Stephen Richer is President and co-founder of Gather the Jews. Stephen’s undoubtedly fatuous views do not reflect any GTJ institutional stance.
Three hundred and five DC-area Jews gathered (we get a quarter every time that word is used) Wednesday night at The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s “The Network” event. It wasn’t as awkward or pretentious as I had feared given the title and alleged purpose – I didn’t have to play any name games (I’m terrible at those, ask Shaina L.) and I didn’t have to talk about my career ambitions (ruler of the world or social dilettante along the lines of Oscar Wilde’s Lord Goring). Instead, JFGW treated us to a really nice event by providing:
- A great venue (Marriott Hotel),
- A fun/provocative keynote speaker (Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s),
- A large number of people that are smarter and more accomplished than I am (20s and 30s),
- A large number of people that are MUCH smarter and MUCH more accomplished than I am (people over the age of 40),
- Comfortable seating (I hate being squished),
- Some amazing cupcake tops (I hate cupcake bottoms),
- And ice cream for both appetizers and dessert (and that, as the keynote speaker said, is definitely a good thing).
I’ve promised to leave the actual reporting on the event to my boy Jason L., but in the meantime, I’m going to exercise my presidential license and subject you to a few disjointed thoughts about the event and Federation.
International Love – the thawing a stone cold heart?
Most of my habits have a bizarre twist (see, e.g., My Eating). This includes my allegiances to nonprofits. I fear that most 501(c)3s are either socialist incubators, anti-corporate breeding grounds, anti-Israel hate shops, democratic internationalist kumbaya singers, or are somehow connected to the ACLU.
Accordingly, I even greeted the JFGW with some skepticism when I enrolled in the NEXUS program – a program designed to familiarize young leaders (I got in because I knew the administrator) with Federation’s efforts and to encourage future Federation and Jewish community involvement.
It didn’t take me long to realize that the JFGW is very solid on the local front: its young Leadership Division runs really great events, and it does a wonderful job getting young adults more involved in Federation or encouraging the launch of their own Jewish endeavors (e.g. Federation has been supporting of GTJ. Also, be sure to check to complete your ConnectGens Fellowship applications by November 20!).
But Federation’s international giving rubbed me funny. Yes, rescuing Jews across the world is a nice thing, but American Judaism is shrinking, and in many respects, we’re the leaders of the Jewish world. Shouldn’t we fix our own house first?
Last night’s speech by Yasha Moz threatened my notions on this subject. I never knew Yasha’s full story – I knew he was Soviet-born, and I knew he played chess well (stereotypical), but I hadn’t known that Federation had played a large part in: 1) The development of his Soviet Jewish community, 2) His ability to leave the horror that was (and is) the Soviet world, and 3) His ability to skip the apple cart-pushing stage of Jewish immigration that so many of our great grandparents had to go through around 1910. I know and like Yasha. I didn’t realize Federation had made it possible for him to be with us.
And maybe the “Yasha impact” is unique to Federation. I have happily given to Mesorah DC a few times since moving here because I’ve gone to over 100 of their programs. But Mesorah DC doesn’t have the ability to create a “Yasha impact.” Only a behemoth like Federation can build the world clout and international connections to make that happen.
I still say America first. But I won’t object to growing more Jewish Yashas.
Marriott Hotel – The creation of the JuMo.
Marriott International is Mormon in origin. I love it when we have Jewish events in Mormon hotels – combines my two peoples (I’m from Utah… semi-Mormon by affiliation).
Corporate social responsibility
Jerry Greenfield, the evening’s keynote speaker and the Jerry of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, spoke at length about corporate social responsibility. Businesses are designed to maximize profit, and modern day focus on the bottom line diminishes societal well-being. Instead of focusing solely on profit, Jerry argued, businesses should rate their success both by profit and the amount of charitable money it gives to society.
I certainly don’t object to giving charity – the positive effects of private charity for both giver and recipient are well documented. But I do object to the message (read Jerry’s speech if you can) that business isn’t contributing to society if it doesn’t give charity. Businesses exist to meet consumer demand. People want ice cream. Ben & Jerry’s provides great ice cream at a competitive price. How is this not providing a service to society?
This debate of “when is a company benefitting society?” came up recently in the context of Steve Jobs. Jobs never embraced the charitable world to the extent that guys like Gates and Buffett have. But does this mean that he didn’t contribute as much to society? No. Absolutely not. He led the technological drive that increased world utility by billions – I would be tons less happy if I didn’t have my iPhone or iTunes.
Bottom line: If your business wants to give money away, great, that’s nice of you. But that certainly isn’t necessary for your business to create societal benefit. All that is necessary for societal benefit is for your business to create a product or service that people want. And fortunately, this societal good can be easily measured just by looking at the bottom line.
Ice cream eating contest
At the end of the evening’s speeches, event sponsor David Waghelstein of Member Car announced an ice cream eating competition. I’m somewhat (understatement) competitive, and I like random competitions (see, e.g., Afikomen Scavenger Hunt, 2011), so I rushed outside to the reception area looking for a competition table. I didn’t see any, so I figured Wahgelstein had just been joking.
Only at the very end of the evening did I learn that the competition had been an informal one, and that you simply had to report back to somebody on how many ice creams you at. Suspiciously, Ellen Kagen Waghelstein – David’s wife – won the competition and got the cool Ben & Jerry’s t-shirt. I immediately challenged her to a one on one eating competition. She accepted. Stay tuned.
You too can launch an iconic business!
The early youth histories of Ben and Jerry – as told by Jerry – are amazing. Ben shuttled around to three or four different colleges, dropping out of each and never getting a degree. Jerry only found his way into the ice cream business after applying to 20 medical schools and getting rejected by all 20. He then applied a year later to 20 more. Same result.
Together, Ben and Jerry had under $20,000 in savings when they started their Vermont-based business.
Clearly these guys weren’t born on third base, nor did they get there with the first swing of the bat. So if things in your life (or my life) aren’t exactly where you want them to be yet, take heart; we can still be the next Ben and Jerry.
- GTJ article by Jason Lagsner.
- Special thank you message from The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.
- See this brief article in The Washington Post on the event.
- Pictures from The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s Facebook page.
- K Street Kate.
- Washington Business Journal (BizNow)