When leaders from 119 North American Jewish federations met here this week, they did not make any earth-shattering decisions or vote on anything binding.
Instead, they did what many involved described as even more revolutionary: They listened to each other, building trust and beginning to explore what it will mean for them to be “owners” of their newly formed umbrella organization, the United Jewish Communities.
“I’ve begun to see a trusting relationship start,” Charles Bronfman, chairman of the UJC’s board, said at the meeting’s closing plenary on Monday.
Robert Aronson, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, observed as the meeting closed: “I don’t think the decisions themselves were as important as the opportunity to sit and talk together.”
Spawned from the merger of the United Jewish Appeal and the Council of Jewish Federations, the UJC says it is attempting to transform a system that had traditionally been top-down and somewhat mysterious in its decision-making to one that is more open.
Indeed, at this two-day “owners’ retreat,” which ended Monday and was followed by a series of meetings, the most oft-repeated words were “transparency,” “consensus” and “change.”
What happens with the UJC is significant because its 189 member federations across North America raised almost $882 million last year for domestic and overseas Jewish needs — everything from day schools to rescuing and resettling refugees.
The federations have long been considered the central address of Jewish philanthropy and social services, but in recent years have been devoting larger portions of their funds to local causes rather than overseas needs.
What remains to be seen is whether — in this climate of openness and without coercion — they will be able to come together and agree on enough to form a cohesive system.
At this week’s retreat, representatives from the various federations spent time breaking into small groups for lengthy discussions and debating among the entire body.
Following the retreat, the UJC’s board of trustees on Tuesday approved:
* A two-year nonbinding plan for federations to maintain at least their current contributions to the UJC and to overseas needs. The board also passed an amendment that would require UJC to come up with a formula by Dec. 31, 2001, that would determine the “fair share” contributions of individual federations in the future.
* A decision to work with local federations and the Jewish Agency for Israel to become partners of Birthright Israel, a program started by philanthropists Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman to send unaffiliated Jews on a free trip to Israel.
The board set $39 million as the target amount to contribute over three years — $15.6 million from the UJC budget, $15 million from federations and the rest from the Jewish Agency. So far, more than 70 federations — representing more than 83 percent of the North American Jewish population — have indicated they are prepared to participate, according to Stephen Solender, UJC president and chief executive officer.
In addition, leaders from within the UJC system agreed as a result of their discussions on their top three priorities for what they want the new organization to accomplish: coordinate overseas needs, help with training for lay and professional leaders and assist with fundraising.
During the retreat, UJC leaders updated their constituents on their accomplishments — getting up and running, establishing pillars, or focus areas, and forming tentative recommendations for a budget and overseas allocations.
They also outlined some goals for the future, including recruiting more women for top leadership positions, stepping up planning, identifying and publicizing “best practices” and developing training programs for federation leaders.
All in all, they seemed to be seeking the buy-in of federations and attempting to persuade them why they should be involved.
But there remain many points of conflict and uncertainty:
* Many small and middle-sized federations feel they do not have a large enough voice in collective decisions and have expressed fears that proposed budget cuts — particularly to regional offices that assist smaller federations with things such as fundraising and personnel matters — would adversely affect them.
* Issues of obligation and enforcement — particularly on the issue of financial commitment for overseas needs and the national system’s overhead — were considered so divisive that they were moved off the agenda weeks before the retreat. Nonetheless, the UJC committee charged with assessing overseas needs is requesting federations contribute at least 105 percent of what they gave last year.
* Federations agree that they want to trim the budget — which is approximately $40 million — for the national system but cannot agree what programs and services should be cut to achieve that goal.
Despite the difficulties, participants from both large and small federations overwhelmingly voiced satisfaction with the retreat, even if some were skeptical about what will happen next.
“We have the opportunity to speak up, and everyone’s being heard,” said Daniel Chefjec, executive director of the Central Kentucky Jewish Federation.
“Small communities have a history in which we’ve felt neglected and been forced to go into decisions we didn’t like. But much of that is being dispelled by the fact that this is being kept clean.”
Jeff Levin, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Washtenaw County in Ann Arbor, Mich., said the meeting was strengthening federations’ commitment to the larger system.
“There’s a growing recognition that whatever comes, everyone making Shabbos for himself is not a good thing,” he said. “That’s the main theme, and all the rest is commentary.”
Shelly Katz, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Santa Barbara, Calif., described the process as “a real turning point for the small cities.”
“We feel we’re being listened to, especially in the small groups,” she added.
For Joel Tauber, UJC’s executive committee chairman, “We’re building a culture of oneness, and people are beginning to look beyond their own federation.”
Despite the sense of growing confidence, leaders — particularly from smaller federations — noted that they were still not certain what the long-term impact of their discussions might be.
Sara Schreibman, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Charlotte, N.C., described the retreat as a learning process but noted that “the real test” will be “if the board really listens.”
Arthur Paikowsky, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix, agreed, saying, “The devil is in the details. Once you figure out how you want to do it, what’s the implementation?”