Foundation for Jewish Culture closing — Part II

Last week we picked up the New York Jewish Week’s scoop on the decision by the Foundation of Jewish Culture’s board of directors to close the organization. Since then, the Forward has published a story and the FJC has issued its own statement.

Reading through the new stuff, I thought there were at least two things worth noting.

First, in the Forward’s story, a spokesman for the Jewish Federations of North America addresses the decision by about 30 federations to reduce their support of the FJC over the past six years from about $700,000 to about $180,000.

Joe Berkofsky, a spokesman for the Jewish Federations of North America, said that the change represents an overall decrease in the funding pool, as well as a renewed focus on organizations serving Jewish families that have young children and support Jewish education.


“Jewish arts and culture might fit into those strategic areas, but there are shifting priorities,” Berkofsky said. “The agency is really evaluating organizations and allocating based on their alignment with strategic directions.”

Yes, the FJC has millions in net assets and has enjoyed success in securing grants from other sources in recent years (check the Forward for more details). But for the most part, this money is only available to cover specific programs. The federation money was the FJC’s main source for general operating costs.

So it’s fair to say that the reduction in federation support played a role in the board’s recent vote. But several leaders of the organization insist that the decision should not be seen as a quick, desperate response to an annual budget crunch. Instead, they say, their decision came after a year of study and reflection, and was driven by their view on how best to promote the mission of supporting Jewish culture in the years ahead.

Here’s the key quotes from the FJC’s statement:

Commented co-chair Allen Greenberg, “There are many different people, programs, and regional and local organizations across the country building on the groundwork we have laid—one of the outcomes FJC most wanted at its outset. This tremendous success has made it easier to raise money for programs but harder to raise support for a national organization.  The board’s decision to close is a recognition that what matters most to the quality of Jewish life is the success of these initiatives, not their survival under the FJC umbrella.”

“The Foundation has a proud heritage of incubating a broad array of programs that have re-defined and enlarged the expression and experience of Jewish culture in America,” said immediate past board co-chair Judith Ginsberg. “We believe we can most effectively serve the cause of culture in the Jewish community by ensuring that our tested and proven programs continue to succeed. We have been fortunate to have such a creative and dynamic leader in Elise Bernhardt for last seven years. We know she will continue to do great things in the world.”

There’s no doubt that the FJC has had a serious impact on the Jewish cultural landscape since its founding more than 50 years ago — from doling out more than $50 million to artists and scholars, and spurring the creation of programs and organizations the support Jewish culture. Some, like the Association for Jewish Studies and Council of American Jewish Museums, were incubated as part of the FJC and eventually became standalone entities that are still around today.

But the question facing the board was not about FJC’s value looking back, but how to have the most impact going forward. Communal needs change and too often organizations and funding models are the last to know. So, yes, there clearly were budget factors at work, but it’s hard not to respect a board that takes stock, votes to close and declares victory — with millions in the bank.

That said, even if you accept the board’s view that the FJC’s remaining dollars and energy are better spent finding homes for its remaining programs, the bigger question is whether some sort of new, central coordinating mechanism needs to emerge. Or has the Jewish cultural scene become become vibrant and robust enough that it no longer needs one? That, of course, would be the biggest victory of all for the foundation and its supporters.

Ami Eden is JTA’s CEO and editor in chief, responsible for overseeing all aspects of the agency’s operations, including editorial, business, marketing and fundraising. Before joining JTA in the summer of 2007, he served as executive editor of the Forward newspaper and the founding editor of the Jewish Daily Forward Web site. He also worked as an editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.