Culture, Global, Mishegas, Politics

America's Next Top Jewish Communal Professional

Jewish Community HeroesIf your Facebook feed looks anything like mine, then surely you’re aware of UJC’s Jewish Community Heroes campaign.  In case you’re not, here’s what I’ve gathered strictly from the barrage of “Vote for X!” messages I’ve been receiving.
UJC, aka The Jewish Federations of North America, aka The Jewish Establishment, sponsored an online popularity contest that sent dozens (if not hundreds) of Jewish Non-Profits scurrying to mobilize their social networks to garner votes for their candidates. The winner(s?) get some kind of cash prize for their organization.
A disclaimer: I am generally much more positive about UJC than many of my compadres here. While I don’t always love every decision the Federations make, I think the good they do outweighs their missteps. And a big honking chunk of the good the UJC does is making thoughtful allocations of communal funds to ensure that worthy causes can thrive. The whole point of federated giving is to protect the less-sexy charities (like elder care facilities) from losing the popularity contest of philanthropy.
So what are we to make of the UJC’s current effort? To be fair, I am not going to pop over to their website to see if my impressions from Facebook accurately reflect the campaign. Here’s a video they’ve made that you can watch while I do that, announcing the twenty semi-finalists:

I’m going to refrain from thinking too hard about who made the semifinals except to point out two things:
First, there’s a disproportionate number of Chabadniks among the group, which is a testament to how far ahead of the rest of us Chabad is when it comes to social networking. This should surprise no one.
Second, I want to congratulate two Jewschoolers among the final twenty: Aryeh Goldsmith (aka Aryeh) and William Levin (aka Jewish Robot)! Okay, those congratulations may seem a bit weak coming at the end of this particular rant, but they both do good work, and each got more than 12,000 votes, so either they’re both skilled organizers or making positive impacts on many people’s Jewish experiences or both. So kol hakavod.
Okay, so reviewing the rules, it looks like I got it about right. Anyone could nominate. Voting narrowed the field to 20 semifinalists. A panel of judges will narrow that group down to five finalists. (The judges span from people who are experts in the running of nonprofits to a comedian and two athletes… I’m not really sure what the thinking is there, but I’ll write that off as being mostly harmless.) It’s not clear how the ultimate winner gets chosen, but the winner will be announced at the General Assembly in Washington, DC next month. Whoever he or she may be, the winner will receive $25K to put towards their project, and the four runners-up will receive some kind of undisclosed smaller investment.
This strikes me as so contrary to the idea behind Federation, I just don’t know what to do with it. Okay, here are the potential upsides: some Jewish organizations, in their scurrying to win, might learn a thing or two about how to utilize social networking to get their message across. And I suppose if someone went to vote and actually bothered to look at the nominees other than the one who sent them to the site to begin with, then some lesser-known Jewish causes might get some publicity. Oh, and I guess UJC might get some publicity in certain corners of the Jewish world that might not already be familiar with them.
Here are the potential downsides: organizations making their first steps into social networking alienate their supporters (or would-be supporters) by using the contact to say “vote for me!” rather than something meaningful. Organizations that already have a robust network in place can stuff the voting box, so smaller, newer, or poorer organization (aka those who might need the money even more) are at a disadvantage. (See note above about Chabad.) The idea that Federations distribute money based on a strategic plan for maximizing the impact of that money becomes a laughingstock. Kids are taught that being popular comes with a financial reward. Presumably, someone in each of these organizations took time out of doing the actual work they’re supposed to do in order to organize and mobilize the voters. And somewhere in the neighborhood of $30,000 or more is given out as a reward for… well, it’s not really clear now, is it?

15 thoughts on “America's Next Top Jewish Communal Professional

  1. It’s a thoughtful piece, but I disagree with the conclusion. The fact that all but three of the semi-finalists appear to be either chabad or Hillel rabbis (or their partners), who usually have to raise most of their funds themselves while also running their programs, shows that it was specifically not the major, resource-wealthy individuals who are being voted here, but rather the individual activists whose supporters want to show their appreciation.
    It’s these individuals who often find it hard to win grants from the major orgs for their work, who prefer to work with larger nonprofits. These “Heroes” have discovered that they can tap into Social Media to accomplish a tremendous amount on a minimal budget, and this is campaign is a way for them to reap the reward of their innovative outreach. Nothing is stopping other small organizations to do the same – they must just hop on the learning cirve and get with it.
    Kudos to the UJC for giving the Jewish public an opportunity to show the funders out there who is really changing the face of the Jewish community. Interestingly, the Partnership 2000 was one of Sviva Israel’s first significant funders despite the bad rap the Jewish Agency also has for funding innovation – we found them much more approachable than the foundations.
    The message from this campaign is – don’t look at the size of the organization but at the person behind it and how many peiople, on a grassroots level is he-she inspiring.

  2. I’m sorry, but in what universe are Chabad and Hillel not “larger nonprofits”? I’m at a loss to think of larger Jewish orgs, except maybe UJC itself.

  3. I also noticed the Chabad presence, which just goes to show that they have a very successful social network, doesn’t it?
    Regarding the comment above, @Tamar seems to be saying that although Chabad and Hillel are “larger non-profits” they require their local leadership to raise their own funds (think franchises rather than chain stores), so the reflection is really of the individual Chabad rabbi’s ability to get out the vote.
    I was wondering about periphery v. population center distro – I don’t remember very many Midwesterners in the finalists, nor my personal Hero – Rabbi Michael Cohen of Vermont.

  4. Does UJC have any outside auditor monitoring this to make sure it wasn’t a Diebold election? I clicked on a few friends’ Facebook statuses about the contest, and was taken to pages telling me I had just voted for people I’d never heard of before. So I emailed the organizers asking if they would make public the process to verify that no ballots were being stuffed by internet bots or the like. No response.

  5. Every campus Chabad House (as almost every Chabad House in general) is a completely independent financial organization, neither receiving nor giving any funding to any national organization, with the exception of some start-up seed money and specifically targeted programming grants offered nationally on occassion by larger foundations. Consequently, the average campus Chabad House is a small non-profit organization, with minimal staffing, almost always struggling to do a huge amount of programming on a shoestring budget of anywhere from 100K – 350K a year. (There are some exceptions to this model, but it seems to be the rule in almost every one I’ve interacted with.)
    From that perspective, Chabads on Campus — while affiliated organizationally to a larger body — are definitely struggling, smaller non-profits that almost never get ANY attention in the federation world, especially not attention comparable to the scope of their work.
    Hillels generally also operate on the model of individual franchises, though usually with much more Federation, national, and regional assistance, and generally larger staffs and budgets.
    Unfortunately, this model of campus work and structure seems to be almost universally unknown or ignored, as evidenced by the comments above.

  6. There’s more to being a part of a large system than direct funding. Both Chabad and Hillel provide infrastructure, professional development, technology, etc to their “franchisees.”
    But this is all sort of beside the point. If we think that Federations aren’t properly funding these or other organizations, is an online popularity contest the best way to register that belief? (Not to mention the method of gathering this data skews heavily towards organizations serving younger and better-off clientele. There aren’t too many Jewish nursing homes with WiFi in every suite.)

  7. Dlevy’s last point in his comment just above is worth expanding. Do we really think that the vast majority of Jewish “community heroes” are Chabad rabbis and their wives? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a Chabad basher. I have great respect for Chabad and generally agree with the comments above about the ways in which Chabad is problematically marginalized by many local Federations. But that’s not the point here.
    Where are the committed volunteers who created new services for seniors in their communities? Teens who had the vision and courage to launch successful social justice projects? Passionate professionals who have dedicated their lives to providing food and resources for the hungry? People making a difference in the lives of at-risk youth? Ordinary Jews who did extraordinary things to help transform their communities?
    All those people surfaced in this campaign, but most of them didn’t get enough votes to rise to the top 20, or even the top 100. I’m imagining that those diverse faces of Jewish service were who this project was intended to highlight. That the contest will, in the end, have mostly spotlighted Chabad and campus outreach is not necessarily bad – both are worthy of spotlights and our support. But I think the organizers at UJC who put this together are only now realizing what a flawed project this was.

  8. Let’s recognize that there is a semi-finalist in the top 20 who fits in closely with UJC’s mission… a Russian emigre heading a JCC serving at-risk youth, feeding the hungry, caring for the poor. Certainly the fact that they chose to put THREE Russian speakers on the panel of judges says something. Interesting that the panel was announced _after_ the top 20 were solidified.

  9. The rabbi of our shul is on the list of finalists… and he’s not there because of his Chabad affiliation but rather because of his selfless acts. The people who voted for him (as far as I can tell from the e-mails going round on local e-mail lists and the conversations in shul) are members of his (Lubavitch/Chabad) shul, who range greatly in their religious affiliation, and members of the larger local community (many of whom are modern orthodox or conservative and skeptical of Chabad as a movement, myself included). The shul he runs is a shul short on money, short on space, and full of Jews who aren’t as wealthy as the Jews you’ll find in other shuls around town. Chabad may help some shuls and Chabad Houses get set up, but it doesn’t fund them the way a lot of people think. It’s the local community that funds my shul. Unless they’re large and in rich communities or have a benefactor, Chabad Houses are often just as underfunded (have you ever been in some of the rinky-dink, rundown houses that pass as Chabad Houses?)
    That’s not to say the larger organization isn’t terrifically funded and huge and uber-cyber-connected – As dlevy pointed out, that’s totally true. But I still think peoples’ perceptions of how individual Chabad Houses work and the idea that the organization pulled strings to get all their minions to vote for Chabad nominees is not based on reality. And honestly, there is NO reason the progressive Jewish world couldn’t use many of the same methods Chabad uses (maybe even with less initial start-up money) instead of just complaining about Chabad. Chabad is brilliant at what they do – Why not take some of these ideas and use them to propogate different values and Jewish ideas? There is no reason that religiously left-wing social justice activists couldn’t have won more spots among the finalists, if their movements/orgs were in touch with their constituents, the community, and the 21st century.
    All that said, I agree with Gregg that this project was flawed and the organizers are probably realizing that as they see that the list is over-populated with Lubavitchers (who I’m guessing UJC isn’t particularly excited to fund). One of the things about popularity contests like this is that a grassroots organizer or organization has no chance whatsoever. Only if you have a lot of friends, group members, etc will you win something based solely on numbers. I voted for a bunch of different people, mostly social justice types and also the rabbi of my shul… But ultimately I found the whole process sort of a joke. I do see how Chabad having a large reach no doubt could have impacted some of the results. I hope they won’t choose grant recipients this way again. There are better ways to make sure that both large and small projects get funded, and from a range of political and religious perspectives.

  10. I think some here have a misread on this situation. This wasn’t a contest of popularity; it was a contest of passion. Chabad is tiny – 100,000, 200,000, maybe 300,000 worldwide, including “friends of chabad”? You have hundreds of Reform and Conservative congregations littering the east and west coasts numbering 1,000 people per synagogue, while Chabad might have 1000 in the entire state!
    The popularity contest has been settled long ago. Chabad is not popular. On a communal planning level, they were completely ignored outside of Crown Heights until just over a decade ago, and still are in some communities. Reform and Conservative Judaism is popular. Reform and Conservative have the numbers. Reform and Conservative have the donors. Reform and Conservative have command and control over most Federation personnel, budgets and priorities.
    This wasn’t an exercise in popularity, but in passion.
    I can tell you, as someone who gives to several Chabad Rabbis and affiliated institutions, in several states, that I did not receive a single “vote for me” email or Facebook note from Chabad. I didn’t nominate anyone. I didn’t hear about the voting from the Rabbis at shul. I learned about this vote thing HERE, on Jewschool! I clicked on the link, here, on Jewschool, and promptly voted for the one person on the list I knew and respected, who has made an impact on my life from his audio teachings – which I download daily – who lives a state away and who I have never personally met, Rabbi Manis Friedman.
    That half or more of the 20 finalists are Chabad, or Chabad-affiliated, is not a reflection on Chabad, but on the passion and commitment to Yiddishkeit that Chabad Rabbis have inspired in ordinary Jews like me. It’s not about them, it’s about us! By voting we’re making a statement about ourselves!
    Reform and Conservative could have “won” this game the Federation set up. These voting numbers are puny – under 9,000 votes for the lowest vote getter! Reform Rabbis could have emailed their 1,000 member congregations and asked everyone to vote once a day, or whatever the voting rules are, and they could have won, easily. That’s not how Chabad did it, but it was certainly possible to do.
    Chabad may be the most internet savvy of the Orthodox/Chassidic/Charedi movements, but these votes are not a statement about the need for better social networking tools among Reform/Conservative. These voting pattern should be a wake up call to the lack of passion in the Reform/Conservative community, relative to their overwhelming numbers.
    As KFJ has written in the past, nurturing passion for Yiddishkeit isn’t about pumping money into institutions or social networking tools, it’s about love and engaged community.
    My impression after reading Jewschool and some other progressive Jewish blogs is that the wrong lessons are being learned. The voting was rigged. The vote was unfair. Reform and Conservative need to be more social media savvy. Those Chabadniks vote like cattle. Who allowed Chabad in the door in the first place? It’s not fair to vote for all Jewish groups together…
    Forgive me, but all these points are simply not legitimate. They are an attempt to undo, delegitimize or reinterpret the voting results, or to avert such a “disaster” and “embarrassment” in the future. This is only a “disaster” for those with an axe to grind. This is only an “embarrassment” for those who see community growth as a zero sum game.
    Put your axes down. Pick up the plowshares and let’s keep growing, together.

  11. I can’t speak for anyone else here, but my intent was not to cast any aspersion on Chabad (although I would challenge the idea that Reform and Conservative have the donors… someone is sponsoring all those free Chabad programs, not to mention Chabad publishing, etc).
    The question I am hoping to raise here is whether an online vote is an appropriate way for the Federation to determine allocations. I’d say absolutely not. It runs contrary to everything we’ve been told about why Federation is important and how it’s supposed to work.
    I would feel the same way if every one of the top vote-getters was a close, personal friend working solely on projects that I feel most passionate about.
    I’m somewhat less queasy about the similar contest going on at right now, only because in order to “vote,” the contest requires users to leave genuine feedback about the organizations, so the end result isn’t simply a voting frenzy – it’s a data pool of what’s working and what can be improved in the Jewish nonprofit world. I still don’t love the contest model, but at least the point of this particular contest is clearer.

  12. dlevy, I agree with you, the vote is meaningless. It’s just a fun project the Federation put out to pretend they care about what us little Jews, who they claim to represent, think. We both know that no one is going to be changing funding priorities based on the results of this.
    $25,000? That’s a joke and you know it. My local Federation (in an average sized Midwestern State, not Illinois) raises between $8-10 million every year. $25k is more money than I give every year, but take five or six of me, and you’d be close. The vote is not the issue here. This money is a drop in a very large bucket.
    So if this vote is so meaningless, and if the pot is so small, then why are so many getting so upset about it?
    Don’t worry, the unelected “steering committee” will make sure not more than one Chabad-affiliated institution makes it into the running, and that the final selection best represents “community interests”. Fair is fair, right? Right?
    As for Chabad budgets, I can tell you exactly where my Chabad’s money comes from. The money to run the shul and pay the rabbi, about $80k, comes from 46 families or individuals (if we’re counting donations over $100), about 20 of which come every shabbos. We actually missed the target last year by $7k and had to cut some costs.
    As for Chabad of the state (and this is now second hand information) the umbrella for all Chabad state institutions (who do raise funds on their own as well), a lot of it is from super-rich, old Reform/Conservative/Unaffiliated Jews who insist at the end of their lives that their grand kids start going to Camp Gan Israel. They would never step a foot in Chabad themselves, and they get angry when we drop off their sholach manos or shmurah matzah or menorah kits, and then they send a big check. Their adult children (in their 30s and 40s) are stunned when they find out – I’ve actually seen the “stunned” personally. (Nursing home setting – “Dad, you give money to Chabad?!)
    Back on point, there is a big discontinuity in this conversation between Jewish projects we feel may be worthy, and which deserve Jewish community funding. Not every decent startup idea for social justice with a Jew in management deserves communal resources. Why should scarce funds be used for untested schemes? Any failed concept can be propped up with cash – look at Hillel! There is something positive in a true battle of the fittest here. In my experience, the organizations which survive and thrive are those who don’t count on the Federation for anything, least of all funding; and that’s when they get it.

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