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Thursday, January 27, 2022
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Russell Berrie Foundation and Jewish Federation of NNJ partner to imagine the future of the Jewish community.

The Russell Berrie Foundation (Foundation) and Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey (Federation) have been strong partners for decades. The Foundation has been providing both significant annual support and targeted program support to Federation at more than half a million dollars annually. Together, the partners fund and support initiatives designed to build and sustain the Jewish community. Now, the two organizations are partners in a new initiative, a year-long planning process to imagine the future of the Northern New Jersey Jewish community.

The Russell Berrie Foundation, established in 1985, began speaking with Federation in early 2019 about understanding the changing nature of the Jewish community in Northern New Jersey and how Jewish communities relate to centralized Jewish institutions like Federation. The question was how best to understand the needs of the Jewish community in their catchment area—recognizing that this has become an increasingly diverse community, one that does not necessarily
engage with traditional Jewish institutions as did previous generations.

The trustees of the Foundation had initially approved funding for a more limited version of the current initiative. The initial project was envisioned as a series of focus groups and community conversations, set to launch mid-March 2020. This plan, however, had to be shelved because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Foundation trustees, after much discussion and recognizing the acute needs of the moment, approved a reallocation of the funds to hire a community response director to help Federation stay on top of the needs of the community. Now, with the initial emergency in the past, Federation has returned to the question of how best to understand the needs of the Northern New Jersey Jewish community and the rapid changes occurring within the community.

The result was “The Conversation,” a new version of the original plan. The Foundation, providing support via a grant, has been a thought partner to Federation for more than a year, working to design the kind of survey and process that will identify and help meet the needs of the community.

Federation’s Karen Sponder, director of community strategic initiative, noted: “We called this ‘The Conversation’ to invite all those in our Jewish community to bring their voices, sharing what is on their minds about their Jewish lives and our community today. We want to hear from as many people as possible across all the sub-communities that form Northern New Jersey.”

“We all believe that having better information will allow Federation and the local organizations and agencies to make better decisions about what services they provide to meet the needs of the community, how to structure themselves, what gaps need to be filled,” said Idana Goldberg, CEO of The Russell Berrie Foundation. “As a local funder, we hope this will help us understand better how to allocate the Foundation’s resources in order to help the local Jewish community thrive and meet the needs of its members.”

The survey will build upon what Federation has learned in previous studies. Federation Chief Executive Officer Jason M. Shames said, “This data will benefit our entire community, including agencies, day schools, synagogues and any other Jewish organization in Northern New Jersey.”

The Foundation and Federation seek to engage diverse voices. The ultimate goals of “The Conversation” are to better understand the needs of the various sectors of the Northern New Jersey Jewish community and more clearly grasp the ways those needs are and are not currently being met, and supporting efforts to enrich Jewish life.

Lee Lasher, president of Jewish Federation, said, “I can tell you that Federation’s leadership is excited to embark on this journey with The Russell Berrie Foundation, our agencies and our community. Working together in moving the community forward towards a reimagined future is critical in ensuring our future. We need to listen, learn and try to reach as much of the community as possible so we can understand critical issues and needs, be strategic and hopefully address these issues and needs. … How we maximize our strengths, and also connect to all parts of the community. is so important.

“People connect to Jewish life in many ways, and what they are looking for from community organizations is a rapidly changing reality, and we need to be responsive,” Lasher continued. “Our goal is to hear from as many Jewish voices as possible, those who are affiliated and those who aren’t. Our vision is to see all of the Jewish community have some part in our future and our success. The best Jewish community is a diverse, broad, yet unified community. As Rabbi Sacks, zt’l often said, ‘The best unity is the unity of diversity’.”

“The Conversation” project will have two phases. First, a comprehensive study of the Northern New Jersey community will be conducted by gathering an enormous amount of information through a survey and then through focus groups and interviews, followed by interpretation of each component. The second phase will consist of a strategic planning process for Federation to determine its path forward for the next seven to 10 years. The study of the community will inform Federation’s strategic planning efforts and provide information for all partner organizations as they build their own strategies for the future.

“What’s exciting to us about this process is that it is community-focused,” said Goldberg. ”It’s not a survey about Federation and what people think of it, whether people like it or not, or want to give money or not. It’s externally focused on the Jewish people who live in Northern New Jersey, designed to understand them and their needs in all of its diversity.”

“The Conversation” survey is being administered by the independent firm Rosov Consulting, which will also be doing the data analysis. An outside digital marketing firm has been hired with the goal of reaching members of the Jewish community who are not affiliated with any organization. The Foundation and Federation are equally emphatic about wanting everyone’s voice heard.

“The Conversation” process has engaged the leaders of local Jewish agencies and institutions to provide input in designing the survey. In addition, a steering committee of local residents is sharing its ideas, while targeted focus groups have also helped design the program.

“I am excited to be heading up the strategic engineering taskforce,” said Federation past president Roberta Abrams. “It is imperative not only for Federation but also for our partner agencies to have a deep understanding of what members of our Jewish community are looking for to ensure Jewish life remains vibrant in the future.”

Additionally, an important part of this process is the Advisory Council, consisting of a wide-ranging group of professional leaders from Federation agencies.

Jewish organizations across Northern New Jersey are inviting their members and participants to take the community-wide survey. However, both the Foundation and Federation see the challenge as being able to find the unknown voices—people who may not be affiliated and do not attend synagogues, who might not be on outreach lists of Jewish organizations, who might have just moved to the area, those where one member of a couple might be Jewish and the other not. This is data that organizations historically have not had, limiting their ability to best serve the community.

“We have included an extremely diverse set of human talent to assist in developing questions for the study and recommendations on its findings,” said Shames. “We believe that this will enable the community to act more cohesively and develop a community vision to best meet our population. Ultimately, we see this as an incredible opportunity to bond the Jewish community in new and unique ways. Federation is proud to be fulfilling its historical mandate as the central planner and convener in this matter and wishes to thank The Russell Berrie Foundation for its support.”

Sponder noted: “It is inspiring to bring together leaders from across our Jewish communal landscape to do something we can all agree is valuable—learn more about our Jewish community. I am deeply grateful to work with so many people who have committed their time, expertise and passion for this shared endeavor. … I have young children, so I think often about what type of Jewish community I want for their future. The opportunity to play a part in shaping that future makes this work very meaningful to me.”

To participate in this survey, which will be live until January 31, visit www.theconversation2022.org. You are eligible to take the survey if you are 18 and older, live full- or part-time in Northern New Jersey and consider yourself Jewish or live in a Jewish household. All responses will be kept confidential. Those who complete the survey may enter their name in a contest to win one of three $1,000 Amazon gift cards.

For further information, visit http://russellberriefoundation.com.

To reach Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, go to https://www.jfnnj.org.

By Susan R. Eisenstein

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