Focus on Issues: New Name Reflects Federation Effort to Involve an ‘under 50′ Jewish Crowd

What do you get when you add the Council of Jewish Federations to the United Jewish Appeal and the United Israel Appeal?

Federation leaders from around the country meeting this week in Washington completed that equation with “United Jewish Communities: Serving Federations Across North America.”

That’s the name chosen for North American Jewry’s new central fund-raising and social-service organization.

The name was adopted after a passionate debate that exemplified some of the tensions inherent in forming a new national organization intended to change the culture of a central system that serves the needs of Jews locally, nationally and internationally.

After nearly six years of planning for the merger, the pervasive feeling at the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel in downtown Washington was that it is still too early to tell whether the merger will create a more perfect union.

Donald Schaffer, the president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas, commended the effort by those most closely involved with restructuring the national system to make it more responsive to the needs and desires of local federations.

But, he said, echoing the view of many here: “Time will tell if they live up to what they’ve put forward.”

In fact, as several delegates noted, the “they” is now “us.”

The new national structure is intended to put more decision-making power in the hands of the federations, who have a majority share in the governing bodies that will be set up, if plans go smoothly, over the next three months.

These include a 550-plus delegate assembly made up primarily of representatives nominated by federations; a 120-seat board of trustees, 68 percent coming directly from federations, with the remainder from the organization’s four special platform committees and representatives from social-service agencies and regional groupings; and a 25-member executive committee made up of officers, federation representatives and chairs of key departments within the national body, which will oversee daily operations.

The ambitious plans for the merger necessitated the dissolution of the CJF and the UJA, whose boards effectively voted themselves out of existence.

The UIA, which had been the mechanism by which funds raised by the UJA had made their way to the Jewish Agency for Israel, remains somewhat autonomous for legal reasons, but it shrank its board of directors by two-thirds.

To facilitate the transition from three organizations to one, Stephen Solender, the executive vice president of UJA-Federation of New York, agreed to serve as the group’s acting chief professional officer.

Solender will continue in his current position as he shepherds the United Jewish Communities through its first six months of operation.

Announcing Solender’s appointment, the new organization’s chairman of the board, Charles Bronfman, explained the decision to name an interim officer while the search for a permanent president continues.

“We must move forward today,” he said, emphasizing the last word. Addressing the federation representatives as majority shareholders, he added, “We must work with the new ownership today.”

Many in attendance echoed Bronfman’s sense of urgency.

The next six months will be critical in creating the perception of progress, said Larry Joseph of Miami.

In addition to giving immediate attention to the needs of smaller federations and to engaging younger leaders, he said, federations must believe that they have “taken over the national system” by infusing the upper echelons of power with new faces from the communities.

“If people in the communities do not perceive the idea that the system will change,” Joseph said, “it will not meet with the success we’d hoped for.”

Rabbi Irwin Kula, the president of CLAL: the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, asked to provide philosophical guidance for the delegates, challenged the leaders assembled to focus more on service than on power.

“No one has the answers. No one has the national vision,” he told the leaders gathered Monday morning, advising against searching for conclusive solutions to improving the national system. “There are only ongoing processes.”

Building respect among the leaders of the new organization and restoring eredibility with the communities they serve topped his priority list.

“The community is about trust and faith in people. It’s not about the strategic plan,” he said. He added that the perception of UJA and federations as oligarchic organizations has created a “radical disconnect between the people in this room and amcha,” meaning the Jewish people.

For his part, Bronfman delineating the challenges ahead by stressed philosophical issues such as inclusiveness and coalition building over structural details.

He also called for redefining the relationship between North American Jewry and Israel, moving from a view of Israel solely as a recipient of Diaspora funds to one of Israel as a partner with equal responsibility “to nurture and build the new Jewish world.”

Partnerships should also be forged, he said, with synagogues to infuse “Jewish peoplehood” with Jewish ritual and Jewish knowledge. And working relationships should be pursued with non-Jewish organizations and any other Jewish group that “supports our mission,” including private philanthropies often viewed as competition for donor dollars.

He also called for greater representation in the new system of smaller federations and greater leadership opportunities for younger Jews and for women.

Many of these points emerged in discussions among the federation representatives as they reviewed the results of a survey that had been taken of about 400 people from among their ranks.

Conducted by the New York-based Delta Consulting, the survey, commissioned by the new entity, isolated areas of concern that federations felt were critical to the new entity’s success and those that stood in its way.

The survey found the trend that “major donors are increasingly choosing philanthropic alternatives to federated giving” to be a particular concern. Among the “critical barriers” to be overcome were “the impacts of conflicts related to pluralism, both locally and globally” and “old ways of decision- making” that left some federations feeling they “did not have a voice.”

“Ideals to strive for,” in the view of those surveyed, included strengthening Jewish communities in North America; finding “visionary and articulate” leadership; and building a dynamic and responsive organization. Transforming the mindset of federations from “we-they” into “we-we” was also seen as a critical factor to the new entity’s success.

Originally planned as a regular quarterly meeting of the CJF, the meetings here, termed the “Founders Forum,” gave federations an initial opportunity to “take responsibility for telling the national entity what they expect from it,” said Joel Tauber of Detroit, who was appointed the organization’s chairman of the executive committee in February.

“That’s far different from what’s been done before,” he said, alluding to a driving force behind the whole merger — the demand by local federations for a greater voice in the whole system.

The ballot vote for the new entity’s name — for the past year it had been referred to as “UJA Federations of North America” and “Newco,” a legal term for new, unnamed organizations– was intended as a first step toward greater democracy.

Asked to choose between “United Jewish Federations: Creating Communities that Care” and “United Jewish Communities: Serving Federations Across North America,” most of the lay and professional leaders in attendance favored the former option going into the vote on Monday.

But market research conducted months in advance indicated that “United Jewish Communities” would have greater appeal among philanthropically active younger Jews.

“To the generation under 50,” Bronfman explained in introducing the subject Monday morning, “when you say `federation,’ they think `Star Trek.’”

Admitting that he was trying to “sell” federation leaders on the name United Jewish Communities, he said, “If we want to show a new face to the younger generation, maybe we should take a leap of faith and try that other name.”

During the floor debate that preceded the ballot vote later that day, many federation representatives seemed unwilling to jump.

Several people passionately pointed out that “United Jewish Communities” did not accurately represent a federation-owned national system. “We spent years and years trying to get across the idea of ourselves as `federation.’ To take `federation’ out of the name completely would be a huge mistake,” said Donald Lefton, a past president of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, to hearty applause.

But Jon Friedenberg, the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater San Jose, Calif., and a member of the naming committee, said that he had been swayed by the market data.

“We as a system have experienced a net loss of 130,000 donors over the last five years alone,” he said. “The question to think about is: Who are we naming this organization for?

“The most innovative thing we’ve done,” he said, was not choosing a name, but choosing a “target audience” of Jewishly involved people under 50.

“Our target audience does not have the same understanding of `federation’ as the people in this room,” he said.

Jennifer Laszlo of Washington, a member of the UJA’s Young Leadership Cabinet – - and, at 34, perhaps the youngest attendee in the room, spoke with excitement in support of the new name.

“Quite frankly, my generation sees this organization as `alta kakers’ with lots of money,” she told the group, using a humorous Yiddish term for “old people.”

“Let’s change the name, change the logo, but not the commitment to making a difference in people’s lives.”

In the end, a vote of 73-59 raised the banner of innovation over the new entity.

The name must still be approved by the as-yet-unformed board of trustees.

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