First published by the Atlanta Jewish Times ›

Writing about the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta inspires metaphors.

Certainly, the Federation is the hub of a philanthropic wheel, its spokes representing the money it raises and distributes, the programs that connect elements of a far-flung Jewish community, and the links it fosters with Jewish and non-Jewish groups.

Think of JFGA, founded in 1905 as the Atlanta Federation of Jewish Charities, as an analog device retooled for the digital world.

Three years ago, shortly before Eric Robbins was hired as its president and CEO, the Federation was described in this space as “an aircraft carrier, an enormous craft that requires time to pivot in the water.”

Eric Robbins, JFGA CEO

After three years at the helm, Robbins feels that the pivot is underway. “I think we have a very clear direction. I think we have the right talent, both volunteer and professional, on board to get us there. And we have some momentum,” he said during an interview at Federation headquarters in midtown Atlanta.

Philanthropy involves channeling money into good works, so any discussion of the Federation, which is a 501(c)(3) non-profit under the federal tax code, starts with money raised to meet three priorities labeled as: Ensuring a Jewish future, Caring for Jews in need, and Strengthening Jewish community.

For fiscal year 2019, which ended June 30, donations to the Federation totaled more than $19 million, an increase from $17.5 million in fiscal 2018. There were 300 first-timers among 3,559 donors, and 8 percent of donors gave more than $10,000.

In late July, the Federation will announce how about two-thirds of the money raised in fiscal 2019 will be allocated in fiscal 2020, which began July 1. About 65 percent will go to organizations in Atlanta and the United States with the other 35 percent designated to connect with Jews globally, including in Israel and in the former Soviet Union.

A portion of the money allocated for Israel remains in Atlanta to fund the shinshinim, young Israelis who have graduated high school but not yet begun military service. They come to Atlanta to share their knowledge and love of their homeland at synagogues, day schools, and other programs in the Jewish community.

If the general allocations are “old school,” analog Federation, the Innovation Fund is the new, digital world. Several times a year that fund, increased this year to $440,000, awards grants to support new and emerging efforts to enhance Jewish life in Atlanta.

A third funding vehicle selects a set of recipients for what it calls targeted philanthropy. This past year funding was earmarked for PJ Library, a program providing books for Jewish families; overnight camping scholarships; JumpSpark, a teen programming initiative; and Repair the World, which provides service opportunities.

“We don’t just exist to fundraise for the community. If that’s all there is you could argue there is no relevance for us,” Robbins said. “But who is planning for the future of the Jewish community? Who is bringing the community together? Who is handling security on a community-wide perspective? Who is helping to build relationships with the non-Jewish community?”

After several more questions, Robbins ended with, “Who is beginning to think about what this community has to look like, not only tomorrow, but what it should look like in 25 or 30 or 50 years?”

According to the Federation’s fiscal 2018 tax filing, the most recent available, Robbins was paid $394,641. The staff he oversees has 58 full-time and 12 part-time employees.

“I think Eric has done a good job of creating priorities and bringing people together around a shared and common vision,” said Dov Wilker, Atlanta regional director of the American Jewish Committee. “He has done the best job of any Federation CEO in recent memory of being the convener in the community,” Wilker said, mentioning as an example the trip to Israel several months ago by 70 religious and lay leaders.

“It’s a sacred moment to be in this role at this time,” Robbins said at the start of his remarks to the Federation’s recent annual meeting in June, held in the gymnasium of the MJCCA.

Asked a couple of weeks later, Robbins said that by “sacred” he meant the opportunity to build and sustain the Jewish future. “I’m not sure that there’s ever not been a sacred time, but I certainly think now is a sacred time,” he said.

A year earlier, Robbins told the 2018 annual meeting audience that two things kept him awake at night: apathy and relevance – issues that remain in 2019.

“I still worry about apathy, because I think that’s the biggest threat to Jewish life. People don’t want to buy in. I will tell you that we had a little bit of a wake-up call in Pittsburgh and in Poway, and I don’t want that to be the wake-up call, and that has me not sleeping for other reasons,” Robbins said. He grew up in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, home to the Tree of Life synagogue, where 11 worshippers were massacred on Oct. 27, 2018, by a gunman spewing anti-Jewish venom. “For a moment there, people said, oh, maybe Judaism is important and we need to protect it, but it’s a shame that that’s what it takes. That is the significant difference between ’18 and ’19.”

How the community is secured will change this summer.

Cathal Lucy

Cathal Lucy, the Secret Service veteran who has been director of community-wide security for the Atlanta Federation since Oct. 2015, is stepping down in July. He will be succeeded by his deputy, Zach Williams, who joined JFGA several months ago from the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. [The decision was Lucy’s, Robbins said. Lucy did not respond to queries from the AJT.]

Robbins said that the Federation will increase its engagement with the Secure Community Network, maintained by the Jewish Federations of North America, which provides Jewish institutions with security updates and can provide personnel to assist local federations.

If securing Jewish institutions has become a priority for Federations nationwide, that to-do list also includes connecting millennials (born 1981-1996) to the Jewish community at-large, never mind seeking a donation. Studies conducted in recent years have found that a significant percentage in this age group have little or no attachment to their Judaism.

In the 2013 Pew Research Center study of American Jews, 68 percent of millennial Jews identified as “Jews by religion” while 32 percent were classified as “Jews of no religion.” A 2017 report by the Public Religion Research Institute found that about one-third of Americans who identify as Jewish were “cultural Jews,” with no religious attachment. PRRI also reported that 53 percent of those under age 30 qualified as “cultural Jews.”

Among the Federation’s efforts to connect this younger cohort with the wider Jewish community have been its support of “Next Gen” involvement with Birthright Israel, convening “The Interchange” forum to explore how the Jewish community can be more welcoming toward interfaith families, and through a program pairing younger social and business entrepreneurs with community elders for mentoring and intergenerational learning.

Renee Kutner, the Federation’s vice president of marketing, said that success will not be measured by whether young adults come to the Federation annual meeting, but whether it is “coming to them at the places where they want to be.”

Renee Kutner

Where they want to be are sections of Atlanta where the Jewish community is growing. The northern reaches of the metro area, a broad swath that includes Alpharetta and Johns Creek, will be the first focus of a five-year grant the Federation has received to target neighborhoods. That effort will supplement the “PJ connectors,” people working part-time for the Federation creating Jewish programming in Smyrna, Brookhaven, Dunwoody, Decatur and the North Metro area.

“None of this is about connecting to Federation. Federation exists to build the community … We want to connect people to the community in hopes that they’ll support the community through Federation,” Robbins said.

Among other plans on the drawing board for 2020 and beyond, Robbins said, “We’re moving forward on ideas to help support part-time and day school education in the community, and on the concept of a family camp. We have a vision of a camp that operates year-round for families. We would prototype it, lease a site somewhere and try it.”

A goal Robbins had when he arrived 2016, of gathering numerous Jewish organizations under one roof, may be realized in a proposed renovation of the Federation’s three-acre headquarters at 18th and Spring streets.

When Robbins addressed the 2019 annual meeting, a sketch – now dubbed “the Jetsons building,” a nod to the early 1960s television cartoon – briefly appeared on a screen behind him.

In an AJT interview, Robbins and Kutner stressed that the drawing was not “the” building, but rather one architect’s idea. “That is the current rendering of what we are exploring having in this space, which is a multi-use building for Atlanta’s Jewish community,” Robbins said. A feasibility study may begin in the months ahead, followed by preparations for a fundraising campaign, though no cost figure has been attached yet to the project.

In addition to Federation’s headquarters, a new building could house workspace for smaller and emerging Jewish organizations, offices or satellite space for more established agencies, expanded space for the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum, a small theater (for possible use by the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival), an Israel experience center and, atop all of these, residential properties.

“We believe that the greatest way to create energy in the Jewish community is that collision of organizations, and we’re going to create that capsule,” Robbins said. “The concept embodies exactly what we want to be in the community. This is not Federation’s building, don’t call it Federation’s building. This is a building that would be the home to many Jewish organizations and programs.”

The Federation is also part of Atlanta’s broader philanthropic landscape. Alicia Philipp, executive director of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, said, “We have partnered with the Federation for years on various programs and events, and Eric has continued that commitment during his tenure. The Federation has deep roots in the Atlanta community and a strong history of being collaborative and thoughtful in their work with us at the Community Foundation and with other organizations working to addressing the needs of our communities.”

Toward the end of the hour-long interview, Robbins said, “I’m more convinced than ever in the importance of Federation, in building and sustaining this community.”

First published by the Atlanta Jewish Times ›

Since Tribe 360 closed its doors over a decade ago, there’s been no central bureau or agency for Jewish education in Atlanta, but that’s about to change.

Kelly Cohen advising an In The City Camp Mogul event, funded in part by a 2019 Spark Grant.

At one time, the Atlanta Jewish educational world was served by an organization known as Jewish Educational Services, or JES. The Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta later spun off that agency to become the Center for Jewish Education and Experiences or CJEE. That, in turn, became Tribe 360 before it closed its doors more than a decade ago.

Since then, there’s been no central bureau or agency for Jewish education in Atlanta. Stan Beiner is former head of The Epstein School and was chair of the day school council. As he put it: “I think when they created a vacuum, it wasn’t filled.” Beiner, now principal of the Fulton County Academy of Science and Technology in Roswell, observed, “Without a central bureau, everyone goes into his own silo, and you sacrifice community.”

But that’s all about to change.

Jodi Mansbach, chief impact officer at the Jewish Federation, told the AJT that her organization has acknowledged the lack of a central community educational resource that could provide professional development for Jewish educators.

Jodi Mansbach, Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta

Thanks to a two-year grant, the Jewish Federation will fund a part-time position for someone to convene educators of supplemental Jewish education.

“We’re in the process of hiring and hope to have someone by late summer,” Mansbach said. The goals over the next two to three years will be to focus on educator training with an emphasis on experiential education and to bring together a cohort of Jewish educational organizations already existing in Atlanta that prioritize innovation.

“We’re not trying to recreate a CJEE,” she said. “We’re not trying to create a huge infrastructure. And we’re not trying to say it has to be at the Federation, but we can start by incubating it.”

Last fall the Jewish Federation started bringing a small group of educators together to figure out exactly what is needed in the Jewish community. “Our first step is to build a community of practitioners. We will be working with synagogues to determine the needs. We know there’s a need for high-quality educator training.”

Mansbach noted that the Federation may work with a national organization such as The Jewish Education Project in New York City that has begun reaching out nationally to provide educational support to local communities.

Mansbach pointed to the model used by JumpSpark, an innovative teen programming group that serves as a connector, partner and funder for program development for teens, their parents and Jewish professionals. JumpSpark is part of a national Jewish Teen Education & Engagement Funder Collaborative that is also funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.

“We saw what Kelly Cohen has done with teens, with the support of a national network and then they created a community network,” said Mansbach, referring to JumpSpark’s director. Atlanta is one of 10 cities that received funding from the national network, Cohen said. “Our funds are matched by the Federation and every city differs. But we work out of common goals and outcomes.”

Kelly Cohen, JumpSpark

JumpSpark was launched in 2017. Cohen started in August 2017, becoming the director a year later. “Our goal is to raise the bars for Jewish teens,” she said. “This is not a youth group; you can’t join it. It’s not a classroom program. It’s an impact hub. We’re funding ways to reconceptualize Jewish learning.”

Cohen, who taught at The Davis Academy for six years and has a master’s degree in Jewish education, explained that the centralized program of Tichon that provided after-school Jewish education for teens years ago, “doesn’t fit the world anymore. We must rethink what we mean by education to meet the needs of teens today.”

Indeed, the world of Jewish education has dramatically changed over the last century. According to The Breman Museum archives, the Atlanta Bureau of Jewish Education was first founded in 1945. The purposes of the bureau were: “a) to bring about the coordination of all Jewish schools and other educational agencies in Atlanta, to the extent that their work may be promoted through common and cooperative efforts; b) to render pedagogic and educational services to all Jewish schools and other groups and agencies seeking such assistance; c) to encourage intelligent planning and creative effort in the field of Jewish education calculated to promote the religious, cultural and spiritual growth of the individual and the community, and to make the community more conscious of the program and needs of Jewish education.” The bureau included all accredited rabbis, chairmen of committees of education of affiliated schools, and all professional heads of affiliated schools.

One of the services offered was a centralized Jewish library, a resource that Atlanta Jewish leaders have noted was lost when CJEE closed.

Paul Flexner, who was brought to Atlanta in 2004 to head CJEE, notes that central bureaus of Jewish education in many U.S. communities started closing their doors in the early years of this century. According to Rabbi Scott T. Aaron, education director of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, some of this was due to the recession that struck the country in 2006.

Paul Flexner

“Communities were slow to respond to the cultural and economic changes, and when we had the recession, central agencies became the target of those who were upset with Jewish education. Many thought the central agencies were outmoded and in need of changes.”

Even the national agency funded by the Federation system to provide a centralized bureau of Jewish education, the Jewish Education Services of North America, folded during the recession.

Aaron, who is also the chair of the Association of Directors of Central Agencies, explained that the models for Jewish education have changed over the years.

“Central agencies were initially set up to be equivalent to boards of education,” he said. “They provided opportunities to streamline resources and sometimes to run centralized schools, originally known as Talmud Torahs. Synagogues didn’t have the wherewithal to have their own schools.”

In the 20th century, as the Jewish community became more suburban, synagogues set up their own schools. National denominations such as Reform and Conservative provided curricular help and teacher training, but Aaron said they don’t any longer. And, he pointed out, “libraries are now obsolete.”

Many communities, like Atlanta, closed their central bureaus. Some brought them into their Federation systems. Not surprisingly, Aaron told the AJT, “I believe in central resources. Many of our communities are adrift. We let this stuff go on autopilot for too long. Now we need to talk to our communities. There’s no template out there anymore. Each city must figure it out for itself.”
That seems to be what is finally happening in Atlanta.