Apr 18, 2016

Our Call to the Future: Remarks by Matt Levin at the 2016 Annual Meeting

Delivered at the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County Annual Meeting, “Ain’t No Mountain Chai Enough,” on April 6, 2016. Click here to watch Matt’s speech.

Tonight we come together as a Federation community to celebrate our accomplishments and to recognize Al Gortz and Anne Jacobson – the two most recent links in the chain of our top lay leadership.

Where would we be today without the wisdom, guidance and hard work of our board chairs who have brought us through 36 years to this exciting point in our federation’s history? That several of them are with us tonight is a testament to the enduring strength of our organization. I must call out Ellen Sarnoff who led us through dark times with grace and fortitude – and without whom I would not be standing here before you.

I also have to add my own tribute to Al Gortz, on whom I’ve relied for so much, even before he became chair of our board. I can personally assure you that his knowledge, wisdom, commitment and diplomacy are unsurpassed. I am grateful for these years of working so closely with one of our federation’s founders and exceptional leaders.

A team’s strength is reliant on its deep bench and, folks, in this regard, we’re not just strong, we’re unbeatable.

A year ago, we welcomed Anne Jacobson as our first Chair Designate, and we’ll hear from her shortly. Anne’s journey to becoming our Board Chair has taken her through diverse areas of our Federation. So I know that many of you, like me, have known the incredible rewards of working with her. Among her many roles here, Anne served as chair of that unmistakable incubator of leadership – Women’s Philanthropy.

While our leadership is strong, unfortunately this past year we were deeply saddened TO LOSE three of our greatest philanthropists and inspirations: The unparalleled Larry Phillips, the visionary Toby Weinman Palchik, and community pioneer Mildred Levine. We miss them dearly – as we do our other supporters who have left us.

We all know we could never do what we do – and do it so well – without our outstanding staff.

Our COO, Mel Lowell, is my trusted partner. He’s also been the driving force, heart and soul behind Sinai Residences for the past eight years – from a vision to the beautiful new residential community on our north campus. Thank you, Mel, for being here every day as my true brother in arms.

And I know that many of you, as I do, depend faithfully on Marla Weiss Egers, our Executive Vice President. Seamlessly fulfilling so many vital roles and responsibilities, Marla is always our voice of reason and reality, calm, compassion and powerful personal connection.

Mel and Marla – thank you for everything you do for our Federation every day.

I must also acknowledge our Senior Professional staff – the most talented, dedicated team a CEO could hope for! And I couldn’t be more proud of our entire staff, whose dedication and support of our mission drives our success throughout all areas of our Federation.

As I’m sure many of you have wondered, where would I – and we – and this annual meeting - be without Stacey Ramer, our Director of Governance and my Senior Executive Assistant?

I also have to recognize an important new colleague at Sinai Residences. As any of you who’ve worked with him knows, Sinai’s amazing Executive Director Chris Newport is an absolute dynamo. He’s a master of multitasking with vendors, residents, coworkers and anyone else involved with getting Sinai residences up and running smoothly.

And a shout out is in order to all my professional colleagues and their lay leaders here from our agencies, schools and synagogues. The fact that there are far too many here tonight to call out individually is a sign of our uniquely extraordinary Jewish community. But take a look around and you’ll see them – including the heads of the agencies on our campus that for so long have been part of the bedrock of our community.

I’m also thrilled to see so many of our local rabbis and synagogue leaders here tonight, because we have no more important partners toward strengthening this community.

It’s hard to believe that this is the fourth time I’ve come before you to articulate a vision for our Federation and this amazing community we live in.

Each year it’s been my honor and privilege to stand here and report the successes of our innovations and our hard work, and tonight is no exception. You know what’s going on – you can see and feel it all around you.

We’re no longer largely a snowbird community, but one where businesses have been built and families are raising children. Yes, we’ve become a mature community of substance and depth, of multiple generations. But we’ve also become so much more. Ours is a community where we cross the usual boundaries of neighborhood and denomination regularly and eagerly to celebrate, advocate, learn, care and help. And other communities have taken notice and are borrowing from our playbook.

Tonight is indeed a time to celebrate our accomplishments. Our pride and our spirits are deservedly high. But, as leaders of this community, it’s also a time to recognize – together – our greatest challenge that lies ahead: the continuing major demographic shift and its impact on our donor base. We’re a big Jewish community with big human needs to meet for so many people who must depend on us.

Because tens of thousands of our seniors alone in this community are growing older and more frail, and outliving their resources.

Because neighboring families in crisis are unable to cope emotionally or pay their bills and have nowhere else to turn.

Because elderly Jews isolated in the war-torn frigid Ukraine winter deserve to eat and have heat in their room.

We’re committed to doing our part for our Jewish family here, in Israel and overseas. But we can’t meet those needs the way we used to, folks.

So, friends, it’s also my job to tell you that it’s going to take all of us here in this room at the very core of this community. It’s up to us to reach higher for more creative solutions. To reach further so everyone knows the importance of what we do and the rewards of being part of this caring community.

Of course leadership is key to seizing our future, and our efforts to populate that deep bench are working. Our committees, cabinets and boards include people of all ages from across the community.

Looking farther ahead, we know that absolutely vital to ensuring a bright future for our Jewish community and our people is investment in our next generation of Jews. As a mature Jewish community, it’s time to deepen our commitment to connecting our young people with their faith, their culture, their heritage and their homeland – for the long term. Our future depends upon it.

Our community boasts a remarkable and growing diversity of outstanding Jewish day schools. Both on and off our campus, they are key to a next generation of Jewish families and leaders. Our day schools are also significant to making South Palm Beach County a top quality “destination” Jewish community that brings us new, engaged residents.

But it’s time to chart a course toward a day not far off, when day school education is affordable and accessible for every local family that desires it. And toward a day when Jewish camping is also understood for its powerful impact, and brought into reach for all our families.

We need to keep connecting our young people to Israel by filling our community Birthright buses, by expanding our March of the Living classes and by providing more immersive Israel experiences. And we need to build on the success of our JCRC’s College Prep Israel advocacy training that drew 200 diverse local high school students to our campus a few months ago.

Yep, we’re on it, but we know the stakes are high, we know what builds Jewish continuity, and we know it’s time to do more. And it’s up to us, working together, to get the word out there to our neighbors who can join us in making a difference.

Israel and our global Jewish family have always been at the core of our Federation’s mission. For decades, we’ve been bringing the community together to provide ongoing and emergency support, in advocacy and rallies, to celebrate, to learn and to visit.

I know some of you have felt that we should be doing more - And we are.

Our community is united in its commitment to our brothers and sisters in Israel who, even in a time of relative peace, live in fear not only of rockets but of stabbings and car rammings. And we must be there for Jews around the globe who fear for their freedoms and their lives. They deserve a bridge to a new life in Israel.

Over the last two years we’ve increased our allocations for Jewish needs in Israel and other countries overseas. And this year, we’ll begin allocating these dollars in some exciting new ways.

And there could be no better proof of the power of shared travel to tie us to the land and people of Israel than last November’s Spirit of Israel Community Mission. We looked into the future of our homeland and how we can be part of it. From a myriad of Jewish backgrounds and across generations, we learned from each other and grew together.

I’ve been to Israel about 30 times, but traveling with my mother made this trip a pinnacle for me. And I know I speak for Rich Steinberg, who traveled with his father.

Stay tuned – we’re ramping up our missions for the future and we have a Director of Israel Engagement to help get far more of you, your friends and your neighbors on board!

From its earliest years, our community has been committed to serving families with special needs. But well before we participated in a recent community Special Needs survey, we knew we needed to step it up.

So I’m excited to announce that in the coming months we will be working with our community partners and outside experts to create a blueprint for more comprehensive special needs services in our Jewish community. I must mention how grateful we are to Emily Grabelsky for all her advice, insights, knowledge and leadership as we begin this important process.

Of course, also vital to our future is our Jacobson Jewish Community Foundation, led by Rich Steinberg. Yes, recently it’s been growing well – with over $80 million in assets. Our number of endowments keeps increasing as more people understand the value of planned giving and commit to this community.

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that we have quite a way to go to reach the levels of older Jewish communities. So look for us to continue our full court press. If you haven’t made a planned gift, it’s time, folks. And if you have, it’s time to reach out and let others around you know the importance and rewards of leaving their legacy.

Last year we shared the news that the Grinspoon Foundation would begin supporting our Federation’s Create a Jewish Legacy efforts throughout the community. Only a year later, I’m thrilled to report that the Life & Legacy initiative has already resulted in 15 local synagogues, schools, agencies and organizations obtaining 293 commitments from 234 donors - with an estimated value of $33.2 million! And the CJL Initiative has brought home the value of our Federation and Foundation far into the community.

Through our JCRC, we continually advocate for agency funding and other Jewish interests. We’re thrilled to report that among the successes in this year’s Florida legislative session were increased dollars for Holocaust survivor assistance at JFS and significant first-time funding for Pre-Employment training at JARC. The legislature also passed a groundbreaking Anti-BDS bill that prohibits state and local governments from investments in companies that boycott Israel. And just last week, right here in this room, the governor signed that bill to stop the dangerous BDS forces.

With our government partnerships strong and thriving I have to interject a side note here. While we are immersed if not drowning in political news all day, it is vital for our Federation to remain neutral and maintain strong bipartisan relationships. If for nothing other than the sake of those who depend on us, it is upon us to avoid the silly rhetoric that has marked the presidential campaign so far.

So by now you should be able to tell I’m making an even bigger case than usual for engaging more and more members of our community in our work. And I hope by now you recognize this is absolutely essential to our future.

Thanks to Deborah and Larry D. Silver, our new Center for Jewish Engagement means we are able to reach more of our neighbors. We’re bringing them into our community’s wealth of opportunities to enrich their Jewish journeys as we strengthen Jewish South Palm Beach County. If you could keep up with Rabbi Broide, you’d know just how many Jewish connections our CJE is making every day. And with its first big events, we know we’re just scratching the surface.

And in just a few months, we’ll be helping to bring Moishe House, an innovative young adult engagement model, to our community. Moishe House will provide a home for a core group of residents ages 22 to 30, who share their eagerness to create a hub of Jewish life for their peers.

We’ve been holding a wide array of free events large and small to reach newcomers – from last month’s “Conversation with Alan Dershowitz” that brought together nearly 1,000 locals to parlor meetings in private homes – and everything else in between including Super Sunday with its Good Deeds Day project for hundreds of hands-on volunteers.

This Sunday, PJ Library will celebrate its third birthday here. This year PJ brought together 5,000 children, parents and grandparents for activities around the community – and this year PJ Our Way got underway for older children.

With our regular parade of campus tours, we hope that soon we’ll no longer be able to say we’re the best kept secret in Boca.

And friends, we can see results from our efforts in our new donors to all levels of our Annual Campaign, led by Larry Feldman. In recent years, we’ve been emphasizing a growing number of benchmark levels accessible to people throughout our community, including our King David Society and major donors, Lions and Pomegranates, Men’s Division, B&P Cabinet, and more.

And how fabulous that in January, our new neighbors began moving into Sinai Residences, and they’re as thrilled to be here as we are to have them. In fact, our professional staff is helping them become an active part of our Federation community.

A huge shout out to those visionary, dedicated leaders who have served on the board of managers over these years to bring this superb project to fruition. Please join me in congratulating them!

Of course, Sinai Residences is doing far more than providing the finest in senior living in a Jewish environment. By monetizing our Federation’s vacant land, for decades Sinai will be generating funds to help us meet the Jewish challenges of today and tomorrow.

But, in the midst of our much-deserved celebration, as I wrap up my remarks, let me be crystal clear – Sinai alone simply cannot offset the demographic challenges and community needs we face ahead! It is absolutely incumbent upon us here – at the very core – the heart and soul of our beloved Jewish community – to bring the story of who we are and what we do into the homes of far more local residents.

And make no mistake – our story is the best one they could hear. It’s the story of an organization like no other with the capacity to gather resources and wisely direct them when and where they are most needed by our neighbors and our people.

And, folks, it’s up to us. Because no one knows better than we in this room how much is at stake. No one knows better how to tell this story. And no one knows better how to share the wealth of opportunities and the profound rewards of helping our Jewish family as part of a caring community.

So, in closing, I ask you to ask yourself: What will you do to make the case to your family, friends, neighbors and colleagues – about the wisest, most effective investment they can make to ensure our Jewish family’s well-being today and our Jewish future tomorrow? And rest assured, we’ll help you answer that question.

It’s been my privilege to speak before you, and I look forward to working together - healthy, strong and united into the years ahead. To all of you, my deepest thanks.