The Power of Cabinet: A Reflection by Matthew Berger

From the moment I walked into the hotel lobby in Toronto, I felt engulfed in community. Hugs from friends old and new. Excitement about the time we were about to spend together. The slightly nervous energy of those joining us for the first time.

Four years ago, when I first joined The Jewish Federations of North America’s National Young Leadership Cabinet, I didn’t know what to expect. While friends had told me it would be a great opportunity, I didn’t see how it would be different from my involvement in my local Federation. Today, as my time on Cabinet is waning, I have come to appreciate the uniqueness of this experience, and the transformation it has had on how I see Jewish philanthropy and community service.

For one week each year, 300 young, committed Jewish leaders of The Jewish Federations of North America’s National Young Leadership Cabinet come together from across our communities to take a break from our normal lives and recommit ourselves to Jewish values and building a better world. We get to spend time with people who share our ideals and learn more about how we can impact our community and our collective Jewish future.

Cabinet has taught me that engaging in the Jewish community means more than just connecting with one another at home. Indeed, the real Jewish community is everywhere; across the country, but also in the places where so many have left to seek better lives elsewhere.

Last spring, I traveled with my Cabinet chevre (friends) to visit Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union. We went to small community centers where kids danced and sang the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah, despite the crumbling infrastructure around them. We saw how one building could house incredible support: feeding the hungry, educating the young, and providing solace for the elderly. Federation’s impact was everywhere.

In Tbilisi, a small group and I met David, an older man in a one-room apartment. A former dance and guitar teacher, he was forced to retire because of medical issues and now relied on the Jewish community for physical and emotional support. It started as a stoic conversation, but when we suggested he show us his guitar, he began to smile. And by the end, as he took the hands of the women in our group and danced with them on the few feet of floor he had, we were all exuberant.

Before joining Cabinet, this impact of Federation’s work felt important, but distant. It was in that moment, in that one-room apartment, with this exuberance and excitement – that I truly experienced the manifestation of what I always thought the Federation system did. We helped Jews and Jewish communities that could not help themselves. We put smiles on their faces. It was important work, and I was proud to be a part of it.

At the same time, Cabinet has given me a deeper understanding of the work our local Federations do at home, and the impact they have on my friends and community.

On the last day of our annual Cabinet Retreat, which we call “Campaign Day,” you can feel the energy in the air of the ballroom, as every participant gathers together, eager to hear from our fellow Cabinet members as they share their personal stories. Each year, several of our chevre tell their stories of how Jewish Federations, their partner organizations, and the communities we are all a part of have significantly changed their lives. Tissue boxes are strategically placed throughout the room.

My friends told harrowing stories of rebuilding after losing everything in a hurricane or getting the emotional support they needed after the loss of a loved one. We learned how the safety tools taught to rabbis and synagogue members saved lives in Pittsburgh. And others shared how their lives were forever changed because their loved ones were freed from exile.

In those moments, when it is your friend telling you the most intimate details of their lives and how their Jewish community literally rescued them, you begin to see the true impact Federation can have right here at home. It is not just in other countries where Jewish communities support one another. We are here for each other in our best and worst moments. That is the essence of community.

By the end of Campaign Day this year, our Cabinet of young Jewish leaders had collectively pledged $2.6 million. We pledged to continue our work as leaders in our communities, for the Jews next door and for those in far-off places.

My chevre are already shaping their communities, leading Federations and Hillel boards, giving their time and energy on a regular basis. We are taking the mantle from those who have long protected our community and done big, important things to get us here today. We are ensuring that the next generation has a strong, active Jewish community with leaders ready to support them, wherever they are.

Through Cabinet, our generation is building the local and global Jewish communities that we want to see; the communities that reflect our values. We are having big conversations about how to fight anti-Semitism and BDS, how to include a more diverse Jewish population than ever before, and how to welcome Jews from interfaith and LGBTQ families.

I now see Cabinet’s impact in our Jewish communities every day. I have a greater understanding of how our contributions to The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington help form a network of support that can truly impact the lives of Jews across the world, provide essential services that are needed at all stages of life, and ensure all Jews can live their values.

I am fortunate to be part of this Cabinet community because it regularly reminds me of the true impact that we can have. And, even though my time as part of Cabinet will conclude, the impact will stay with me through my continued leadership as part of the Jewish community, through my work at Hillel and support of my Federation. I know now, firsthand, how that impact is felt not only in the small apartments of those in far-off places, but also on the faces of our friends and neighbors, and perhaps even within ourselves. Being ready to support and sustain all of them is truly our collective mission.

Matthew Berger is vice president of communications for Hillel International and a fifth-year member of JFNA’s National Young Leadership Cabinet.