Focus on Issues: Federations Prepare to Launch ‘new Era’ in Jewish Communal Life

When representatives of nearly 200 North American community federations meet in Washington after Passover, they will celebrate the start of what is being called “a new era in Jewish community life.”

The merger of the Council of Jewish Federations, the United Jewish Appeal and the United Israel Appeal has been over five years in the making, and it promises to change the way North American Jews go about the business of raising funds and providing services to communities at home and abroad.

“In many ways, this is not really a merger; it’s three existing organizations voting themselves out of business,” said Jeffrey Solomon, the president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, who has been serving as a consultant to the creation of the new entity.

The change is “not as profound as the Iron Curtain coming down, but its has the same feeling,” Solomon said. With local Jewish federations taking ownership of the central fund-raising structure, the control will be “closer to the people and to the marketplace.”

Representatives of federations and national agencies say the groundwork has been laid for the creation of a new entity that will raise funds more efficiently and effectively — last year, federations raised $760 million for local and overseas needs — and will closely represent the concerns and desires of the local communities.

But, the kickoff party for the new entity, scheduled for April 11-13 in Washington, may be a bit premature.

The merger is still very much a work in progress, with salient details still to be determined, approved and put in place:

Name — The new entity has been operating under the title “Newco” — a legal term applied to any new, as-yet-unamed company — until federations select an official name. Four names tested by a marketing consultant — United Jewish Appeal, United Jewish Alliance, United Jewish Action and United Jewish Communities — have not passed muster so far with federations. Whether a new name, which must be determined before the organization can become a legal entity, will be unveiled at the April meeting is still unclear.

Focus — Reflecting the programming and funding concerns that have emerged in the past decade, the new entity’s mission will be built on four platforms – - Jewish Renaissance and Renewal, Israel/Overseas, Health and Social Policy, and Financial Resource and Development. Documents describing these platforms – - which have yet to develop into action plans — call for cooperation with groups that share the new entity’s vision, from synagogue partnerships to corporate sponsorship.

New leadership — The chairman of the entity’s board, Charles Bronfman, and the chairman of the executive committee, Joel Tauber, went straight to work following their elections in February. But the search for the third member of the organization’s triumvirate of leaders, a chief professional officer, continues.

Structure — As they assume ownership of the new entity, federations will gain substantial representation in governing bodies, including a super majority in the 550-member delegate assembly and majority representation — 68 percent – - in its 120-member board of trustees. A 25-member executive committee, composed primarily of platform committee chairs and federation representatives, will oversee daily operations.

This system-wide change “will serve as a catalyst for us to engage much more actively on a regional and national level,” said Michael Novick, the executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle.

“As owners, we’d better be at the table” to discuss “how to respond to the challenges” of contemporary Jewish life, he said in a telephone interview.

“Otherwise, I don’t think we’re serious about it.”

Legally, the merger is set to be completed this summer, culminating nearly six years of tension over who would control the new entity, who would be represented by it and what its relationship to Israel and the rest of world Jewry would be.

In one sign of the cultural transformation under way, Bronfman has renamed what was once CJF’s “Quarterly” meeting. The April convention is now being called the “Founders Forum.”

Explaining the rationale, Solomon said, “If it’s going to be about change, there have to be the realities of change and there’s got to be the rhetoric and symbols of change.”

Perhaps the most significant shift — and one of the most contentious issues in designing the merger — will re-engineer the way the North American Jewish community funds overseas needs.

In the past, local federations have determined what percent of their raised funds would be sent to the United Jewish Appeal. The UJA, according to predetermined formulas, in turn channeled moneys to the Jewish Agency for Israel through the United Israel Appeal, while overseas moneys for other destinations flowed through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

While UIA will be officially part of the merged entity, its board and that of the JDC agreed — as a prerequisite to the merger — to give up ownership of the UJA.

Under the new system, representatives of the JDC and the Jewish Agency are expected to have three seats each on the committee that will determine overseas funding. But the majority of the 25 seats on the Overseas Needs Assessment and Distribution Committee will be filled by federation representatives.

This would give federations not only a new voice in the process, but the dominant one at that.

Federations, which will continue to determine their overseas allocations, are being requested to maintain, at a minimum, their current levels for the next two years.

The final approval for the merger rests with the 189 local federations.

Already, 100 federations have signed off on the merger plans, achieving the majority of votes required for ratification. And most have done so with a great deal of enthusiasm.

“We feel relieved now that, at least, we have a say,” Robert Goldberg, the president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, said in an interview last week, the day after his board ratified the merger documents.

“The new organization will be owned by us,” he said, echoing the view of many. “Before we felt sort of disenfranchised.”

Cleveland was one of the first Jewish communities to express its dissatisfaction with the existing overseas allocation process in 1997 bypassing UJA and sending more than a quarter of its $11 million earmarked for overseas directly to projects in Israel.

Goldberg said Cleveland’s board members were “feeling so good” about the prospects for the merger that they have agreed to the two-year hold on overseas allocations “with no problem.”

They will continue, however, to direct funding of projects in Russia and Israel

In the campaign to gain federation approval, the national leadership of UJA, CJF and UIA visited local federations in February.

The “road show” — with stops in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., San Francisco, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago and Newark — allowed for face-to-face questioning and discussion.

According to Solomon, who attended every stop, the tour was instructive in revealing individual regional concerns. The new structure breaks down into five regions, which will have their own representation in the governing bodies.

But a serious criticism of the new system came from representatives of Zionist movements, who believe they will lose a significant voice in the new system.

The UIA’s board of directors will shrink from 91 members to 32, with no clear share assigned to the Zionist organizations.

At UIA’s March 18 board where the merger was approved, representatives of Zionist organizations charged that they were being shut out.

UIA chairman Bennett Aaron told board members that he personally would appoint Zionist organizational representatives as one-third of the reconstituted UIA board. But his promise failed to reassure some in attendance.

Ruth Popkin, the past national president of the Jewish National Fund and of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, said, “They’re saying, `Trust me,’ and we’re saying, `We’d love to trust you, but you’ve got to put it in writing.’”

Other groups, however, will find themselves represented in North America’s primary fund-raising and service-providing body for the first time: Each of the synagogue movements will have one seat each in the delegate assembly, with the possibility of having other representatives from their ranks assigned by individual federations.

But while early plans for the merger harkened a “new era” of partnership between the new entity and previously untapped organizations, representatives of the religious movements see it differently, expressing disappointment at the level of inclusion.

Despite the assurances that the movements would have a larger role in the planning for the new course, “there has not been a lot of practical evidence that there is a commitment to follow through,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

He expressed some hope that the new entity’s leaders would recognize the “opportunity for building a new coalition in the Jewish community,” but said, “if they determine that it’s not going to be serious, then we’ll continue to function well without them.”

Solomon said he had met with both the Zionists and the synagogue movements in recent weeks to hear out their concerns.

He said that while he realized that these groups would have liked to have seen a formal structure for greater representation, “the federations were not yet ready to go that far.”

“But if you look at the platform statements on Jewish renaissance, it talks a great deal about partnerships with synagogues.”

At the same time, he and other leaders stress that the new entity is still in development.

“It will take a couple of years until committees are formed and people are in place,” said Solomon, “for people to begin to really understand what a revolution this has been.”

The idea, he said, is “to build an organization that will be as effective in the 21st century as its three predecessors were in the 20th.”

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