As president and CEO of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, Adam Minsky holds one of the most important public service jobs in the Jewish community. Coming into the job, Minsky, 45, has already held a variety of high-profile positions with UJA Federation, including senior vice-president of community capacity building. Most recently, he led the development of the UJA Federation’s strategic plan, which outlines the organization’s vision for the future.
What attracted you to this job?
What excites me about this particular role is that UJA Federation’s mandate is to bring together the community, to unite the community around issues of real importance and I’ve had the opportunity over the last 10 years to work with our network of agencies. We have over 100 agencies we support locally, nationally and internationally. I’ve seen what can happen when you bring together many agencies to focus on the issues that really matter to the Jewish People.
What is your vision of a strategic direction for UJA Federation?
There are six key community priorities that this organization needs to focus on. We are at a point now where I hope in the next few months that we can announce that we’ve raised the money so that we can go ahead with the final development of the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre and focus on the core programmatic issues that really will make this community achieve its full potential.
We have done an amazing job of renewing the physical infrastructure of the community over the last decade. Now we need to focus on making sure our community makes a difference on the issues that really matter, so that the community’s infrastructure is filled with incredible programs in that really vibrant Jewish community.
You’ve said you want to attract young people to community organizations. How do you plan to do that?
I’m young, and I understand that it is critical for this community to retain its vibrancy to bring in my generation and younger to take ownership of the future of this community. So one of the key priorities in the strategic plan, and it is a priority that I will keep front and centre, is making sure that we bring in young people at all levels.
Young people will be key at setting the priorities of this organization, who will be involved in its fundraising and its allocation of resources to our network of agencies, and also young people will fill the ranks of other Jewish organizations.
Are young people joiners of community organizations in the same way they were 20 or 30 years ago?
There are differences in terms of how you approach people these days. I’ve been spending a great deal of my time going out and meeting our current donors and also young people, to bring them into our organization. They care about the Jewish community. There is a real appetite among young people to make the community the kind they want to connect to. Things just need to be adapted to them and they need to feel their time is going to be well used and that they are going to be in serious leadership positions when they come forward.
Let’s talk about Jewish education. What can the federation do to make it more affordable?
We’ve made this issue a priority for us. When I talk about the strategic plan, this is at the forefront of our efforts.
We have a great system in place to help those with great financial needs access the system, but what’s happened is that as costs have increased, Jewish day school education is less and less affordable to middle-income families.
We’re going to have to work together with our partners at the schools by operating on two levels. One is going to be on the expense side. We’re particularly proud of the recent announcement with Leo Baeck Day School moving in to share the Kimel Education Centre at TanenbaumCHAT in Vaughan. I think that foreshadows the kind of smart use of space to make sure expenses are as low as possible.
At the same time, we’re going to have to fundraise to create a pool of support so that we can help middle-income families.
In the past, you’ve said poverty reduction is a priority. What can the federation do about that?
Going forward, it’s not going to be about just making direct allocations to individual agencies. It’s going to be about bringing together our agencies into a partnership with ourselves and donors.
The first initiative they’re doing right now is called “Door to Door.” It’s focused on poverty reduction with seniors and Holocaust survivors. They’re just at the beginning stages of it. I’m immensely proud of the way all our social service agencies are making sure they provide a wrap-around service, so it doesn’t matter which agency initiates the relationship with the vulnerable senior in our community, but that the senior receives all the services we are able to provide in a co-ordinated way.
When you bring agencies together you’re able to do work that is more high-impact, where we’re really able to show donors the kind of change that takes place. We’re able to do it in a more cost effective way, to use resources in a smart way. It really moves the needle on issues that matter.
People have talked for years about bringing Russians and Israelis into the broader community. What is the federation doing to make them feel part of the wider community?
We dedicate resources to helping to bring as many Russian-speaking Jews into the mainstream of the community and at the same time move the mainstream of the community close to Russian-speaking Jews. The same thing with Israelis.
In the last five years, we’ve developed the largest Jewish overnight camp for Russian speaking Jews. The Schwartz/Reisman Centre on the Lebovic campus is buzzing with Russian-speaking supplementary schools, teen programs and all kinds of activities. Our goal is to provide both the expertise and resources to as many community organizations as possible, so they can provide relevant programming to Russian-speaking Jews.
Last year UJA raised around $62 million. How are things going this year and what are your expectations for fundraising in the future?
We always set a higher bar for our campaign each year, so that it will grow.
The environment we are in is certainly a competitive one, but we have amazing co-chairs for our annual campaign right now who are doing a phenomenal job. The projections are already up over the previous year. We’ll know better by the end of the calendar year where we’re going to land, but if we look card for card in terms of where we’ve been, we’re ahead of our pace in the past.
About 32 per cent of the money UJA raises goes to Israel. You’ve talked about poverty, education and other local projects, so is the Israel allocation sustainable given those local priorities?
We have a really amazing system of looking at how to invest those dollars to make the biggest possible impact, which involves a network of both research and volunteers who are plugged in to all the different needs and receive the background of all of it. There’s a real community process in deciding how to allocate those dollars.
We start every year at zero and build from there. As community priorities shift, if there are emergencies and community dynamics, we’re able to move in real time to shift dollars to meet those community priorities. If everything becomes designated, you lose that flexibility to be able to shift funds to meet the highest priority community needs at that given time.
The balance will always be based on the current circumstance and what we see as the future issues. So there is nothing sacred about having a particular percentage in one area. It’s about what’s the smartest kind of investment we can make in that year to be able to create the type of community we want to be.
Many people perceive a growing divide within the community, among conservatives and liberals, Orthodox and non-Orthodox. Have you noticed that in terms of support for federation or discussion of where funds should go?
We invest a lot of time in being that organization that brings every segment of our community together to decide on community priorities. When you put people of different backgrounds around the table, you get a much stronger outcome for the community. The other thing is that it builds bridges between different segments of the community.
One of the things I love about this job is the role of unifying the community in a kind of big tent. I want to lead an organization that has all different segments of the community in the tent, and it’s not that we’re all going to agree all the time on different things. Through that conversation, we get a much stronger community out of it, in terms of decisions where to invest our dollars and how we move forward. The more we stay in our own silos, the more it has the potential to weaken us, and I’m committed to the opposite.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.