Forgetting the Little Guy

If you closed your eyes and sat very still, you could almost feel history unfolding last week in Conference Room No. 1 at national United Jewish Appeal headquarters in New York. One of the most broadly representative parliamentary bodies in organized American Jewish life was gathered to vote itself, in effect, out of existence.

The March 18 vote was meant to clear the way for a new body to emerge. It will allow responsibility for hundreds of millions of dollars of Jewish communal money to be concentrated in a smaller group of wealthier hands.

Some tried to block it. There was a brief revolt by a disorganized group of populists who demanded representation on the new council. But they couldn’t muster the votes. In the end, the merger of the United Jewish Appeal and the Council of Jewish Federations passed its last major hurdle.

Now, the truth is, you had to shut your eyes real tight to feel the drama here. This was a quarterly board meeting of the United Israel Appeal. Watching these folks work is usually about as dramatic as watching grass grow. This time, though, something happened.

The United Israel Appeal is a little-known agency that helps manage the flow of cash between the UJA and its Israeli beneficiaries. Last week, its board met to approve the long-awaited merger between the UJA and the Council of Jewish Federations. There wasn’t supposed to be any trouble.

The merger, of course, will combine the UJA and the Council of Jewish Federations into a single, still-unnamed super-agency. The new body is supposed to coordinate all the fund-raising and social-service work of America’s 190-odd local Jewish welfare federations. Four years in the making, the merger will put the machinery of Jewish philanthropy firmly in the hands of the folks back home who pay for it. Enthusiasts see it as taxpayer justice at its finest. It depends on your math.

The merger is now down to the final details. Winning approval from the United Israel Appeal was one of them. It’s essential because, for obscure historical reasons, the United Israel Appeal actually owns the UJA. Under the new plan, the UJA will turn the tables and own the United Israel Appeal.

Nobody expected any real trouble, because all three institutions — UJA, United Israel Appeal, Council of Jewish Federations — are basically governed by the same people: the donors who run the local federations that pay everybody’s bills.

But trouble is what they got. The United Israel Appeal isn’t quite like the UJA or CJF. One-third of its leadership doesn’t come from federations at all, but from the squabbling ideological and religious factions that make up the World Zionist Organization. When the UJA-CJF merger is done, these factions — Labor and Likud Zionists, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Zionists, Hadassah, B’nai B’rith International, the fraternal order of B’nai Zion and some others — will be left out in the cold. Not one seat is reserved for them on the governing councils of the new organization. They came to last week’s meeting spoiling for a fight.

Why are these groups on the United Israel Appeal board in the first place? For the same reason that the United Israel Appeal owns the UJA: Both were created by the World Zionist Organization, decades ago, to finance its Jewish state-building plans. Over the years, the federations gradually took control. But the Zionists never lost their foothold. Until now.

What happened last week was not a pretty sight. One after another, the Zionists rose to criticize the merger negotiations, to claim that they’d been hoodwinked, to defend their role as Israel’s leading supporters and to demand seats on the new board. “I want to remind you that we’re real people out there,” said former Hadassah President Bernice Tannenbaum.

The response they got from federation representatives veered between sympathy and derision, once even descending into a shouting match. When the vote came, the Zionists lost badly. Not one federation leader crossed over to support the Zionists.

Sadly, the Zionists had lost their fighting spirit. Years ago, they were the feistiest hell-raisers in the Jewish world. But, for generations, they’ve been just the opposite: loyal followers of Israeli diktat. Now, when they had to fight for their own survival, they couldn’t remember how to put up a fight.

The best argument they could muster was that Zionists are solidly for Israel. That only annoyed the federation leaders. “To question the Zionist commitment of the leaders of the federation is not only ill-placed but somewhat degrading,” said Ivan Schaeffer, president of the UJA-Federation of Washington.

In fact, federation leaders said, the federations are already open to all. Why reserve seats for one group? “There’s no reason why the people who say they’re Zionists can’t get deeply involved in their federations and try to influence them,” said Robert Goldberg, president of the Cleveland federation.

Actually, there’s a good reason. In federations, you’ve got to pay to play. The median household income among federation board members is more than $200,000 a year. For the rest of us, it’s around $50,000.

Federation leaders insist that you don’t need to be rich. Repeatedly, they cite cases of $5,000 donors playing key leadership roles. They think that’s modest. In fact, fewer than 4 percent of all UJA donors give $5,000 or more. Fully 86 percent give less than $1,000. Almost half give less than $100. They don’t get to vote.

The leadership of the UJA is drawn today from a tiny group of the wealthiest Jews. That’s not a healthy way to run an organization that needs to make decisions about people’s lives. Will the new UJA be funding Jewish education? What kind? Trips to Israel? At what cost? Social welfare? For whom? The most powerful institution in Jewish life shouldn’t be run entirely by people with no idea how most Jews live.

This argument didn’t start last week. For over a year, the UJA has been under pressure, from Zionist groups and synagogue movements alike, to make the new body a partnership between fund-raisers and opinion leaders. They’ve been ignored.

It’s got people worried. “Everybody understands that Jewish education and religious life are absolutely central concerns of our community now,” says Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Reform movement. “Our creative survival depends on it. What would make sense is a national structure based on partnership between movements and communal leaders. What happened was that the movements were left out. My own sense is that it was a tragic error.”

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.