Oct. 12, 2012
Searching for transparency
The Federation of Greater Seattle recently overhauled its funding model to be more inclusive with respect to the decision-making process and the organizations it supports. To arrive at its new form, it held town halls, community-wide forums and various meetings to hear community members’ opinions. The door to dialogue was opened and it looks like it remains so, if the content of the community’s newspaper is any indication. The achievement of such candid discourse in Canada is one of the goals of Toronto-based filmmaker Ben Feferman’s latest documentary, Sha Shtil: Inside Canada’s Jewish Establishment.
The name is somewhat of a misnomer because Sha Shtil focuses mainly on the situation in Toronto; however, its main points are relevant to other federations across Canada. As well, Feferman attempts to get information about how the national advocacy organization Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs allocates its annual budget, which Feferman reveals in Sha Shtil to be $8.1 million – the response from CIJA chief executive officer Shimon Fogel, according to the documentary, was, “There are no allocations per se.... I ask you not to continue this correspondence further.”
When Feferman tries to get the amount that Hillel of Greater Toronto spends on student programming, he is told that the information is not publicly available. When he interviews the head of United Jewish Appeal of Greater Toronto, Ted Sokolsky, Sokolsky is unable to provide definitive answers. And so, Feferman also speaks with many academics, a few heads of smaller Jewish organizations, a couple of students, a parent who talks about the increasing unaffordability of Jewish day school, and others from Eastern Canada. He presents salary and other financial data from tax records, and transparency ratings from charity watchdog groups. He offers a few examples of programs by which he is inspired, and Sha Shtil concludes with some suggestions as to what Feferman believes needs to be done about a national system that raised $170 million in 2012, yet leaves what he calls “gaping holes in the quality of Jewish life.”
The Independent interviewed Feferman about Sha Shtil, which is available from sha-shtil.com. (For other interviews with Feferman, see “Getting a real life experience,” Jan. 20, 2006, and “A Jew wandering the world,” Feb. 5, 2010, at jewishindependent.ca.)
JI: What motivated you to make Sha Shtil?
BF: I just looked around and saw friends who couldn’t afford to send their kids to Jewish day school. I met Holocaust survivors who were living below the poverty line and, at the same time, I watched hundreds of millions of dollars go into fancy Jewish country clubs and I had to ask the question, where are the priorities in the Jewish community? I decided to embark on a 10-month journey to produce Sha Shtil and try to find out what’s really happening in Canada’s Jewish community.
JI: Why the focus on the federation system?
BF: Federations were created to raise money on behalf of the community and distribute to those people and organizations who need it. Each federation has an allocations committee that is incredibly powerful and will dictate which people will receive services and which people won’t. In Sha Shtil, I question whether we need to have a group of privileged board members decide how money is allocated for the entire community. I would like to see a system where the Jewish community gives directly to the causes and we cut out the middleman who is making decisions on our behalf.
JI: How did you choose the film’s “talking heads”?
BF: I started by spending a month just doing research and reading. I started interviewing speakers who had written about the issues facing the Jewish community, which were mostly academics. Academics are really great because, unlike heads of organizations, they are free to speak their mind and don’t have to toe any party line. From there, I looked to find community activists and interviewed anyone willing to give me the time of day. I tried to balance the speakers based on geography, gender, affiliation, to as much as possible give a diverse range of speakers.
Also, and I mentioned this in the film, that I received confirmation from a teacher that schools were contacted and told not to speak with me and the same for some of the Jewish social agencies. I know a lot of people would have wanted to be interviewed for the film but didn’t want to risk the consequences from speaking out against the Federation [of Greater Toronto].
JI: In explaining the title to the documentary, you make a direct comparison between the silence with which Jewish leaders met the horrors of the Holocaust and the silence with which you have been met when asking the Federation of Greater Toronto, Toronto Hillel and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs about how their budgets are spent. Why do you think this is an appropriate comparison?
BF: Sha shtil, as a concept of being silent, didn’t start in the 1930s but became synonymous with that period of history. It’s not a comparison to the Holocaust at all. During the 1920s and ’30s, when antisemitism reared its ugly head across the country, the Jewish leadership in both Canada and the U.S., pursued a policy that of “sha shtil”; meaning, they would tell the community to not speak out, to not protest or fight back. The community was told be good Canadians and shut your mouth and the leaders would take care of things behind closed doors.
It all comes down to a power struggle. Jewish leaders at the time were incredibly blind to the suffering of the Jewish community if it meant jeopardizing their own interests. Today, the Jewish leaders prefer to keep the Jewish community one step removed from its policy. The “official” advocacy organization in this country practises a similar policy. They want to do everything behind the scenes and don’t want to make a big deal out of the issues facing Canada’s Jewish community.
The less the Jewish community knows about how money is spent, the better it is for the organization.
JI: One critic accuses you of cherry-picking data. How do you respond to that accusation?
BF: That criticism is fair. But that’s exactly the point. Federations cherry pick and decide who gets what based largely on politics. In fact, I asked a senior executive at Federation [of Greater Toronto] why allocations couldn’t be changed every year based on the needs of the community and he responded by telling me it’s because of politics.
I questioned why the Ontario Jewish archive gets over $300,000 when an organization that helps recovering alcohol and drug addicts gets a fraction of that. It’s so arbitrary. I want to know who and how it was decided as to which project is funded? That’s why I call for a system where the donor decides where there money goes. If I want to help children with learning disabilities, then I am going to just donate directly to an organization that does that. And that’s the trend. More and more people are realizing that, in the era of the Internet, they don’t need a middleman to take a large commission and decide for people.
JI: There are a lot data in Sha Shtil. What are some of the most important statistics in your opinion?
BF: When I learned that there are over 50,000 Jews living below the poverty line, and I should mention that doesn’t account for the cost of living of a Jewish life, I felt sick. Right off the bat, I quickly learned that issues we face in our community are not about left vs. right, religious vs. secular, it’s about class. There are the haves and the have nots. And the haves want to build Jewish institutions that will benefit them. We have state-of-the-art JCCs. We have state-of-the-art science wings, we have state-of-the-art everything. How many soup kitchens are run by the Jewish community? None. How many homeless shelters are run by the Jewish community? None. And the only organization that actually is doing something about these issues [in Toronto], is Ve’ahavta, which doesn’t receive any money from the federation and has to fundraise independently.
JI: In the film, you visit/mention projects in Kansas, Illinois and Michigan that you consider as positive attempts at solving problems related to the cost of education and the presence of poverty within the Jewish community. Are there any Canadian Jewish organizations, religious or otherwise, doing such work?
BF: The U.S. is light years ahead of us. If you want to see how to take care of the poor, we have to look to the U.S. I visited a kosher food bank that cared so much about the dignity of people there that, in order to not embarrass people, they created a drive-thru window where low-income families can get the food they need without feeling the shame of not being able to “keep up with the Cohens,” so to speak. Look at a place like the ARK in Chicago, they are so far ahead of us. We do have some great programs here, but because we have such a powerful centralized system, small organizations get shut out, and they are the ones that really make a difference.
JI: In addition to your critique of the current monopolistic structure of the organized Jewish community, you also criticize the previous structure and its key components, in particular Canadian Jewish Congress. The film depicts a system that has been broken since it started in the early part of the last century. What elements should comprise a national Jewish communal structure in your view?
BF: The Canadian Jewish Congress had a lot of problems, but it was at least better than the system we have now. I’d like to see advocacy be vested in multiple parties that represent different interests. We are not a monolithic community and shouldn’t be treated as one. Democracy is about multiple representation. Let’s have multiple parties that will advocate on our behalf and I think more Jews will feel they are part of the process. The way the system is right now, we have one central voice that is claiming to represent everyone.
In terms of raising money, I don’t think we need federations at all. We need the Jewish community to open their eyes and open their hearts and give directly to the charities they care about it.
Here’s a good analogy. What if we said, “OK, this year, instead of giving your synagogue membership dues to your shul, the ‘United Shul Fund’ will collect all of the money and their allocations committee will decide which shul gets what.” Would that be a fair system? Personally, I want to give to the organizations that represent my values.
JI: This might be another way of asking the same question, but what is the exact problem you would like to see addressed and how would you like it to be addressed?
BF: We need to open it up and have a free market system where everyone competes for your philanthropic dollar. It keeps organizations lean and ensures they spend money efficiently. There are startups like kuppah.org, which are creating ways for people to give online to all the charities they care about with a single click. That’s the future of philanthropy in Canada.
JI: What would you like to see people do after having seen the film?
BF: I want people to wake up and care about tzedakah. I want people to look around and see the needs in their neighborhood and open their hearts. I’d like to see people get involved with grassroots projects like iVolunteer, which links young professionals up to meet with Holocaust survivors. Get involved with Small Wonders, a charity that helps Jewish couples experiencing infertility. Get involved with Tikvah House, which helps at-risk Jewish youth. There are so many great projects out there. And, if there isn’t one that is taking care of a need, then start one.
JI: Are you optimistic that the system can be changed, especially given its long historic roots, some of which you highlight in the film, and the money involved?
BF: Everyone always wants to hear the optimistic “everything will get better” line but I just don’t see it. The Jewish community is plagued with a lot of ego and I don’t really see very much changing. I hope I’m wrong. I hope young people will wake up and, as Gandhi is said to have put it, “be the change you want to see in the world.”
JI: From where did you get the funding for Sha Shtil?
BF: Rose Lax, a strong supporter of Israel and Jewish students, was the executive producer who helped me secure all of the funding for the film. Unfortunately, she passed away during the production of the film and never got to see it. It was really hard on me because we were very close and I greatly admired her. I hope that she would have been proud of the film and what we were trying to accomplish together. The film is dedicated in her honor.
JI: What has been the reaction to the film to date?
BF: Everyone who has seen the film thinks it’s the kind of dialogue this community needs to have and it’s been overwhelmingly positive. At the same time, I have been very much blacklisted by a certain part of the community and it’s tough. Someone asked my wife recently if I am a “self-hating Jew.” There’s been some nasty feedback on my blog as well, and from a couple of Federation [of Greater Toronto] employees. I live in Toronto, I am a serious and committed Jew and I was very hurt by some of the accusations. Though, everything I’ve had to endure, if it means that more poor people will get the services they need and more kids can get access to Jewish education, then it was all worth it.
JI: What’s next for you?
BF: I would like to do more town hall meetings, work with Jewish day school parents, get more involved at my own synagogue and work on some of my own philanthropic projects. I have learned so much from this film and, now that it’s done, I want to live it.
Completely unrelated to the release of Sha Shtil, Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, in responding to donor questions, addresses some of the concerns raised in the film. See “JFGV campaign update.”