolster the connection among individuals, communal institutions and social service agencies.
In calling for “an ongoing structured partnership” with synagogues, Ruskay notes that “our fates — as a people, as a New York Jewish community, and as a federation — are inextricably linked.”
He also calls for support for efforts to improve the quality of intensive Jewish education, reduce religious tensions and enhance tolerance among Jews here and in Israel.
Closest to home, Ruskay advocates changing the organizational culture of federation “in here,” referring to its East 59th Street headquarters.
He envisions a more welcoming environment, where the building’s second-floor meeting rooms would be filled with Jewish books, tapes and films, and the sound of Jewish music.
“We are at a critical turning point in our history as an organization and, more importantly, as a people,” he asserts, noting that the challenge of collective responsibility and helping those less fortunate “stands against the grain of rampant individualism that appears to have no limits.”
But such an agenda makes it possible, he concludes, “for us to be, as we have been instructed to be, a light unto the nations.”