Judy Alperin, CEO: Overcoming Adversity is in Our Community’s DNA

Lately we’ve been saying, “we’re built for this”, when referring to the Jewish Federation as a not so subtle reminder of why it is so critically important that we support the organization. Without a strong annual campaign and Jewish Federation, when catastrophe strikes, we would not be able to respond.

We learned this powerful lesson just a few years ago when fire ripped through our Beckerman/Lender Jewish Community Building and confronted us with an existential challenge. Because we had a strong Jewish Federation, we managed through the crisis of the fire and its aftermath, galvanized our community, and came back with a clear vision to expand programs and services to better meet the needs of our community.

By the first week in March of 2020, our integrated Jewish Federation/JCC budget was several hundred thousand dollars ahead. We had more than 18,000 people coursing through our building every month. And then life as we knew it stopped. The pandemic had arrived; our Jewish Federation, Foundation and JCC immediately shifted to a virtual world, opening programs to the community to maximize connectedness at a time of increasing isolation.

We mobilized staff and volunteers to contact the 10,000 households in our database. We were able to assist people to meet their needs or refer them for professional help from our partners at JFS. As our calls continued and stories of the vulnerable and newly vulnerable grew, we were learning of the growing challenges confronting our agencies and families. To meet those urgent human needs, the Jewish Foundation and Jewish Federation boards created the COVID-19 Maimonides Response Fund with a $300,000 goal. We had hoped the urgency of needs would subside as the crisis ended; unfortunately, we have not reached the end and the needs continue to rise. Fortunately, national Jewish funders and families came together to provide an opportunity to incentivize COVID-related human relief funds while preserving the primacy of the Annual Campaign. Now until the end of December, all dollars committed to COVID relief, in addition to 2020 campaign commitments, are eligible for a 50% match up to $90,000.

We’ve set a second $300,000 fundraising goal and already have requests in excess of that amount for food needs, mental health support and family crisis funding.

When COVID forced the building closure, we lost the majority of our revenue drivers that are generated through the JCC enterprise. We have incurred significant additional costs to make our building and campus safer, including upgrading our air filtration to MERV 13; purchasing no-touch faucets; investing in cleaning supplies and personnel; adjusting our outside air-mix ratios; installing Plexiglas barriers and new toilet seats (with lids); and more.

While we have taken extreme measures to cut costs, significantly reduced our staffing footprint, hired back staff with the help of the Paycheck Protection Program and then let go staff again, the Federation board just approved a budget for this fiscal year with a $750,000 deficit.

Our Federation never sits idly by as things happen to us—we take action by bringing smart volunteers together with our top professionals to work on problems. Our COVID-19 steering and subcommittees meet almost daily, and our Strategic Planning Process, chaired by Norman Ravski, are looking at the long-term future. Jewish Federation President Steve Fleischman and JCC President Jeff Sklarz formed an ad hoc committee to best understand the challenges, and create workable scenarios and financial models to find a bridge to normalcy. We know that we are capable of meeting this crisis. We did it before and we can do it again.

But we also understand that the fire and the pandemic differ in a few areas. With the fire, we had business interruption insurance and a known timeline. With the pandemic, there is no financial safety net; we are in a wilderness of unknowns with regard to the timeline and what consumer attitudes will be with regard to reconvening.

When we are able to gather again, will you be willing? We have reached another crossroads that will require financial help to make it through.

I am truly proud to lead this Jewish community. It has been empowering because of each of you and the many people who have stepped up to say that this is their community. They care about its survival and they will do what is necessary to ensure our continuity. What a powerful statement. What energy for the professionals who work so selflessly on behalf of us all.

COVID is throwing us another curve ball and the financial challenge is very real. But together we will continue to care for and support the Jewish community as we sustain the future.