Founding a Federation, building a community 1

After 25 years, organizers reflect on work

Marla Cohen 

An annual celebration: The Federation organizes Rockland groups for the Celebrate Israel Parade, here in 2011.

An annual celebration: The Federation organizes Rockland groups for the Celebrate Israel Parade, here in 2011.

Along the way, it founded and funded an Education Center and a newspaper. And it gave support to the Holocaust Museum and Study Center and local day and Hebrew schools and a campus Hillel at Rockland Community College.It may sound like putting the cart before the horse, but it took a group of leaders wanting to form a YM-YWHA to found the Jewish Federation of Rockland County.

The desire to provide services that were not available in the county but that existed in other Jewish communities, spurred organizers to turn a successful United Jewish Appeal campaign, run out of New York, which raised $1.2 million annually for Israel, into an organization that founded what is now JCC Rockland and Rockland Jewish Family Service.

The desire was bring the community together and create a fuller Jewish life for Rockland residents.

“I think if we didn’t federate, there never would have been a JCC, there never would have been a Jewish Family Service and my guess is there wouldn’t have been a Hillel to start,” said Bob Silverman, a former Federation president who has been involved since before the first meeting on March 14, 1985.

At that time 31 people attended the meeting at the Orange & Rockland Auditorium on North Main Street in Spring Valley of what was then United Jewish Community of Rockland County. Some of those present are still involved today, including Silverman.

“There were those who wanted to give to Israel, who didn’t want to do anything in the community,” Silverman said. “I thought, with others, that this was the time to start doing something for our own community, to build a better and healthier community.”

Silverman had never been actively involved in anything Jewish until the executive director running the local UJA campaign got him to attend a national UJA trip to Israel during the Lebanon War in 1982. Seeing young Israeli soldiers on the front line made its mark, and Silverman was hooked.

He got involved in the National Young Leadership Cabinet. And as much as he loved and supported Israel, he soon wanted to bring some of that passion, commitment, and fundraising back home, to enrich Jewish life in Rockland.

He wasn’t alone.

Nanuet developer Allan Eisenkraft was itching to start a YM-YWHA. Others were on board, feeling there was no place for kids to hang out after school, or that offered senior activities. Some attempts had been made, but nothing had yet succeeded. He took his cause to New York and they threw it right back to Rockland.

“They said, basically ‘If you want to form a Y, form a Federation,'” said Barbara Grau, who lived in Spring Valley for 42 years and was the second president of the Federation.
Grau, to this day is a Federation cheerleader, not just any federation cheerleader, but of the Rockland community’s.

When Grau speaks of Federation, you can head the pride. The long hours, the dedicated friends, the satisfaction that comes from creation, all come through in her voice.

“You had a group of incredibly dedicated and wonderful people who felt the need for a community to form and coalesce, and it could only be done through a federation.”


It wasn’t an easy sell, forming the Federation, according to Grau. Some on the UJA board wanted to keep it an Israel-only campaign. Others saw a need for community services. In the end they prevailed, and the group, which had been chaired by New City resident Steven Yablon, voted to become a federation.

It was one of the last Jewish communities on North America to do so. Today it is part of the larger Jewish Federations of North America network, one of 157 federated and 400 network communities that collectively raise $3 billion for local causes, for Israel and for overseas needs.

Those funds meet a myriad of social service, social welfare and educational needs. The Federation works with its overseas partners, the Jewish Agency for Israel, to focus on issues of resettlement and Jewish identity in Israel, and the American Joint Distribution Committee, which provides relief around the globe.

But back in the late ’80s, it was mostly trying to make a case for its existence. Yet supporters felt strongly that it was the right move to make.

“We have a beautiful Y, a newspaper, The Jewish [Federation] Reporter and we have [Jewish] Family Service in Rockland County, that serve the entire Jewish community,” noted Yablon. “I think it’s worked out. I think there’s more of a sense of community.”

Initially, after federating, the campaign dropped, as those who wanted an Israel-only focus dropped out. There were expenses the organization never had before, such as an executive director’s salary, which had previously been paid by UJA in New York.

But with perseverance, the campaign rebounded. The Federation grew and was able to found Jewish Family Service also in 1987, to provide support service and affordable counseling in Rockland, a need that was going unmet. The organization also set to work within a few years, resettling Jews who had recently immigrated from the former Soviet Union.

Many of those Jews were beneficiaries of Federation’s participation in Operation Exodus in 1990, which was chaired by Silverman and Jules Stern. That effort raised approximately $2 million over two years to contribute to a national project, which rescued more than one million Jews from the FSU and raised nearly $1 billion to do so.

The tug between overseas and local has always existed, organizers say. Rocklanders, however, have always been willing to participate in emergency campaigns, rallying for Israel, and to meet other global needs and participating in three recent Israel Emergency Campaigns, in 2002, 2007 and 2009. Collectively those campaigns raised more than $735 million from federations across North America, including the Rockland one.

Most recently, some of those have been to aid victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a campaign that raised $35.5 million; tsunami relief in 2004 that raised more than $10 million and to aid the victims of the recent earthquake in Haiti in January, raising another $6 million.


Over the past several years, the Federation has weathered much. At a national level, UJA combined with the Council of Jewish Federations in 1997. A year later, the United Israel Appeal Joined, with the goal of eliminating organizational overlap and improve service. The new organization was dubbed United Jewish Communities and last year, rebranded as the Jewish Federations of North America, bringing its national identity in line with the federations that made up its dues-paying constituency.

Super Sunday 2012

Super Sunday raises funs and funds, here in 2012. Photo by: Jeff Karg

Locally there had been difficulty finding a good executive, according to Grau and only recently has the Federation stabilized on that front, with Diane Sloyer coming in first as campaign director in 2008, and then taking the executive director position almost a year later.

Weathering the economic trials of the past few years have taken its toll, though the Federation has been able to maintain an $800,000 campaign. In that same period, it has continued to fund the JCC, Jewish Family Service, Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School, Hillel and the Holocaust Museum and Study Center, while continuing to make grants to other organizations. This newspaper and the Education Center continue to thrive under Federation funding.

Meanwhile the Federation has sought to emphasize the community service it provides. The Leadership Development Institute, which was funded by the Federation, graduated a class of 19 people last year who had been identified by their synagogues and organizations as future leaders. Over seven sessions, they obtained skills that would help steer their organizations, including in fundraising, how to set an agenda and run a meeting, Israel advocacy and more. This year the institute will continue with another class of 15.

In addition the Federation has revamped its Community Relations Council, sponsoring a two part series “Israel In the Crossfire,” over the summer tackling the de-legitimization of Israel and the threat of a nuclear Iran.

Nat Wasserstein, who recently rejoined the Federation’s board of directors after an absence of several years, initially got involved in Federation work several years ago because of work he was doing in Pearl River on a Hate Crimes Task Force. He became connected to what was then the Federation’s CRC, and really too an interest in the overall organization, eventually going on a mission to Israel in 2005 that consisted of mostly first-time travelers to that country.

“I’d like to think – and I don’t think this is correct – that the Jewish Federation of Rockland County can be the voice of the Jewish people in Rockland,” said Wasserstein. “But that is not accurate, or even really fair to either the community or to the Federation. You cannot possible be the voice of the Jewish people anywhere. You can’t even get agreement with two people in a room.

“But I do think it’s a voice and a place where all the voices can be heard.”

Although the move to change from an Israel campaign to one that encompasses both overseas and local seems to have caused the Federation a constant struggle, no one would undo that move. The desire to meet local needs is something that founders and organizers are proud of and consider to be an achievement.

“It’s led to the recognition of the organization in our community,” said Rabbi David Fass of Temple Beth Sholom. Fass was “a kid” in the room at that first Federation meeting, according to Murray Cohen, who was also there. For Fass, Federation work has brought people to Israel, shown them what it is that their philanthropic work can do, and has given Rockland a central Jewish hub, or “point in the circle,” as he likes to put it.

“It has provided an address for the Jewish community, which never existed before,” Fass said.

For Barbara Grau, who lives today in Boynton Beach, Fla., the Jewish Federation of Rockland County is still her federation. And if she were here, she says, she’d still be plugging away, trying to make the case for giving to anyone within earshot.

“Federation was my baby,” she said. “I regard it, next to having my children, as my most important accomplishment.”

November 12, 2010

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