Rehfeld outlines new course for Federation at town hall meeting

Andrew Rehfeld, President and CEO of Jewish Federation of St. Louis, speaks during a town hall meeting held Sunday at Congregation Shaare Emeth. Photo: Eric Berger

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

When an audience member at a Jewish Federation of St. Louis town hall meeting asked what the organization could do to help students in their pro-Israel efforts on college campuses, President and CEO Andrew Rehfeld joked, “I first want to thank you for volunteering to serve on our college committee.”

Rehfeld said during the Sunday morning meeting at Shaare Emeth that Federation’s aim was to get donors more involved in the Jewish community — not just ask them for money.

“In the past, the annual campaign presumes that everybody feels an obligation to give and you’re made to feel guilty” if you “only gave $10 last year and this year it should be $20— and oh by the way, it should be $36,” Rehfeld told the some 70 people in attendance. “That it turns out, believe it or not, does not inspire people.”

The effort to get donors and non-donors more involved in the Jewish community is one part of what Federation describes as a new strategic plan. The nonprofit organization aims to increase outreach to members of the Jewish community who are not affiliated with a synagogue; help donors make more targeted contributions for particular causes through Federation; and transition to a foundation model that moves away from providing directing services and instead supports, and collaborates with, synagogues and other nonprofits, according to documents used in the presentation.   

Federation is taking a new approach in part because the number of annual donors — and the amount of their donations, accounting for inflation — has decreased significantly in the last three decades. ($19.5 million in 1989 compared to less than $10 million in 2016). 

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That trend has occurred despite the fact that the number of Jewish households in St. Louis has increased from 24,600 in 1995 to 32,900 in 2014, according to the 2014 St. Louis Jewish Community Study. 

In short, Federation will not first ask for money, as leaders say has been done in the past. They are instead asking people to get involved and provide feedback on what they see as the most urgent needs in the community.

The audience at the town hall meeting — who were not necessarily donors —  appeared ready to provide input on how Federation spends its money. 

Here is a selection of attendees questions and comments and Rehfeld and Federation board Chair Gerry Greiman’s responses: (They have been edited for space and clarity.)

 

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has billions of dollars. If we have a foundation, do we have an anonymous, great donor who provides a base for creating this foundation?

Rehfeld: The Gates Foundation began with Bill and Melinda Gates putting in a lot of money but once they articulated their mission, it rose because other key donors, including Warren Buffett and many, many others, invested in it and were attracted to making an impact with their money. We currently have a $130 million endowment. Federation controls about $85 million of that — we have assets, we have resources. It’s not a billion dollars, but we’re also not starting from scratch.

Greiman then clarified that Federation was not creating a new organization but just changing its model. 

 

Tell us more about Federation’s efforts to address poverty. To me, it should be the top of our focus because that’s why we have managed to be here for 3,000 years or more.

Rehfeld: Eight percent of our population is at 150 percent of the federal poverty line or below and an additional 18 percent lives at 250 percent of the poverty line or below. To give you an idea, in 2014, 250 percent of the poverty line was $59,000 for a family of four. So if you’re at that level, you’re not looking for housing, you’re not looking for food but you are not able to connect to the Jewish community, you’re not able to pay for camps. A lot of people are below that. 

To address that, Federation provides kosher food to people who live in poverty and keep kosher, advocates for poverty programs not limited to the Jewish community and through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee helps Jewish people in places such as Ukraine who have to live on $2 a month.

 

It’s really hard for our kids on college campuses to defend Israel and feel connected to their Jewish identity when they are attacked. How are you addressing that? What are you doing about campus groups that support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and are anti-Israel?

Rehfeld: We have close connections with Chabad and Hillel on all of our campuses.We invest in the Israel Action Network, which is a national organization that helps promote campus education and campus engagement. We fund Birthright and we will continue to look for innovative ways to support students. 

 

There are only 4,300 Federation donors out of a population of 60,000 Jews in St. Louis. I think we need to get that number way, way up. 

Rehfeld: Total number of donors is closer to 5,000 but we’re at about 4,400 in the annual campaign. We have been declining every single year since 1989. There are a couple of important trends that you need to know about. In the last three years, we have seen increases in our Generation X and baby boomer giving, people who are now between the ages of 36 and 71 and that is a group that had been atrophying for many, many years. The major losses that we are experiencing right now come from people older than 71 that have as much to do with demographics as anything else; it doesn’t excuse it. I think we need to be at 15,000 or 20,000 donors if we are really going to have an impact. Unless we have a significant change in the way we do business — which you have seen here — we will continue to decline. 

Greiman: You’re right, the level of participation and giving is not good but our approach is to really move away from beating upon, guilting people, to really connect people with the community first and give them reason to want to give. Then hopefully that will lead to a greater percentage of donors.