As someone who is often still lost in the alphabet soup of Jewish organizations – UJC, WZO, AJC, JCRC, WJC, LOL – I share the frustration of those who find the organizations of Jewish communal life difficult to navigate, perhaps even outmoded. These organizations are large enough that they have to engage in huge fundraising efforts just to keep themselves going. And nimble they are not. It is tempting to look to the recent trend of smaller, more innovative, often local start-ups that are mission-driven. They raise and disburse funds around a narrower set of initiatives and programs such as Chicago’s Jewish Council on Urban Affairs or New York’s Avodah Jewish Service Corps.
Yet Rabbi Stern is correct that there is still great need for the “legacy” Jewish organizations. First, they have built a tremendous infrastructure to provide services in both the Jewish and wider communities. Second, they are able to speak effectively as “the Jewish voice” on issues of importance to the Jewish community (although frankly, sometimes I wish there were room for more diverse or nuanced voices on some issues). And finally, they often deliver funds to places they are greatly needed like soup kitchens, shelters, and a whole host of programs that may not be “exciting” enough to attract individual donors but which many in our communities depend upon.
While there will always be a tension between the need for smaller, more responsive organizations and larger, better-funded, and more powerful ones, it is important not to lose sight of the vital work those larger organizations conduct.