Jewish Portland Tomorrow: Difficult Conversations Ahead

For the last 3+ years, I have written weekly remarks sharing thoughts about Jewish life and other subjects. Here I will share thoughts on Jewish Portland Tomorrow – a potential future vision for meeting the interests and needs of Jewish life in Portland.

I am sure these Marc’s Remarks will generate plenty of conversation – both positive and negative. There will be lots of questions and concerns. People may agree or disagree. However, 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, 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 this structure truly meet the needs of today and tomorrow?

Our community alone has 40+ Jewish organizations. Each is striving to meet the needs of its (growing/shrinking) member- ship or to provide programs and services to the community. In too many ways, each organization is focused on its 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 someone told me recently, “If we landed in Portland and there were 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 10 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, which ultimately led to several key recommendations cited later in this post. Underlying these findings are daunting trends in our community (and many others):

• 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).

• Infrastructure and other costs are escalating, while incoming dollars are relatively constant or diminishing.

• A running theme of “what is mine is mine” – including programing, space and donors.

People today are looking for the highest quality, most afford- able and most convenient services to meet their needs – whether in the Jewish community or not.
It is time to re-imagine Jewish Portland … and to create a communal system unlike any other.

What does this mean? Jewish NewCo (name for discussion purposes only) is about the creation of a new consolidated organization ( Jewish Federation, its partner agencies and others) that focuses on Jewish social services, life and learning, philanthropy and managing the back-office expenses for our community.

As part of this plan, the Jewish Federation would be absorbed into Jewish NewCo. This new organization would be a hub for lifelong access to innovative and exceptional Jewish experiences. Think Amazon.com – a one-stop shop 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 more efficient approach to Jewish culture, learn- ing, social services, philanthropy and connections to Israel. 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, LGBT community, people with disabilities)

• Meaningful and inspiring

• Fun (a running theme at 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. Not surprisingly, the reactions included legitimate questions. It was suggested that the federation hire a consultant to gather more feedback and to add “more meat on the bone.” Immediately, the federation governing board allocated funds to hire an outside consultant. The consultant (who has 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.

The community will have the opportunity to provide input. After we receive the consultant’s report, we can then share more specific details.

I applaud the efforts of this leadership committee. They have 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.

The goal of Jewish NewCo is to align our communal efforts toward a common definition of success by having ONE team and ONE communal plan for an exciting, vibrant Jewish community for all.

As always, I encourage your thoughts and feedback – marc@jewishportland.org.

Marc Blattner is CEO and president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland. These comments are excerpted from his Marc’s Remarks emails of Jan. 3 and Jan. 10.

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