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Declaring a War on Poverty

January 17, 2008
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I Michael Coslov

I Michael Coslov, campaign chair for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia has declared war on poverty, hunger and other critical issues impacting Jewish children, older adults and other vulnerable individuals and families in Greater Philadelphia, in Israel and around the world. In an interview conducted in the West Conshohocken offices of Tube City IMS Corporation which he serves as chairman and chief executive officer, Coslov outlines both the issues and challenges that impact our local and global Jewish communities and the strategies he will implement to successfully address them.

Jews seem to be well-represented in the affluent communities along the Main Line, Bucks and Montgomery Counties. Why do you maintain that Jewish poverty is a critical local issue?

Twenty-five percent of the Jewish population in our Greater Philadelphia area lives below the poverty level. It may be hard to comprehend but the local agencies Federation supports like the Mitzvah Food Project, Jewish Relief Agency, Jewish Family and Children's Service and JEVS Human Services knows this to be a fact! Their staff is our eyes and ears in identifying our community's most vulnerable and determining the services they need.

When our grandparents came to this country, many were helped to immigrate and resettle in this area by Federation and its agencies. Their children (our parents) lived in close knit Jewish neighborhoods like Logan, Wynnefield and Strawberry Mansion where they shopped at Jewish bakeries, groceries and delis and they prayed at neighborhood shuls. They intermingled with those who were less fortunate, making it easy to extend to them a helping hand.

Today, many of us have been blessed with good fortune and have moved to suburban communities where we are more isolated from our fellow Jews in need. However, just because Jews who are poor and hungry are not in our immediate eyesight, we cannot forget them. For no more than we can forget to read the Haggadah on Passover can we forget about our obligations to our people.

My children attend public schools. Why should I support Jewish day schools through Federation giving?

Simply put, we all have a stake in investing in our Jewish future by supporting Jewish day schools. Numerous studies have demonstrated that a Jewish Day-School education is the single highest indicator of future Jewish involvement.

Jewish day schools, like Catholic schools or Friends academies, are not in the business to "educate" but rather to promulgate the faith. The Jewish day school curriculum teaches morals and ethics and emphasizes the positive contributions of Jewish culture. Children learn about the joyful aspects of being Jewish and take pride in their identity.

The costs of day school education have skyrocketed. Despite our best efforts to keep these costs in line, many in our community are denied access to a quality Jewish education. This is unacceptable. Just like hunger and poverty, Jewish education is a critical need that must be addressed.

Our Jewish tradition teaches us that we are morally obligated to support Jewish education. Communal funding for Jewish day schools was begun during Talmudic times and has existed throughout the history of our people. It is only today, in the most prosperous Jewish community of all time, that Jewish families lack the communal support to educate their children.

Many Jews state that they are not personally interested in Jewish education. That's like saying I don't enjoy classical music so I won't support the Philadelphia Orchestra or I don't have cancer so I don't need to support the Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania. Donors to these and other organizations, many of whom are Jewish, recognize that these are important community resources that must be supported. Jewish education deserves the very same status. It is part of our culture and must be preserved.

Israelis are well-educated and enjoy a relatively high standard of living. Why should a significant portion of my Federation campaign gift support Israeli social and humanitarian services?

Since 1948, when Israel was created, our Jewish State has had to spend an inordinate amount of money on defense, security, building the infrastructure and immigration. Because of this, funding for many of the nation's social-service programs has historically been placed at risk.

When I became chairman of the Israel Emergency Fund in the summer of 2006, Israel was struggling to recover from the devastation caused by the impact of some 4,000 Hezbollah rockets which hit Israel's northern communities, damaging the infrastructure, businesses, schools and homes. Federation president and CEO Ira M. Schwartz and I traveled there and saw first-hand the great work that the agencies we support there were doing to rebuild its economy, restore funding to communal services serving émigrés, the elderly and other Israelis at risk while continuing its investment in ensuring the safety and security of all of its citizens.

I have visited Philadelphia's Partnership 2000 communities of Netivot and Sedot Negev. This region is home to more than 32,000 residents, including a large number of immigrants from North Africa, the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia. Both communities are located very close to the Gaza Strip and are still at risk of rocket fire.

Through participation in the partnership many members of our Philadelphia Jewish community have forged a personal connection with residents of the region and know first-hand about their hopes, fears and dreams.

In Netivot-Sedot Negev and throughout the State of Israel, it would be wonderful if more money could be used for education and social services and less to build bomb shelters and maintain rocket patrols. The people of our Partnership 2000 region are protecting the frontiers of our Jewish homeland. Therefore it is incumbent upon us to do all that we can to protect their safety.

It would be terrific if the security fence could come down and Israel would enjoy peace with her Arab neighbors. Until that time comes, it is incumbent upon each and every Diaspora Jew to support Israel's people through a Federation campaign contribution.

Israel is a source of pride for every Jew in the world regardless of their level of religious observance. All Jews must ensure that Israel is the very best country possible on all frontiers and make certain that Israel exists in a way that makes us proud.

I understand that a portion of my Federation campaign gift is allocated to global Jewish needs. What types of programs and services are funded overseas?

Since 1914, Federations like ours throughout North America have partnered with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Inc. (JDC) to provide rescue, relief and renewal to Jews in need around the world, particularly where their lives as Jews are threatened or made more difficult.

For more than a decade, JDC has been providing food, clothing and medicine to some 250,000 elderly and poor Holocaust survivors in the former Soviet Union. In Argentina, where an economic crisis has impoverished thousands of Jews, the JDC ensures that our people need not choose between paying rent or buying food, clothing, and other basic necessities. The JDC never knows where it will focus its resources next. However, we do know that the Jewish people have a 5,000 year history of being discriminated against and it is up to the "JOINT" to monitor the current world situations, see where the arrow stops and go into action. For as long as there are Jewish people in need, the Joint will be there to help them.

Why should I contribute to Federation instead of directly to specific Jewish organizations?

When investor and philanthropist Warren Edward Buffett decided to give away his entire fortune to charity, he donated $30 million dollars to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. When asked why, Buffett replied that he trusted the Foundation to make informed and ethical decisions in funding programs that would address critical needs in the United States and globally.

Since Feb. 10, 1901, when Philadelphia merchant Jacob Gimbel and 500 other prominent Jewish Philadelphians created the Federation of Jewish Charities of Philadelphia to help raise funds for organizations like the Jewish Hospital, United Hebrew Charities, Jewish Foster Homes, Hebrew Education Society, Orphans' Guardians, Jewish Maternity Association, Jewish Immigrant Society and the Young Women's Union and Hebrew Society, philanthropic Jews have placed their trust in Federation. Then and now, Federation is guided by Judaism's proud traditions of tzedakah, justice and acts of loving kindness to care for Jews in need.

Federation employs highly credentialed staff who know how to vet reputable agencies and organizations that deliver quality services here at home, in Israel and around the world. Each agency we fund has goals, objectives, transparency and accountability. Donors can feel confident that staff works in partnership with lay people who themselves are Federation donors.

Our current donors know that Federation also is totally transparent, with financial records open for all to see. We pride ourselves on having low administrative expenses-just 19 cents on every dollar raised. Obviously, as this is a fixed cost, the percentage of administrative expenses will actually decrease when we raise more money.

The innovations I implemented to increase the size and scope of my business can be successfully introduced to grow the base of our annual campaign. In my business, I make certain that we take care of our staff, our customers and our equipment. I know if we focus on the bottom line only, the business will suffer. So it is with Federation. In my work with Federation, I will make certain that our staff are well taken care of and our donors feel informed and appreciated. Then the bottom line will take care of itself and our community partners will receive the funds they need to be successful.

It is simply unacceptable that only 15 percent of Jews contribute to the Federation campaign. We can and must engage more people so that our campaign can address continually escalating Jewish needs here in Greater Philadelphia and around the world. The health of our Federation depends largely on our ability to execute three of the most widely-accepted business growth practices -- retain current donors, bring back those who have left and engage new investors. Those donors who continue to support the Federation and its community priorities need to be acknowledged and appreciated; we must articulate our achievements in a clear and concise way.

We cannot afford anything less than complete success in achieving these goals. When Jewish lives are at risk, there is no margin for error. We cannot be known as the generation that failed our people!

Why is Federation sponsoring all these educational programs? Aren't these just ways to rope me in so that I will contribute to the campaign?

Did Moses feel roped in when God asked him to lead our ancestors out of Egypt and into the Promised Land? Although Moses initially resented being singled out for such a formidable task when he understood God's plan he knew clearly what he had to do and why. Like Moses, we all have potential to accomplish great things when we know what is at stake.

Donors today are more sophisticated and there is more competition for their dollars. Therefore, it is imperative that we educate them about the critical local and global needs that our Federation addresses. We know that in modern charities people give to big ideas with clearly articulated goals. We have big ideas and articulated goals, and they will be communicated to the community. We don't want anyone to think that they are giving to the "black hole." Education is essential to developing men and women with Jewish hearts -- individuals who personally care about helping their fellow Jews at risk and are willing to encourage others to become involved. Jewish hearts have always responded during pivotal times in our people's history. After the tragedy of the Holocaust and the triumphant creation of the State of Israel we have demonstrated the spirit of our history that binds Jews together in one common destiny. The same Jewish hearts that gave because of the Holocaust and helped to create the State of Israel will continue to invest in the critical needs of our community today:

· 21,000 Jews, ages 75 or older reside in Philadelphia. Many are living in poverty, hunger and neglect.

· Approximately 5,000 older adults depend on a variety of food programs to survive.

· JRA delivers a food package to approximately 3,300 seniors. The contents unfortunately will last for only a few days.

· Six percent of our impoverished seniors receive at least one nutritional meal a day.

· Food insecurity affects 12,000 low-income households.

· A significant number of those who show up at Federation's Mitzvah Food Pantries are children accompanied by their parents.

These are truly alarming facts. My Jewish heart is outraged. Hungry children, struggling families and senior adults at risk are more than abstract statistics. They are real Jewish people who need our support. We can't afford to fail them. I simply won't allow it.

Yet I cannot meet this great challenge alone. We must expand our pool of community donors and leaders-individuals who are ready, willing and able to step up to the plate to ensure that our Federation can continue its great work for generations to come. It is not enough to just invest in Federation. It is equally important that these investors be at the table to ensure that their dollars are allocated in an efficient and effective manner.

Why did you decide to become personally involved in Federation leadership?

Like my friend Len Barrack, I was very involved with Federation a number of years ago. I stepped away for a while amidst concerns that Federation had lost its vision and direction.

In July 2006 two events occurred that influenced my decision to rejoin the ranks of Federation leadership. Ira Schwartz came on board as Federation's president and CEO. Just weeks after Ira took office, Hezbollah rockets rained down upon Israel and the Second Lebanon War began. I was asked to chair the Israel Emergency Campaign and I knew I had to go to Israel to see the needs first hand. Ira and I traveled to Israel and I have gotten to know him very well. I realized that Ira and I shared the same vision for what our Federation needed to be.

After returning home from Israel, armed with the first-hand knowledge of what needed to be done, and having total confidence in Ira's ability, I knew it was time to roll up our sleeves and get to work. Through a lot of hard work, the dollars raised in this community enabled families to rebuild their homes and businesses and demonstrated to Israelis that their fellow Jews in the Diaspora stood beside them in times of tragedy and triumph.

Len Barrack and I share the same leadership vision and look forward to working with the talented team of professionals that Ira Schwartz has assembled. Together we will function as an army to wage war on the critical needs that impact our Jewish community here in Philadelphia, in Israel and around the world.

Who do you consider your role models as leaders?

Back in the early 1970s when I first became involved in Federation I admired many extraordinary individuals who I consider worthy of inclusion in a Hall of Fame of Jewish Philanthropy. They include such legends as: Walter Annenberg, Ray Perlman, Morris Kravitz, Hyman and Sam Korman, Phil Zinman, Phil Seltzer, Leonard Goldfine, Charlie Conston, Kevy Kaiserman, Marvin Orleans and Bernie Fishman and other menschen. I must also mention my good friend and mentor who has inspired me and has been a role model -- Ron Rubin.

Their generosity and their tireless commitment were most evident in the struggle for survival of the State of Israel as well as creating quality Jewish education and addressing local needs of those who are less fortunate. Their drive to succeed helped to place Philadelphia on the map as one of the nation's premiere Jewish communities.

These Hall of Famers were involved during Federation's glory days. It was the central address of the Philadelphia Jewish community and they were honored to serve as leaders of such a prestigious organization.

It is incumbent upon us to build upon this strong foundation. We must identify, educate and engage men and women of vision and means to become the Hall of Famers of tomorrow.

You intend to publish the Roll of Honor. Will it embarrass some people?

Publishing the Roll of Honor is not intended to embarrass anyone. It will be created and published to identify the commitment of those involved in the Jewish community and yes, of course, it is also intended to inspire others regarding their own commitment and involvement.

What is the role of women in Federation?

Jewish needs are not gender-specific. Both men and women must accept responsibility for performing acts of tzedakah through Campaign contributions.

Through our Women's Philanthropy Division, women of all lifestyles and income levels make a personal commitment to support the Jewish community locally, in Israel, and around the world. They raise funds for crucial programs, plan for our community's future, and help young women develop into tomorrow's leaders. Women's Philanthropy makes a significant and lasting difference in the lives of Jews every day.

Today, Women's Philanthropy of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia raises more than $5 million annually to help Federation meet its goals. By contributing as individuals, women have significantly increased both the dollar amount and total number of gifts to Jews all around the world.

How will the Federation Campaign change under your leadership?

Len Barrack and I have pledged to restore Federation to its former role of prominence as the central address of the Philadelphia Jewish community. We will host prestigious events at exciting new venues. We will bring in world-class speakers who will inform, enlighten and inspire a new caliber of leaders.

We will produce a state of the art video designed to take advantage of current and new technologies. This video will allow our constituency to see first-hand the needs of those who depend on Federation and its partners.

We will do everything in our power to grow the annual campaign in both size and stature, ensuring our ability to meet critical Jewish needs now and in the future.

I implore the community to join with us in making these ambitious goals realities!

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