‘We’re Asking Them To Challenge The Status Quo’

With the Jewish Federations of Greater St. Paul and Minneapolis both embarking on searches for new chief executive officers, a group of 10 Jewish community leaders – five each from Minneapolis and St. Paul – are suggesting a new approach. They have presented a letter with more than 100 signatures (and counting; add your name here.) to each Federation seeking that each group “defer their respective search processes for a new, permanent CEO for the necessary time it takes to seriously and fully consider new possibilities in a changed landscape.”

The letter does not suggest a merged “Twin Cities Jewish Federation,” – or anything else for that matter.

“We aren’t prescribing anything,” said Kathryn Klibanoff, one of the 10 authors. “We wanted the letter to be effective while stimulating conversation and getting people excited at this moment in time. The 10 of us intentionally decided not to prescribe anything except come to the table, have an open bi-cities dialogue.”

Klibanoff and Jennifer Bagdade spoke with TC Jewfolk earlier this week about the purpose of the letter, the potential outcomes, and where the discussion started. Bagdade is “beyond encouraged” about the reception the letter has received as it has circulated around the two cities.

“One of the purposes of it has been to generate conversation and discussion now while we have a potential opportunity in front of us,” Bagdade said. “Even though the 10 of us came together, we are representing what we know people are talking about in their living rooms the minute they heard that each [Federation] was looking for a new executive. It’s been really great to be able to hear chatter around this as the letter is making its way around through email. It’s been fabulous. What we’re really trying to do is build that conversation.”

This opportunity that the group are trying to seize arose when St. Paul CEO Eli Skora announced in late June that he was retiring in June, 2017, and two weeks later, the Minneapolis Federation abruptly announced CEO Stu Silberman was leaving the agency.

Klibanoff said that after moving to the area nearly 20 years ago, she’s raised the question of why there are two Jewish Federations serving one metro area.

“I’ve always been told, ‘Maybe when the leadership changes,’ or ‘Maybe when there’s an opening,'” she said. “The opening has arrived.

“Ever since I moved here, I’ve wondered why we have two Federations with the mission to serve the Jewish community of the Twin Cities, doing the same thing 8 miles apart. The Jewish culture in St. Paul today isn’t that much different than in Minneapolis. In the past that might have been the case. Today, is it still the case that these two communities are so different that it’s impossible to imagine that someone living in one wouldn’t be compelled by the same messages?”

Klibanoff and Bagdade both acknowledged that there is a lot of history between the Jewish communities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, which has led to a lot of emotions.

“We’re looking at a history,” Bagdade said. “It’s two communities, Jewishly and secularly, that grew up separately. There’s a lot of history and conversations that have happened over the years, a lot of emotion, and a lot of pride in each community. Each community has a lot to offer, so how can we do that in a collaborative way that makes the most sense. We’re asking them to challenge the status quo.”

The letter was given to both board presidents, Steve Brand in St. Paul and David Orbuch in Minneapolis, prior to its circulation through the community. Klibanoff said that they weren’t circulating the letter in a surreptitious way.

“I’m excited that the dialogue has started on multiple levels of our community,” Orbuch said. It’s wonderful to see the passion in our community around our communal organizations and building the Jewish future.”

Brand pointed to the St. Paul Federation’s community-wide listening process of a few years ago, where one of the five outcomes was increasing collaboration with Minneapolis. The six-person panel – made up of three people from each city – will deliver their recommendations to the St. Paul Federation at next week’s board meeting, and to Minneapolis’ board next month.

“The listening process told us that [collaborating] was what the St. Paul community wanted to be improved, and steps are being taken,” Brand said. “Collaborating is on the table. There’s no way it’s coming off the table.”

Brand disagreed with the part of the letter regarding deferring the process, due to the length of time a quality search takes.

“I don’t think it’s inconsistent to talk about collaborating while the search continues,” he said. “The discussion should go parallel to the search.”

Orbuch, in a post on the Federation website, agreed.

“In a world of diminished resources and larger needs, stronger collaboration is a must,” he wrote. “I have spoken with many leaders in St. Paul about whether now is the time to make such a change. It would not be judicious to slow our search unless these discussions progress dramatically in the next couple months.”

Of the 100-plus signatories, Bagdade said there are people from St. Paul who live in Minneapolis, people from Minneapolis who live in St. Paul. The makeup of the group ranges across multiple generations

The old historic borders aren’t just fading. “They’re porous,” Klibanoff said.

“You have so many people who live in St. Paul but they work in Minneapolis. They live in St. Louis Park and work in Bloomington.” Bagdade said. “We have a friend who lives in Minneapolis, drives their kids to school in St. Louis Park and drives to St. Paul for work. You look at that conceptually: That person has found what’s important to their family across all sorts of lines. They drive for food, games, for museums, for cultural experiences. We see that, generally, the divide isn’t what it used to be.”

You can read the letter here and learn how to add your signature.