It was the last annual meeting of the East Bay Federation, and like all good Jewish events, it began with food. Really good food, from Epic Bites.
And then, somewhat surprisingly, things got even better.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only one somewhat dreading the June 19 event that would mark the end of the Jewish Federation of the East Bay and Jewish Community Foundation, which are being more or less absorbed by the much larger S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund.
As one longtime Federation stalwart told a colleague beforehand, “Why would I want to come to that wake?”
Instead, the evening was filled with warmth and camaraderie. Organizers hit just the right tone, selected just the right speakers.
There was celebration of the Federation’s 100 years serving the East Bay Jewish community, but it was done without self-congratulation. Gentle jokes broke the tension, but mainly there was quiet, thoughtful reflection. “It’s a bittersweet moment, no question about it,” said Dr. Miles Adler, a past president.
If you have to end a legacy institution, this was the way to do it.
The theme of the evening was “change – good for the Jews.”
Marc Dollinger, Jewish studies professor at S.F. State, delivered a romp through historical moments of Jewish achievement that came about because of great, sometimes devastating, change. He pointed to the Talmud (which followed the destruction of the Temple) and the creation of the State of Israel (which followed the Holocaust) as examples.
“Change, however painful, has always defined what it means to be a Jew,” he said. “It’s created space for creativity and invention to occur.”
Rabbi Adina Allen of the Jewish Studio Project — itself an illustration, it was noted, of the East Bay Jewish community’s creativity and invention — called all past and present presidents of the Federation and Foundation onstage, where they were vigorously applauded for a full minute.
Allen had been tasked with creating a Jewish ritual to mark the occasion, and found herself ruminating on the “awkwardness” one can feel during times of change. Comparing the East Bay Federation’s transition to Abraham’s painful uprooting from his father’s home in Ur, she asked everyone to stand and recite tefilat haderech, the traveler’s prayer, in unison. It was a powerful yet tender moment.
One after another, leaders came to the microphone to speak from their hearts. There were a few tears, but mainly smiles and hugs and a few moments of levity. As she introduced Foundation president Joel Kreisberg, Foundation executive director Lisa Tabak noted that he’s also an ordained Zen Buddhist priest, and “you can’t get any more East Bay than that.”
That was a second theme for the evening — the claim that the East Bay does Jewish better than anyone. It’s got its lefties and right-wingers, its scholarship and its minyans. An eruv has brought young Orthodox families to Berkeley, and the day school in Contra Costa, noted Dollinger, shows that quality Jewish education can thrive “even in the white, middle-class suburbs, one of the most challenging places in America.”
“We have the most creative Jewish community in the United States, right here in the East Bay,” said Danny Grossman, CEO of the S.F.-based Federation and Endowment Fund, before joking quickly that he hoped he wasn’t on the record.
And while every speaker urged the audience, made up mainly of East Bay donors and Jewish professionals, to keep involved and work together with colleagues on the other side of the bay, there was a cautionary note to that San Francisco entity: Don’t shove us aside. Make sure our needs continue to be met.
“Not having a separate East Bay Federation is sad for many of us. We feel the loss,” said Eileen Ruby, a longtime donor and past president. The coming transition can be “a real opportunity,” she said, but it depends on everyone’s goodwill.
“We will only be successful if we in the East Bay engage as partners and funders, not just as recipients,” she said.
And then, she bid everyone goodnight.