Retiring the debt or dismantling the campus?
August 23, 2019
On the front page of the Aug. 2nd edition of this newspaper, a small article with large implications appeared with the headline, “A debt-free Federation is in sight.”
I do not know if the article was written by a Heritage writer, was sent to the Heritage as a news release by the Federation or was authored by a public relations guru.
The article was upbeat and was accompanied by a photo of the current executive director who categorized the event of satisfying the debt as “transform[ing] a daunting challenge into a most rewarding triumph.”
Having been involved in Federation fund-raising and program activities from the early seventies into the late eighties, I remember when the Federation was debt-free and expanding its programs and infrastructure to serve a growing Jewish community. It was mostly done with vigorous fundraising from the Jewish community to serve the Jewish community.
Somewhere along the line, Federation and constituent agencies leadership decided to look beyond the Jewish community for its financial support and embraced taking funds from United Way. This policy decision was not unanimous and many of us spoke out about our concern of accepting United Way funds with the concomitant obligation to open many Jewish programs and activities to the general public.
Many well-meaning leaders embraced the idea of inclusion as part of the Jewish concept of “Tikkun Olam,” not recognizing that inclusion risked dilution of the Jewish mission to serve the Jewish community.
The pay-as-you-go philosophy that had successfully guided the Jewish community’s growth also gave way to faster expansion than we could afford in order to meet the ever increasing role the Federation community had assumed.
There was a time in the early to mid-seventies that we allocated a full 50 percent of our annual UJA campaign to Israel and world charities serving an overseas Jewish population still struggling from the effects of the Holocaust, war dislocation and resettlement in Israel and the United States.
This has not been a great year for our Jewish community. The Jewish campus in Maitland was a precious jewel and center for Jewish life. While our synagogues are thriving and expanding Jewish education, the Jewish Academy of Orlando has contracted, and is back to only elementary school grades. It has been financially compelled to open its enrollment to the general community, which ultimately can only result in diluting its Jewish mission of educating Jewish children in the rich heritage and traditions of our people.
The Holocaust Memorial, Research and Education Center is leaving the campus for a new location in Orlando, a new name and a new mission. The designated name is, “The Holocaust Museum of Hope and Humanity.” The building on the Maitland campus was designed and built as a visual memorial to the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. What is to become of that memory in downtown Orlando?
There are times when paying off debt and becoming debt-free are reasons to celebrate such as when one pays off a home mortgage or retires debt from a prosperous business. Many Jewish communities financed their synagogues with borrowed money, but had reliable written pledges from congregants before creating the obligation, and celebrated the tradition of ultimately “burning the mortgage.” The debt was gone, but the synagogue remained.
This is not the case with the Federation’s payoff of this debt. The Federation is selling off a major Jewish asset that hopefully would have been needed for a future revitalized Jewish Federation. How is the sale of a major asset of our Jewish enterprise in Central Florida a most rewarding triumph?
While I understand the need to sell off the building to preserve the solvency of the Jewish Federation, it is hardly a rewarding triumph to be celebrated. When combined with the future abandonment of the Holocaust Center and the secularization of the Jewish Academy of Orlando, we should call it what it is: another step in the dismantling of the Maitland Jewish campus.
If you wish to comment or respond you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please do so in a rational, thoughtful, respectful and civil manner.
Mel Pearlman holds B.S. & M.S. degrees in physics as well as a J.D. degree and initially came to Florida in 1966 to work on the Gemini and Apollo space programs. He has practiced law in Central Florida since 1972. He has served as president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando; was a charter board member, first Vice President and pro-bono legal counsel of the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center of Central Florida, as well as holding many other community leadership positions.