Matthew B. Lester
Matthew B. Lester

Our High Holidays remind us that the mission of the Jewish Federation is deeply woven into our history, values and purpose as a people.

I was asked recently by a Federation officer why we hold our annual meeting in the fall, especially when our fiscal calendar begins and ends in the spring.

Neither of us knew why, but we deduced that we hold the annual meeting of the Federation to coincide with the High Holidays.

Surely, it wasn’t a coincidence that we chose to pause and take stock of our Federation — and our community — at a time when we as a people do much the same in our personal and spiritual lives.

As we celebrated Sukkot, we gave thanks for the bounty and the blessings we’ve been given as a people. At the same time, our sukkahs reminded us of the fragility of life — especially for the most vulnerable among us.

Our High Holidays remind us that the mission of the Jewish Federation is deeply woven into our history, values and purpose as a people.

In fact, our Federation can be described as Jewish values in action: Actions that build and maintain a community, that support people in need and that educate and inspire our children and, above all, that take responsibility for one another, whether it’s a neighbor across the street, a refugee on the other side of the world or a distant relative or friend in Israel.

This is sacred work which reflects the deepest essence of what it means to be Jewish.
And so, as we begin a new year, it is the perfect time for us to reflect on the state of our Federation and to reflect on the accomplishments of the year — and to consider and assess the challenges that lie ahead in the year to come.

Dealing with Crises

Let us reflect on the COVID Emergency Campaign and relief efforts, which epitomize the concept of Jewish values in action. We all still remember the early days of the pandemic and what a surreal and frightening time it was. From the start, it was clear that there were thousands in our community who were seriously threatened by COVID.

Thanks to many in our community, our Federation responded quickly, launching a COVID Emergency Campaign that raised more than $7.5 million from donors at every level, as well from our community foundations.

This was an effort that truly saved lives, providing food assistance and delivery, protective equipment and hazard pay for the front-line workers at our agencies. The campaign also made a difference in the lives of our children, funding much-needed mental health services, as well as technology that enabled our schools to provide remote learning.

Throughout the crisis, we saw an unprecedented level of collaboration across the community. Jewish social service agencies and Jewish welfare organizations, schools and congregations worked together with extraordinary focus and coordination.

Without any hesitation, your Federation took on the role of primary leader and convener for virtually all of the Jewish social service agencies throughout Metropolitan Detroit. Many of the relationships and strategies that were forged continue to benefit the community today, and consequently we have a new level of collaboration between our Federation agencies — and our non-Federation partners, as well.

Simply put, or response to the pandemic affirmed the incredible and unique strength of our Federation and communal structure.

So, too, did our response on Feb. 24 of this year, when Russia invaded Ukraine, upending and threatening the lives of some 200,000 Jews, along with millions of other innocent civilians.

Once again, your Federation responded without hesitation, launching an Emergency Campaign that raised $4.2 million from 1,750 donors.

And once again, thanks to our partner agencies who have been working in the region for decades, we were there to make a difference, moving thousands of individuals out of harm’s way, providing rescue and relief, and bringing a new wave of Jewish immigrants to Israel.

These efforts saved and transformed lives, as those of us who visited the Ukrainian border saw up close.

These are difficult times: a once-in-a-century global pandemic and a brutal, senseless war that still rages today, not to mention growing economic woes and uncertainty within our own economy.

Looking Forward

And yet, when we think about the future, what comes to mind above all else is hope.
Hope — and optimism — for what lies ahead for the Jewish people and for our Detroit community.

We are optimistic because we have proven, time and again, that we have the resilience and the resourcefulness to meet any challenge. Beyond that, we know that the Jewish spirit of this community shines as brightly today as it ever has.

We see it in our schools, which are now bustling with the love of learning and in the Jewish ruach at Tamarack and the JCC day camp, at BBYO and our campus Hillels. We see it in our social service agencies, which deliver critical services to their clients with unparalleled warmth and compassion.

And we see it in the work of the Federation. There’s so much good we could reflect on, beginning with our Annual Campaign — which reached a new high last year, a historic record achievement in 2022.

Consider our reemerging slate of missions to Israel, which are once again in full swing and will culminate next spring with our community-wide Motor City Mission, traveling during Israel’s historic 75th anniversary.

Consider also the work being done by our Women’s Philanthropy Department to welcome a new generation of committed women leaders and philanthropists or the equally impressive programming

coming from our ever-expanding Affinities Department, which is focused on engaging unaffiliated Jews within our ranks and winning.

And while we always seek to include more, our roster of Federation and Foundation leaders, both volunteer and professional, is unprecedented in its range of talent, experience and dedication. We have the right people in the right seats and our bench has never been stronger.

Overall, the level of community involvement and engagement is truly extraordinary, in both breadth and depth of participation. The community tent — across every demographic, neighborhood and practice of Judaism — has never been broader, or more welcoming.
Perhaps the ultimate testament to this can be found in the ranks of NEXTGen Detroit.
Ten years ago, we reimagined this department to meet what was then an existential crisis. Too many of our young people were leaving Detroit, while those who stayed found few opportunities to connect with Jewish life in a meaningful way.

Today, we’ve seen a complete change in the landscape for young adults in our city, a new era for participation, leadership and philanthropy.

The passion and commitment of our NEXTGen Detroit leaders is extraordinary and at an all-time high.

All of this — and more — adds up to what could be a golden era for this Federation and our Jewish community, a time when we are stronger than we have been in decades.
And you can feel it — in our stature and respect across Detroit and this country. It is this profound relevance that has fueled our fundraising success, as well powering our efforts to lead the community forward.

On the other hand, the need for a strong Federation — a galvanizing central address for our community — has never been greater.

We recognize this in the challenges I’ve mentioned, and in the face of rising antisemitism and security concerns — which we are addressing on a variety of fronts.

A strong Federation is a response to the times we live in, which are a potential threat to the cohesion and continuity of Jewish life as we know it.

We are here because the needs are great, but our resolve and capacity to thrive is even greater. As we say, we are here for good.

I would emphasize one more thing, and that is that we are here together. Everything we have achieved is the work of a unified Jewish community. It is the work of all of you.
This is something I hope you will all remember in the coming year: The history and legacy of this great community is alive in you — whenever you volunteer your time or participate in a program or support the Campaign.

It is because of you, and your commitment, that the strength and richness of Jewish Detroit will continue — unbroken — long into the future.

Matthew B. Lester is the president, Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. These remarks were delivered at Federation’s Annual Meeting, Oct. 13.

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