Image: Nate Bullis

In May 2017, the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle invited 50 lay and professional leaders from 25 Jewish organizations and synagogues to embark on an important task — taking a hard look at pressing issues and high-priority needs facing Jewish Puget Sound and figuring out cooperative ways forward.

The gathering was the kickoff of the Community Convening initiative. Serving as a community voice is a pillar of the Federation’s mission, and a core element is to act as a convener. Accordingly, the Federation invited organizations to collaboratively address questions such as: What are the communal challenges we face? How can we work better together and support one another?

The effort is a community-wide undertaking to address issues arising from fragmentation, which no one organization can do on its own, says Nancy B. Greer, the Federation’s President & CEO. Communal leaders taking part in the project are engaging in a “higher level of discourse as community members,” Greer adds.

Preparation was essential for project success, and the Federation made a significant investment to secure a top facilitator — Rabbi Doug Kahn, who brought 27 years of experience heading the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Relations Council and a deep understanding of working through challenging cross-communal issues. Rabbi Kahn met individually with community leaders to hear their concerns, which helped shape ensuing discussions.

Over the next few months, 19 communal leaders, a subset of the initial 50, pinpointed the paramount need — greater community cohesiveness — a must to accomplish if Jewish Puget Sound is to realize its potential for growth and innovation in Jewish life. The group defined cohesiveness as three commitments:

>Grow a welcoming, supportive environment to promote Jewish engagement among Jews with diverse backgrounds and views;

>Foster greater cooperation and respect among Jewish institutions;

>Reach new heights as a community through community-wide initiatives.

Amy Lavin, the Stroum Jewish Community Center’s CEO, describes cohesiveness as “a commitment to openness, honoring diverse perspectives, and working through things together.”

Cohesiveness is especially important given Jewish Puget Sound’s growth, Temple Beth Am Rabbi Jason Levine explains: “As a more cohesive and connected community, we can better support younger Jews on their Jewish journeys.”

A spinoff benefit of the process has been healthier relationships, a prerequisite for collaborative work across organizational boundaries. Says Susan Adler, Hadassah’s Seattle chapter president, the work is prompting organizations to think about “how we can leverage our collective leadership to support one another as opposed to competing.”

The convening process identified top-priority initiatives, each with a team headed by a different leader to ensure broad buy-in: 1) creating a cohesive newcomers initiative, 2) establishing a vibrant Jewish Community Relations Council, 3) launching a substantial civil discourse initiative throughout the community, 4) regularly convening heads of major Jewish organizations, 5) developing a leadership pipeline for communal institutions, 6) creating greater inter-organizational understanding and collaboration, and 7) growing a robust adult Jewish education program crossing institutional lines.

The Federation’s ongoing role is keeping the project on track — to “catalyze, communicate, and convene,” as Greer says. Says Miri Cypers, regional director of ADL, “the Federation was instrumental in bringing organizations and leaders together for the project,” which “provided an opportunity for organizations like ADL to take a leadership role in heading up a key project on civil discourse.”

The next steps are to work on the seven initiatives, building on a foundation of greater understanding. “As we learn more about each other, as we get to specifics and deliverables, we’ll have a platform for continuous improvement,” Lavin says.

The Community Convening initiative has demonstrated that we are stronger when we work together.   

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