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Weaving community: How the JFSA works

“Weaving … is the essential art of creating the unified out of two opposites. If the meeting of opposites does not take place, nothing is created, for each element is defined by its opposite and takes its meaning from it.”

— Dario Valcarenghi as quoted in “The Art of Weaving a Life”

Weaving community

Stuart Mellan
Stuart Mellan

Federations across the country are aspiring to embrace models for building community that are firmly rooted in mission and values, while adapting to our environment and the evolving nature of our community. In our early years we thought of the Jewish community structure hierarchically — and over time this morphed conceptually into a hub-like paradigm with Federation as convener. But just as our community and our world have evolved — so has our framework for thinking about our work.

As this evolution has taken shape over my 20-year tenure in Tucson, I have begun to think of our work as “weaving community,” whereby our organizational partners (agencies, synagogues and organizations) along with Federation departments and projects work in mutually supportive ways to build an interdependent network of community services. While our community is not made up of “opposites” as per the weaving definition above, clearly our people and our institutions are made up of disparate and diverse voices. This “weaving” model enhances collaboration and strengthens social networks amongst our most precious resources — our people and our organizations. This model allows our community to be less institutionally-focused and more nimble in response to community needs.


The Jewish Federation draws its strength from its organizational partners. When the work of our partners shines — the Federation basks in that light. At the same time, the Federation’s primary mission is to enhance the power of the collective. Drawing on the immense commitment of our most passionately devoted volunteers, donors and leaders, our Federation’s focus is on mustering human and financial resources in order to create a community that aligns with our mission and values. When we are at our best, our partners are able to draw on the strength of the Federation and the collective community effort that the Federation helps to coalesce.

How it works: the evolving structure

Organizationally, our Federation, Foundation, and our agency and synagogue partners have established a “Jewish Community Roundtable” co-chaired by the president of the Board of Rabbis and one of the agency chairs, with the convener role filled by the board chair of the Jewish Federation. This roundtable, staffed by the Federation, meets quarterly and oversees task forces that enable us to tackle community issues in a collaborative manner, such as teen engagement, services for people with disabilities and transportation for seniors, to mention a few.

Several other “tables” for collaboration exist. A Synagogue-Federation Dialogue group meets every two months, and a Council of Educational Directors creates coordination among religious schools. Agency executives meet monthly.

The Federation and Foundation have aligned to offer one grant program to support new ideas and capacity building in our Jewish community, including the work of the roundtable task forces. Federation and Foundation board structures are intertwined. Our elaborate planning and allocations process is designed to build consensus and develop a shared vision.

How weaving community impacts the lives of real people

“Communities don’t just happen, they must be created” — and so our work is informed by asking, “What kind of community do we want to create”? Below are several examples of how weaving community helps us to actualize the community we aspire to be:

• Concierge: Our Jewish Community Roundtable oversees a free “customer service department” for the Jewish community through the services of a Jewish Community Concierge. Combined with Jewish community web portal, as well as a weekly “Newsflash” e-blast, we make it easy to find out who is doing what, and anyone can figure out where they fit in. We hear time and again that we have a welcoming community and we know this is not just organic — it is through efforts such as these, an outgrowth of weaving community.

• Weintraub Israel Center: From its inception, our Federation created an Israel Center in partnership with the Jewish Community Center, with oversight from a community board. The mission of the WIC is strengthening connections between Tucsonans and the land and people of Israel. Currently the WIC coordinates 18 twinning projects between local religious school, JCC pre-school and Jewish day school classrooms and Israeli classrooms. Aided by the addition of Shinshinim (teen emissaries from Israel), this gives many youngsters and their families their first real sense of connection to Israel.

• Through our Federation’s Coalition for Jewish Education, we employ a Special Needs Inclusion Director, who works with synagogue religious school directors to help them craft individualized educational plans for students with special needs. The Federation also fully funds one-on-one tutors at each of our congregations who, guided by the special needs director, work year-round with those students who need that support. Again, this “weaving” brings us together to provide services that no one organization could accomplish alone.

• Embracing the Broader Community: Our Jewish community expects us to take care of the most vulnerable members of our Jewish community, while also lending a helping hand to our broader community. By providing volunteer tutors and homework helpers, fulfilling teacher supply wish lists, and supplying weekend food packages to students at a high-poverty public elementary school, and numerous other efforts, we are making a difference in the broader community with a Jewish voice. These projects are supported by our synagogues and agencies — embracing the power of the collective.

Weaving community requires great partners

We are fortunate that our Jewish community offers strong agency partners who are committed to fulfilling this vision of community. Our JCC, along with being a partner with our Federation’s Weintraub Israel Center, is a full partner in coordinating “Pride”— our LGBT project. The Federation created a partnership with our Jewish History Museum resulting in the building of a world-class Holocaust History Center that teaches tolerance to thousands of school children annually. These examples are echoed with each of our community’s agencies.

Weaving community requires trust

We all know that trust is not an end point. Trust can be built, trust can be broken; and broken trust can be healed. In the end, trust is achieved when individuals of good intention approach the building of their relationship with integrity. It always helps when we all remind ourselves that, as it says in the Talmud, “kindness is the highest wisdom.” When each of the partners brings that perspective, chances of success are very high.

Weaving community requires shared ownership 

This model of weaving community requires a sense of shared ownership amongst the key organizational leaders, and it requires all to accept the premise that “no one organization can go it alone.” In our experience, shared ownership is not just “a feeling” — it is reinforced in the organization structure whereby rabbis, agency executives and lay leaders give leadership in instances where the Federation might have taken the lead.

Admittedly, this work is, and will always be, a work in progress. I hadn’t heard of the term “weaving community” when the image occurred to me, but when I searched the internet I located a 1993 “Change Handbook” by Cheryl Honey that postulated that “community weaving” has the following purpose: “to weave the human and tangible resources of the grassroots with the knowledge and skills of formal systems.” It goes on to offer the following with regard to outcomes of this approach:

“Weaving community:

• builds and bridges social and human capital

• maps and measures assets for community development

• creates resilient, interdependent social networks

• increases protective factors linked to community health and well-being

• sparks initiative, innovation, ingenuity

• creates micro enterprises”

The work of weaving community is challenging — but the outcome, when we fulfill our potential, is no less than the fulfillment of our sacred mission.

Stuart Mellan is president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona. A version of this article first appeared on ejewishphilanthropy.org.