New UJF President Michael Schlessinger gave this address at the Annual Meeting of United Jewish Federation on December 19.
Good evening. Thank you to all our departing Board members and congratulations to our new Board members and tonight’s honorees. Federation matters. I’m sure that simple thought is what compels most of you to be here tonight but its truth resonates because of your collective efforts over a long period of time. A special thanks to our “COVID president” David Gordon. (His term was either 150% or 13.2% of a normal presidency, depending on whether you count by total time served or in-person Board meetings.) I met David for the first time three years ago at the Annual Meeting dinner. I remember thinking “I can be on this guy’s Board.” And while that profound musing turned out to be true, his tenure of course meant more than that to me. Mostly he exemplified in his dayto-day stewardship a deep concern for the well-being of the Jewish community of Stamford, New Canaan and Darien -- one I hope to emulate. Monica and I moved to Stamford with our four kids at the end of 2006.
Since we thus measure our Stamford roots in years rather than decades or generations, we are still newcomers. Our two daughters were high school age when we arrived and the Kulanu program provided an early taste of how vibrant and interesting this Jewish community is. Rabbi TelRav then made a strong impression on our youngest son in connection with his confirmation, and the local Jewish community has touched our oldest son by, among other things, helping to endow his home at Chapel Haven, a remarkable facility in New Haven for adults with special needs.So we as a family owe a lot to this community. And I personally owe a lot to my family (many of whom are on the live stream) for their support, particularly to my daughters for eventually forgiving me that “moving them in high school” faux pas.
On to Federation. You heard David recite some of Federation’s recent contributions, and it’s an impressive list. I’m superstitious enough that I don’t want to try to anticipate the next crisis or sudden super-priority – I certainly hope the next couple of years will be more boring and serene than the last three. Instead, I want to focus on three broader themes. If we get these right, we will also be well-positioned to contribute when crises or unanticipated needs arise.
Priority #1. “First do no harm.” I’m not a doctor but I identify with the humility in that goal. Finances aside, the most obvious pitfalls for this organization involve controversy. We are lucky to live in a diverse and passionate community but with that diversity and passion comes the potential for strife. As a member of David’s executive committee, I was involved in responding to several controversies that flared up suddenly and unavoidably. I was impressed in these instances by what might be called the “Federation mindset.” Our Board, by design, mirrors the community’s diversity across most dimensions so, when these issues arose, you could sense people starting to line up “by team.” In each instance, Diane, David or one of the Executive Committee members — often the member most invested in the issue — would say “you know this controversy could cause us to lose donors or hurt our reputation in the community,” immediately shifting our focus to navigating the storm as fairly and diplomatically as possible. The “Federation mindset” involves putting Federation – and by proxy the community as a whole – ahead of any particular heated issue, particularly at the time of greatest heat. And with extremely infrequent exceptions, Federation’s lay and professional leadership get that implicitly and act accordingly.
Priority #2. Which brings me to priority #2, something called “unifying the community.” This simple and achievable goal is not new – as you heard, it was on David’s list 3 years ago and it also polled near the top in our community survey for the strategic plan. Recently, I attended the JFNA General Assembly in Chicago. The plenary session included a panel called “Viewpoint Diversity.” There were 1,200 people in the huge ballroom, but you could hear a pin drop. In the moment, you could sense the solidarity in that incredibly diverse room around modest goals like being able to exchange views without animus or agreeing on a common set of objective facts. But the panelists’ concrete prescriptions, like the mood in that room, were fleeting.
I don’t know how to pursue this priority in our community, but I believe it’s important. Politeness dictates that we just avoid areas of potential disagreement, and polite avoidance over time allows us to drift further apart, particularly when we increasingly get our information from wholly non-overlapping sources. Given our first priority, we have to be cautious in pursuing this goal, but we will pursue it on the margins. We’ll try little experiments and get community feedback. And we will challenge our incoming Board to be a laboratory as well, hopefully modeling at our meetings the kind of frank but respectful discussion of important issues that can inch us toward being more unified as a community, or at least more understanding of difference.
Priority #3. Finally, priority #3. Financial sustainability. This is obviously critical to any organization, but for a Federation, it is also the best performance metric. If we are adding value in this growing and vibrant Jewish community, we should be growing as well. We’ve made strides here over the past 3 years, growing our total revenue by an average 14% annually. While the important final days of our campaign remain, we expect 2022 revenue to hit a 10-year high. We have funded an operating reserve and maintain a healthy cash balance and growing endowment. Our strategic plan identified important investments in technology and staff, which we are implementing. Some of these improvements may be less obvious to the community, simply because our incredibly energetic CEO and dedicated staff and volunteers have been using long days and weekends to create the appearance of a more extensive infrastructure than we actually have.