Anyone who thinks Jewish Federation activities are rote, bureaucratic or boring has clearly never met the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, the charismatic dynamo that is Jason Shames.
Shames (pronounced Shaah-mes) joined JFNNJ in 2011 after overseeing all philanthropic projects at The Federation of Greater Washington, and before then, he had various roles in Jewish communal service in Florida. He is a visionary strategist who resembles a corporate CEO. “Shames’ experience over 20 years working in non-profits has honed a series of leadership skills that are at once unabashed, opinionated and targeted toward constant reevaluation, transformation and improvement,” said Jayne Petak, the immediate past president of Federation.
His weekly Shabbat Shalom emails are unapologetically Zionist, and can be, at times, fiery; at other times he will speak with sadness or fear, from his heart, about news of the day. On numerous occasions, his emails cause receivers to pause from their frenetic pace of Friday work to ruminate over his messages to the Federation community.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Jewish Link, Shames noted that his overhaul, including overall belt-tightening and evaluation of programs and redundancies of Federation, began soon after his arrival, but the clarity of priorities was formed after the community was asked to fill out a questionnaire in 2015 about their wants and needs for Federation’s activities. The results provided a clear directive.
“People have expectations but they also need certain things, like social welfare, to get done. But our messaging was also about the stuff that excited people. We want our users to see that we have heard what they are interested in and are living up to what people expect of us,” Shames told The Jewish Link.
Taking to heart the message from the survey, it has now become clear that Federation has become about much more than social programs and services. “It’s more than social welfare: it’s policy, advocacy, Zionism. Making sure Holocaust survivors and seniors get taken care of is part of what is expected of us, but all of our work has to support our ultimate objectives,” he said.
All of Shames’ work now stems from his clarity of goals and his “top three” objectives, to which all of Federation’s work is geared. In addition to being the community organizer for the numerous social welfare programs it supports, all programs are geared toward one or more of the following goals: (1) ensuring a vibrant Jewish future, (2) ensuring the safety and security of Israel and (3) fighting anti-Semitism and BDS.
The 26-and-under crowd often comprises a large portion of Federation programs, but it differs in Northern New Jersey because of the community it serves. “Forty percent of our kids are in Jewish day schools for kindergarten through eighth grade,” he said. Federation invests differently in teens and in Hoboken, where more young Jews attend public school. Federation now funds Onward Israel for post-Birthright attendees, as studies have shown that if a Jewish youth attends a second Israel-focused program after Birthright, their identity strengthens significantly and leads to further affiliation and a stronger Jewish identity. To that end, Federation also continues to fund programs including BBYO, BCHSJS and Hillel.
Shames has also had an influx of funds in recent years, succeeding particularly in fundraising for specific programs, like for camp scholarships for first-time Jewish sleepaway campers who do not attend a Jewish school. Julie Eisen, a past president of Federation and a current member of its board of trustees, noted that the effects of sleepaway camp on Jewish kids is hard to duplicate. “The retention rate for those who go to Jewish overnight camp is 90 percent. There’s something so special about that immersive Jewish camp experience.” Shames raised $190,000 for this program and is sending 152 kids this summer to Jewish sleepaway camp for the first time.
Federation also funds anti-poverty, nutrition and welfare education programs inside schools to increase tolerance and understanding. For example, community food drives often involve the Jewish day schools as well as public schools, and sometimes have an interfaith component, but the programs are ultimately geared toward this same goal of ensuring a vibrant Jewish future. “Aligning ourselves with non-Jewish organizations that are the recipients of these food drives [is] a way for to us to interact with the larger community in a positive way,” he said.
Clarity regarding interfaith activities is one of the more pointed changes Shames made since his arrival. “Interfaith relationships have been a big factor since I got here. When I got here I asked what our goals were, what our objectives were with this. It took time to make the change, but what we’ve done is we’ve refined it, we’ve improved it, and pointed to what we are trying to achieve. It [good interfaith relationships] is a component of supporting Jewish and Israeli needs locally,” he said.
Ensuring the safety and security of Israel has now become a more active, central part of Federation’s work, through Shames’ prioritization process, but it is by no means a new issue. “We want all Jews, whatever their background, to feel that Israel is their home, even if they have never visited,” said Dr. Zvi Marans, a past president of Federation. “We are a people, a religion and a nation, and Israel is our collective home.”
“We have now gone to great measures to be supportive, wherever possible, of Israel,” Shames said. Federation now funds the Aharai Youth Leading Change program, which sends 35 participants to this specific IDF program and nine to a community program. Another program funds club rehabilitation and partnership activities in Federation’s Israeli sister city Nahariya, which has 50 Hebrew-speaking participants who visit this region and another 50 from here who go there, every other year.
“We also fund a pet-therapy program in Sderot, we have provided air conditioners in bomb shelters in Nahariya and worked on additional measures for safety for people on the ground,” said Shames.
Finally, in terms of Federation’s third stated goal of fighting anti-Semitism and BDS, Shames noted he has been working as the lead federation in Trenton, working to pass the anti-BDS legislation that recently was made into law in New Jersey. Also, the iCAN Answer Now Teen Conference, held in Hasbrouck Heights this past March, brought together 200 teens from 35 high schools, to teach them how to answer anti-Semitic questions they may be faced with during their college experience.
With all the new programs, Shames added that there are also long-standing programs that still must be supported. “We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on nutrition and counseling for Holocaust survivors. But we are also modern, nimble. We took a big hit from Obamacare [noting that under the ACA, Federation’s existing insurance company became outdated. The new one costs more for less coverage]. It made us change the way we were doing health care, based on the way we compensated employees. Changes in health care law impacts businesses and impacted us,” he said.
Making such profound and specific changes of priorities in a non-profit can’t have been easy, and managing a staff of over 60 people with primarily non-profit training cannot have been simple. However, “It’s kind of who I am,” Shames said. He explained that he gave a great measure of credit to his grad school program at the University of Arizona, where he sought a masters in public administration in the business school. “Our core classes we took with the MBA students, and our program was capped at 50 students. At the time, Arizona’s state government was becoming increasingly concerned about the type of people who were getting into governments. This program essentially became an MBA for the not-for-profit sector,” he explained.
In addition to maintaining all programs according to core principles, Shames actively manages the Federation’s assets and liabilities, and tracks revenue and expenses. He has been active in building development, database and marketing teams inside Federation. His well-earned reputation for restructuring organizational assets and integrating core values is put to good use here in Northern New Jersey. However, he said, “I am also smart enough to know I can’t do it alone. And I hire good people and delegate it out,” he added. And it kind of explains why Shames’ Federation-wide hashtag is #TransformLives. Learn more at https://www.jfnnj.org/.
By Elizabeth Kratz