Who The Folk?! Rob Jacobs

After a long career on the West Coast, Rob Jacobs has made the move to St. Paul to take on the role as the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater St. Paul. After two months on the job, Jacobs talks about settling in, what he sees as the future of Jewish Federations and more in this week’s Who The Folk?!

You’re a couple months into the job; how are feeling?

It’s been a really terrific couple of months. It’s been an exciting opportunity to meet a huge number of people and put the connections together after having lived in the Seattle community for nearly 20 years: I knew who was involved with who, who was the son of who, who was important in the community, and who was not involved. Here everything is new, and that makes it really exciting and intense. But also it’s really great too, after having come from someplace else and seeing what’s done elsewhere and seeing the opportunities to bring the positive things here that aren’t being done yet. It’s been a really good two months and slower onboarding than I expected. There’s so much to pick up. We have a board of over 50 people and if I want to meet all of them, you figure out how many meetings you can have in one day.

That’s a lot of coffee to drink.

That is a lot of coffee. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked if I’ve had a meal at the Highland Grill.

But, this is a really interesting combination of the two cities. I see really good opportunities. Jim and I are working quite closely together. There are opportunities to build synergy and collaborate. The pieces are coming into play now and both Jim and I are looking at it as an opportunity. We’re both new. It’s an opportunity to come without the history, and to try new things. It’s exciting.

Was the onboarding slower than you hoped it would be, or does it speak to the enormity of the job?

I went from the private sector to teaching at the University of Washington to one Jewish organization to another Jewish organization – all within the Seattle area. While there are all sorts of new things about whatever the job is – and they weren’t versions of the same job – but I knew so much of the surrounding environment. The geography stayed the same. Many of the players stayed the same. Here there’s a history – and really strong opinions on all sides of anything related to the Jewish community here. And the players are all new. When I was interviewing, I was asked to put a presentation together on what my plan would be in the first three months. What I said was, for the first three months, you aren’t going to see that much. Because I have to come up to speed. What you will see is me booking as many opportunities as possible to meet and sit with people. It’s the second three months you really want to talk about. There are some things we’ve started working on and hope to implement in the next month or so. But most will happen in the second three months. But I had hoped I would be further along in my own internal process.

Did that answer bother the search committee?

If you stop and think about it, it would be presumptuous of me to tell you what I think would work in your community without my having talked to you first. Not only on the individual level but on the organizational level. I need to have a better sense of how the organizations work together, what they need, what Federation can do, andwhat it has done. And so a lot of what we’ve been looking at has been what do we need to create a base for moving forward.

I hope that being a new player, I can lead by giving an outside perspective on what I see, and what I think what it wants or needs. There’s been a great deal of talk, and one of the things that interested me the most, was coming to a community that has decreased in size, and what would make it more attractive. What would bring new people? Why would they pick St. Paul? We have a strong base of people that have been involved for years. That’s not common.

After 19 years in Seattle, there’s no shortage of risk that comes with the move. Did you look at it that way?

Sure. It’s been an interesting and to a degree a difficult transition for my family. I’m moving to a job that keeps me occupied more than full time, but my wife left her job, we left our friends and community there. My son who is at HMJDS still pines for his group of four or five boys that he played basketball with. It’s a bit better now. The transition is taking longer than expected. We’re still looking for a house and that’s leaving us unsettled. But what attracted me was the challenge here. St. Paul is not unique among communities around the country — unless you’re in one of the largest cities in the country — where the Jewish community is decreasing in size. If we do it right, and Federation looks at a new approach to being Federation and the role it plays, I think that can make a big difference too if our communities increase and stay cohesive, or decrease.

Is it helpful to the Twin Cities Jewish community that you and Jim are both outsiders coming in to open the door to more opportunities?

Yes. I don’t think there’s any question that having two people come in without the history. We can learn aspects of the history from the community members. I’m sure we’ve both heard stories from people who have had past frustrations – both about the other community and the communities not coming together. The timing is perfect in some ways for us to sit down without having preconceived notions. I’m sure in terms of the St. Paul community, I’ve been given great support for finding as much as we can to collaborate and bring things together in a way that makes the organizations much more effective. My sense is that Jim is getting the same support. I hope we can get the community to see there has been a change.

Does Federation model need to change to fit the way people live their lives, or can it continue?

If Federation tries to stay with a “Jewish United Way model,” I think it’s going to disappear. It definitely needs to change. On the other hand, I’d point out there’s been an increase across the United States in directed giving and having a greater say in where their money goes rather than it going to an allocations committee of some sort. That loses the opportunity for an organization that tries to see the bigger picture to sit there and say: “There are kid who can’t afford to go to Jewish summer camp” or “There are Holocaust survivors who no longer are receiving the resources from the German government at a level that doesn’t meet their increasing needs.” That’s not something sexy and doesn’t have a big annual event. That would get lost if you didn’t have some organization that was trying to look at the totality. I do think that’s a key part for the reason of continuing of Federations, but that’s not enough.

My model is a convener, but also a facilitator. What can we do to help the existing organizations, but also new, potential organizations that will be the Jewish organizations of the next century get started and get supported and get trained and get on their feet? I think that’s the Federation model for the future: how do we judge ourselves by the success of the community as a whole. Not by the size of our individual campaign, but perhaps by, as one metric, the aggregate of all campaigns. How many people are really involved? If that number’s going up then we’re succeeding.

What’s the biggest challenge going forward?

The surprising part — and the thing that will probably be the most difficult — is the siloing that exists on here. There are some very good and committed people involved in the community. There are some really good leaders in the community. But from the two cities down to the individual organizations, there is a lot of “I am here in organization X” and a perception of things as a zero-sum game. That if somebody gets involved with somebody else than they are leaving me. If someone is donating to someone else, then I am losing a potential donor. I think we need to get past that. If people really want the communities to grow, we have to get past what I’m calling the siloing of each organization and community. And that goes to the idea of the two Federations working together, of the synagogues working together for something of common interest. Individually, they may not boost their own membership, but if the community grows then their membership may grow. If we stay divided, and for that reason, we can’t reach an agreement to do things that make the community attractive, then the communities will decline and you’re fighting over a smaller and smaller pool.

Favorite Jewish holiday?

Sukkot, because the whole idea of inviting people. My wife and I put up a big sukkah and we’d invite friends and family over. There’s something about bringing people together and making it special to be together.

Favorite Jewish food?

Sushi: The new Jewish favorite food! My grandmother’s gribboness, which is crispy fried chicken skin. But matzah ball soup. I could answer matzah with cream cheese, but no one would believe me.

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