January 18, 2019

Transforming the Jewish Community

North American Jewish community federations decided years ago that it was time to change the way they relate to one another and the rest of the Jewish world.

Last week in Atlanta, the formal transformation began to take shape.

But its real effects may take years to reverberate throughout the United Jewish Communities, which represents nearly 200 federations and some 400 independent communities.

People generally “have a feeling” that a change is afoot, but “they don’t know what it is,” Richard November, the president of the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond, said at the end of the UJC’s inaugural event here.

The UJC, formed through the merger of the Council of Jewish Federations and the United Jewish Appeal, became legal Nov. 17, according to papers filed with New York State.

The event capped off more than six years of deliberations over how to promote efficiency and give communities a greater say in the way the funds they raise are allocated for Jewish needs at home and abroad.

As more than 5,200 delegates from North America and Israel converged on the southern capital, the UJC’s governing bodies met for the first time, beginning the business of reorganizing a social-service and fund-raising system that raised $790 million in the 1999 annual campaign.

But for all of the structure now in place, much of the groundwork still lies ahead.

The key to the merger is federation “ownership” of the system, with federations making up the majority of representatives on the UJC’s governing boards and committees.

Even among the federations’ volunteer and professional leaders, however, no clear consensus exists on what the UJC should aspire to do.

Moreover, the federations have yet to define what ownership entails, actively and financially.

To shape the UJC’s future course, a two-day retreat for representatives from all member federations is being planned for next spring. Discussions of what is being termed “critical governance issues” — such as dues, responsibility for supporting overseas needs, decision-making and defining UJC’s aims and scope of activity — will provide the basis for the UJC’s future bylaws.

The retreat idea grew out of interviews conducted among 130 federation presidents and executives over the past month by McKinsey & Company, a New York-based management-consulting firm.

The McKinsey report, made public at the General Assembly here, found that “clearly articulated priorities and a vision of what UJC will be and accomplish have not been embraced by the system.”

As one interviewee, quoted in the report, put it, “You can’t start using a road map if you haven’t decided where you are going.”

Federations agreed that “a national system is needed to enhance the effectiveness of local federations,” but differed on its role, McKinsey found.

Some of the people interviewed envision the UJC as a kind of “trade organization” for federations, providing a way for communities to work together on common issues.

Others believe the organization should take the initiative in setting a continental Jewish agenda.

The interviews also revealed a tension between overseas relief and local needs, an issue that was one of the driving forces behind the merger of the UJC’s predecessor organizations.

But Charles Bronfman, the philanthropist who serves as the UJC’s first chairman, told the first meeting of the 123-member Board of Trustees that “this is not simply a merger. This is a new institution.”

Joel Tauber of Detroit, the chairman of the executive committee, counseled patience. Noting that 1,000 board and committee appointments have already been made, he said at a news conference that the definition of ownership “was left aside because it is so controversial.”

Bronfman said that even though questions remain, the high attendance level at the UJC’s kickoff event was “an indication of the tremendous groundswell of interest and the desire to be part of it.”