A plan to merge the central American Jewish fund-raising organizations by next January hit choppy waters this week at a gathering here of federation leaders form across the country.
The plan’s volatility surfaced during an open “town meeting,” where speaker after speaker expressed unease and doubt about what amounts to a proposed structural revolution in Jewish philanthropy.
Several voiced frustration that they had not been kept more informed about the work of a committee that has been discussing and formulating the restructuring plan for roughly two years.
“There is a significant feeling in the federation world that it’s been kept in the dark,” and there are a lot of “anxieties,” Maynard Wishner, president of the Council of Jewish Federations, said as he opened the meeting.
Ellen Hallman, a lay leader form the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, reinforced Wishner’s assessment when she approached a microphone and said, “I don’t know what to ask, because I don’t know what it [the plan] looks like.”
Said Michael Rukin, chairman of the board of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of the Greater Boston: “The plan seems to have gone astray in a number of areas.”
But the biggest jolt came when Ambassador Milton Wolf, president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, one of the four key parties to the plan, expressed opposition to it, though he pledged not to stand in its way.
The tension in the room rose high enough at points to prompt protest by Charles “Corky” Goodman, a co-chairman of the restructuring committee and chairman of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
“I hear us beginning to tear ourselves apart,” he said. “I don’t know if we should go forward or not” with the plan, “but we should come out of this process stronger, not weaker.”
Some of the plan’s architects later dismissed the tension as natural eleventh- hour panic at the prospect of unsettling change. They argued that such an airing of views, however jarring, was healthy.
“When a system will allow itself to have a public debate, it’s a sign of great maturity. It’s one of the values we hold sacred,” said Martin Kraar, CJF executive vice president. “That’s good news, not bad news.”
But others speculated that the merger plan could unravel.
As presented, the plan calls for the consolidation of the CJF and the United Jewish Appeal. The CJF is the umbrella association of local Jewish federations, which raise money in concert with the UJA to meet Jewish needs. The federations decide how much money to keep at home for local services and give their overseas allocations to the UJA.
The UJA distributes the overseas funds to the JDC, which provides humanitarian relief to Jewish communities around the world, and to the United Israel Appeal, which funnels it to the Jewish Agency, for humanitarian programs in the Israel.
The plan calls for the UIA to remain as it is for three years, and then to join the new merged entity.
For its part, the JDC would continue getting money from the system and would have a role in its governance but would remain independent.
The designers of the plan say the new consolidated entity would be more efficient and effective in raising money and meeting Jewish needs in a rapidly changing demographic, fiscal and philanthropic landscape. It also would be more accountable and responsive to federations, they say.
“We are at a moment of turning, of change,” said Wishner of the CJF. “We need reinvigoration” in the face of a changing agenda. By “staying on the present track,” he said, “we’re seeing an erosion” in the national fund-raising campaign.
Wishner also cautioned against clinging to a mentality that divides the federation world from the UJA, into “us” vs.”them” camps, reflecting deep concern in all the organizations about retaining status and decision-making power when the entities merge.
But the plan’s biggest challenge has been how to ensure that enough money will be funneled overseas without violating the sacrosanct autonomy of local federations by locking them into overseas allocation commitments for more than a year at a time, in a period of fiscal flux. The UIA and the UJA especially have described this as a “linchpin” of the plan, without with they would have no incentive to support it.
The plan offers a compromise by seeking “assurances” from federations, rather than “guarantees,” that collectively they will provide a minimum of $310 million a year for overseas needs, for three years, to ease the transition for the entities now responsible for overseas interests.
But virtually everyone concedes that such assurances are not enforceable and, in the face of a trend of declining overseas allocations, the issue remains a grave concern.
As it was, during another session at the CJF meetings here, the acting director general for the Jewish Agency, Zvi Ramot, lambasted the federations for habitually giving his agency short shrift and helping to plunge it into fiscal crisis.
For its part, the UIA has hinged its decision to join the new entity on whether the $310 million commitments are upheld over the three-year transition period, said Shoshana Cardin, who chairs the UIA.
“It’s critical the assurances be recognized as very serious” and “that they won’t diminish over time,” she said. In this way, “we can have some sense of security going into this process.”
Norman Tilles, president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, said he, too, had grave concerns about the plan’s impact on funding for overseas needs.
“For several years we have seen an erosion in dollars going overseas,” but no actions were taken against communities for cuts in their allocations, said Tilles. “It seems we should have learned a lesson.”
If communities do not honor their assurances, he said, “we’ll be in the same vicious cycle, and if we don’t prepare ourselves to take difficult action, then we’ll be on the same slippery slide.”
The UJA’s new president, Richard Pearlstone, made a brief albeit lukewarm statement throwing formal support behind the plan.
“We believe this is in the best interest of the Jewish people,” he said. “Is it a perfect plan? I doubt it,” but “everyone is being asked to sacrifice something.”
But at a closed UJA meeting earlier in the day, intense opposition reportedly surfaced, and some sources said the UJA might try to stall the plan in hope of snuffing it out.
Wolf of the JDC was among the most openly critical of the plan, despite the fact his professional leadership has signed on. He said there are “details I as an individual think are dangerous,” including concentrating too much power in the hands of the projected lay and professional heads of what he termed an “international Jewish parliament.”
While the JDC “has taken the position they’d rather not see this take place,” the organization would not “be proactive” in blocking it, Wolf promised.
His comments appeared to provoke Cardin to return to the microphone to state that the UIA had “asked to be left outside the structure, like JDC” but was “informed the federations wanted UIA to be absorbed.”
Nonetheless, she did not rule out the possibility that the UIA might opt out of the plan in the end.
“We would like not to be an obstacle,” she said. But “I will be happy to go back to the board and ask to remain independent.”
One senior federation executive who asked to remain anonymous was philosophical about the evening.
“I still believe – and I think most of our top leadership believes – that integrating CJF and UJA into one fund-raising entity is in our interest. The question is what price we are willing to pay to get there.”
“What we heard tonight was second-guessing the price,” he said.
Others said the frustration expressed was a result of the fact the plan has not been finalized and that many questions remain unanswered.
A plan was slated to be finalized this week and distributed to federations for their formal review and approval, but it was unclear whether the discontent expressed at the town meeting would prompt a delay.
If the palm remains largely intact, a search committee is expected to be formed to find a professional head of the new entity.