President and CEO of JFNA Eric Fingerhut goes one-on-one with the CJN – Cleveland Jewish News

Posted By on December 14, 2019

Eric D. Fingerhut, president and CEO of Jewish Federations of North America, spoke about FedLab, the global Jewish agenda of JFNA, and his personal affiliations as a Jew, during a wide-ranging interview with the Cleveland Jewish News.

Fingerhut, who was in Cleveland on Dec. 5 to speak at the Jewish Family Service Associations 144th annual meeting, has been with JFNA since August after serving in the same position at Hillel International since August 2013,

Fingerhut is a Cleveland native, who grew up in University Heights and graduated from Cleveland Heights High School in Cleveland Heights.

Prior to moving to Washington, D.C., Fingerhut lived in Cleveland Heights, Mayfield Heights, Shaker Heights and University Heights and. He was a U.S. congressman and an Ohio senator. He also served as the chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents in Columbus.

At the JFNA, Fingerhut presided over an intensive three-track workshop in Washington, D.C., called FedLab from Nov. 10 to Nov. 12 for 900 invited volunteers and staff throughout the federation system.

CJN: How did FedLab go?

Fingerhut: I couldnt have been happier. You know, I didnt know how people would react. We tried something completely different. Instead of going to a conference where you go to a different session every 45 minutes and you hear dozens and dozens of speakers and politicians and famous people. We asked people to spend three days in a deep dive with the same couple hundred people on one of the three really critical issues that were facing. And people did it. They leaned in. They came to it with an open mind and a good spirit. And I think we accomplished a lot. I think we accomplished both creating new ideas and approaches to the issues that we discussed, that we studied, but I think we also accomplished a sense of intellectual excitement, that theres really new ideas out there, that we dont have to its not a criticism to say that there have to be new approaches.

In my remarks at FedLab, I quoted one of my favorite Jewish teachings, Rav Kook, who was the chief, the first rabbi of Ashkenazi Israel, (who) famously said, Make the old new and the new holy, and so I feel like we were modernizing, bringing things forward, but we were also bringing holiness to all the new work.

CJN: How often will FedLab take place?

Fingerhut: We dont know yet. Were going to have a GA (General Assembly) next year in Chicago. Everybody should come Oct. 25 to Oct. 27 (2020). The idea will be to see if we can take the learning that we did with 900 people, that excitement, and bring it to 5,000 people. And obviously it wont be identical. Youre not going to do one track for three days, but see how we can bring that same attitude. And then I think well see. ... In the spirit of FedLab, were innovating.

CJN: Where do you live?

Fingerhut: My familys still in Washington. I have a place in New York right by the JFNA office. And well be moving to New York. Its a process. We have two boys in high school. Its a process.

CJN: Where do you belong to synagogue?

Fingerhut: We belong to a synagogue in Washington. We live in Shepherd Park, which is in the city, near the border of Silver Spring, but in the city. We go to a wonderful synagogue called Ohev Sholom, which is also known as the national synagogue. So I grew up in Beth Am Community Temple, and Im now at the national synagogue. Rabbi (Shmuel) Herzfeld. Its a wonderful booming, its as if Cleveland Heights you know had declined in terms of Jewish population, people moved out, but then all of a sudden, it came back. So this had been a Jewish community and then in the 60s and 70s most of the families moved out to Potomac and Rockville and Silver Spring all those places. And then in the last few years, the last decade really, a lot of young families who were living downtown, working on the Hill, davening at something called the D.C. Minyan, started having kids, they didnt want to move all the way out to the suburbs, so they repopulated this beautiful area. And we love it. Actually its very old, even though its in the city, it has the feel of a Cleveland Heights kind of, the older homes and lots of trees. We feel like its where we grew up. We love it.

CJN: Do you have a synagogue in New York City?

Fingerhut: I dont know yet. Thats part of the process of like figuring out where in New York. So, I have found a lovely synagogue thats had so many different names I dont know what they call themselves now down in Tribeca that I can go to for minyan and on the rare occasion when Im there for Shabbos. But were still figuring that out.

CJN: How often do you get to minyan?

Fingerhut: I try to go to minyan in the morning when I can. Its certainly not every day. The good news is, the morning you have to make an effort. Its not uncommon for us to have a group together for afternoon, for Mincha Maariv in the afternoon, but like I said, I dont get there every day, a lot of traveling, a lot of early morning phone calls and such.

You know the other thing thats extraordinary about the federation system is the support of the global Jewish agenda, the Israel Jewish agenda, so of course we are the largest historic partners of The Jewish Agency for Israel, of the JDC (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee), helping collectively provide over $100 million a year to Jewish Agency, over $50 million a year to JDC, which of course the Jewish Agency is responsible for aliyah, and for the safety of Jews around the world, and the JDC responsible for caring for Jews in need around the world.

And you think about it, what an extraordinary thing, right? This Jewish community in North America provides these funds and often are the people who sit on the boards and govern it. So we have a very significant and I as CEO have a significant responsibility to work with those organizations to help them with their mission. And so theres lots of travel, global travel, and also lots of early morning phone calls, since Israel is seven hours ahead and Europe is six hours ahead, lots of early morning phone calls.

So. like I said, I dont get there every morning, but when I can, I try to.

CJN: Did the FedLab reflect the most pressing issues?

Fingerhut: We knew you couldnt do everything at once. So I dont want to say that we ranked them and picked the top three. But I think in terms of the need for federations to think new or urgently, that was how we chose those three.

So certainly security and anti-Semitism is on everbodys mind. Every federation is looking at what kind of additional investments they have to make in security. Here in Cleveland they increased by several million dollars a year, the investments in security. So we know thats happening. What can we do collectively? How do we help with best practices standards, standards etc. You know we run something call the Secure Communities Network, which actually Steve Hoffman (immediate past president of the Jewish Fderation of Cleveland) played a big role in creating when he was serving in this role. And that is the sort of does the training and coordination of all our security, runs the national duty desk, so theres an instant sharing of information. That was the easy call in terms of the track.

I really feel very strongly that the reason for the Action For Good track was and again here we are at Jewish Family Service. Its a $30 million agency. It is if Im not mistaken receives the largest single allocation of Federation funds every year of any agency from this extraordinary community. its the safety net. And I think that is, unfortunately, often overlooked the role that federations are playing in guaranteeing a social service safety net for our community. And its sometimes harder to make the case for it.

Thank G-d many of our families dont need this, so they dont know, they havent used the service, they dont know it. They may not fully understand how an organization like this works. We do get government funds, Medicare, Medicaid etc., but the philanthropy is the critical thing that provides the service. I thought it would be good to bring together the federation experts from around the country who do this kind of work to share best practices and how do we tell our story, and also what are we missing?

As I said, JFSA isnt the same as it was 50 years ago. Theres substance abuse issues, theres mental health issues, theres lots of issues that communities are tackling. So that felt like an urgent priority to me.

And then also the broad issue of our engagement of our Jewish community. So were so heavily invested. Earlier when we were on camera, I spoke about Hillel and Moishe House and day schools and camps and trips of all kinds. Really, other than synagogue life, which is of course an important part of Jewish life, you know federations are really the single largest investor in all of the areas of engagement in Jewish life.

And so, again, similar to social welfare, we really are the anchors of the community in that way, and I dont think we necessarily think of ourselves that way or leverage the assets we have. So I felt that those were places that were places that were fruitful and ripe for really good discussion.

What we didnt do, and we will do urgently, is the Israel and global overseas Jewish communit agenda.

We didnt do that really for two reasons. One, our two major partners, as I mentioned are The Jewish Agency and JDC. When our predecessors designed this system, they didnt even think of them as separate organizations, right? They thought of Federations and our partners, they thought of it as a coherent system, where we raise money locally. we perform our local needs and we invest overseas in Israel and the organizations that do that for us is the Jewish Agency and JDC.

Both of them actually underwent some significant transition.

The Jewish Agency has a new leader, Bougie Herzog, Isaac Herzog, the former minority leader of the Knesset, became about a year ago, they call it the chairman of the executive, and there you have a new CEO Amira Aharonovich, whos been on the job for about nine months. And they just, just were completing a strategic plan. So it felt like we should give that process a little bit more chance before we delve deeply into it.

And JDC you may know is in a transition process they havent yet completed. they have a search for a new CEO coming on board, coming online. And so it just felt like, lets focus on these three issues, mostly domestic right now and then well do a similar good job on the Israel, overseas issues.

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President and CEO of JFNA Eric Fingerhut goes one-on-one with the CJN - Cleveland Jewish News

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