American Jewish leaders who created the United Jewish Communities (UJC) umbrella organization out of three separate ones in 1999 are largely frustrated and disappointed by the outcome of their labor, with some scoring the missed chance to form a truly representative and forward-looking voice for American Jewry.
Among the apparent losers of the merger are Israel and overseas beneficiaries, as well as rabbinical, intellectual and Zionist segments of the American Jewish community. These findings are part of a two-year study, tellingly titled, “From Predictability to Chaos? How Jewish Leaders Reinvented Their National Communal System.”
In an interview, Dr. Howard Rieger, who took over as president and CEO of UJC last September, termed the study “constructive and useful,” but questioned some specific points and recommendations.
John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, said that on the whole, American Jewry was better served than before by the creation of UJC, although the merging of different organizational “cultures” left a number of problems yet unresolved.
The study is based on written responses and in-depth interviews with 88 stakeholders, mostly men and women involved in the merger negotiations, augmented by other prominent Jewish personalities.
Authors of the study are Gerald (Jerry) B. Bubis and Steven F. Windmueller, founding director and current director of the School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Los Angeles, respectively. For their report, they investigated how Jewish communities have organized themselves since biblical times and current corporate and nonprofit mergers, and also added their own comments and conclusions.
Attempts to combine the alphabet soup of American Jewish fund raising and communal institutions date back more than 60 years, and it took seven years of discussion to effect the establishment of the UJC.
The merger represented the largest 20th- century effort of its kind in the American nonprofit sector and the most significant institutional transformation in modern Jewish life, according to the study. One major impetus was to streamline the entire system and make it more accountable.
The three constituent organizations in the merger were:
• Council of Jewish Federations, which focused mainly on serving the needs of approximately 230 local communities with federations and welfare funds.
• United Jewish Appeal (UJA), which oversaw fundraising, mainly through the federation system, for Israel and overseas needs.
• United Israel Appeal (UIA), which monitored and distributed funds for Israel, by way of the Jewish Agency and monitored U.S. government allotments for refugee resettlement.
The three organizations raised and distributed between $850 million-900 million a year, including $60 million from Washington, for domestic, Israel and overseas needs, and one major impetus for the merger was to streamline the entire system and make it more accountable.
While praising the dedication and good intentions of the organizational leaders, the study reveals a tale of unclear expectations, unshared visions, mixed motivations and multilayered power games. It is a work in progress, according to Bubis and Windmueller.
Toting up perceived winners and losers in the power games, the study cites local federations as coming out on top, with executives of large city federations, in particular, ending up as owning the system.
The biggest loser appears to be Israel (and the UIA), which is likely to lose an even bigger share of American Jewry’s financial support with the ascendancy of locally oriented federations.
Following the 1967 war, about 70 percent of the total pie went to Israel and other overseas needs and 30 percent to U.S. communities. Rieger said that in 2004, out of some $855 raised, 31 percent, or $266.4 million, went to Israel and overseas.
The dollar flow to the Jewish state will likely be further reduced by the preference of large donors to set up their own channels, such as the Jewish Funders Network, and the tendency of a new generation of Jewish philanthropists to give to general secular causes, such as universities and hospitals.
Some of the most acid comments by the study respondents, who are not identified by name, are reserved for the new UJC structure, itself, which was preordained to fail and produced anarchy in the name of unity. The federation system also comes in for criticism, being described by some as a ponderous pachyderm, which processed things to death.
However, Windmueller noted that the study represents a snapshot in time, dealing with the functionality of the UJC structure, rather than its recent performance and reforms.
The authors of the study obviously sympathize with a few visionaries among the respondents, who called for a complete re-invention of a stodgy, tired system and asked for a more open and more daring form of governance for a Jewish community that is this year celebrating its 350th anniversary.
The study concludes with 11 recommendations to the UJC leadership, among them:
• Restore the traditional role of rabbis and intellectuals, now largely excluded, as one of the pillars of communal governance.
• Provide opportunities to discuss and react to Israel’s policies, and encourage full airing of diverse opinions on the challenges facing Jewish life in this country, now often suppressed in the name of unity.
• Expand the old boys network of the wealthy in Jewish life by including more women and young people.
• Appoint an ombudsperson to examine and report on the stewardship of UJC funds.
• Restore the household brand name of UJA in one form or another.
• Balance the division of power between lay and professional leadership.
Rieger, as head of UJC, noting that the interviews underlying the study concluded in December 2003, said that since that time UJC had stabilized itself and moved forward.
“I think today, the evaluations would be a bit more optimistic,” he said.
Responding to suggestions that Jewish leaders should have made fundamental changes and created a more representative body, Rieger said that the overriding purpose was to “align national and local, and domestic and overseas needs. We never meant to create a representative assembly for American Jewry.”
Rieger objected to classifying “winners” and “losers” in the merger talks, observing that “communal work is not a zero-sum game.”
He said that while fundraising by the three separate organizations had declined 5 percent in the last four years before the merger, under UJC the decline had been narrowed to 1 percent in the last four years, not counting $400 million collected for the Israel Emergency Fund.”
“I don’t understand what we have lost,” he said.
To the study’s recommendation to appoint an ombudsperson for UJC, Rieger strongly defended his organization’s existing financial controls.
“Our fiduciary oversight is bullet-proof, it’s the strongest thing we got,” he said.
Asked whether he was upset or outraged by some of the study’s pointed criticisms, Rieger responded, “That’s not my style. We can always learn something from inquiries, but I am more inclined to look toward the future, and I think there’s a lot more potential in the Jewish world.”
Fishel of the L.A. Federation said that despite UJC shortcomings, “the system is now more coherent and unified, and duplication of effort has been minimized.”
He took issue with the study’s assertion that UJC was dominated by federations, especially the executive directors of large-city federation.
Fishel also disagreed that in a federation structure, professionals generally had greater clout than the lay leadership.
“Because professionals usually serve longer in their positions than lay leaders, the former have a better sense of the evolution of the organization, but no one has sole control,” he said.
Fishel noted that the study had been conducted by two academicians, who necessarily had a different perspective than “the people in the trenches,” day by day.
“That doesn’t mean that one is right and the other wrong, but they look at things differently,” he said.
Bubis and Windmueller were to meet Wednesday afternoon in New York with Rieger and some 30 participants in the merger talks and UJC leaders to critique the findings of the study.
“From Predictability to Chaos?” was published by the Center for Jewish Community Studies in Baltimore, an affiliate of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Primary financial support came from Boston Hebrew College, HUC-JIR, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and various foundations and individuals.