NEW YORK, Nov. 9 (JTA) — Mandy Patinkin ends his Yiddish version of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” with an exhortation: “Play Ball!”
By the time the popular performer takes the stage on the last night of the United Jewish Communities’ General Assembly next week, the 3,200 delegates and 2,000 volunteers expected to gather in Atlanta for the event should know the game plan for the new organization that aims to represent the domestic and international agendas of some 200 Jewish communities in North America.
This year’s G.A., as the General Assembly is commonly known, will be the first official event for the United Jewish Communities, which is being formed by the merger of the United Jewish Appeal, the Council of Jewish Federations and the United Israel Appeal.
The four-day event will also be the first test of the motivating principle behind the merger: making local Jewish federations responsible for North America’s most broad-based Jewish fund-raising and social service organization.
Last year the UJC raised more than $760 million in its annual campaign, funds that were allocated to local, national and overseas needs.
The G.A., which will officially begin Nov. 17, marks the first meetings of the committees and boards that will govern the UJC, which was founded at a meeting of federation lay and professional leaders this spring after six years of discussions and development.
“We will begin the decision-making process at the G.A.,” said UJC President Stephen Solender, “But of equal importance, we’re going to begin the education process at the G.A.”
During the next three to nine months, he said, the UJC will have to adopt its first budget, approve recommendations regarding overseas disbursements and take up initial recommendations from the four “pillar” committees charged with formulating the programmatic mission of the organization.
“Our objective is to prepare the federations so that over the next period of months they can make some very important decisions that are going to define the immediate future of the UJC,” said Solender, who took office in October after six months as acting president.
Part of that preparation will come out of high-level briefings by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak; Rabbi Michael Melchior, Israel’s minister for Diaspora affairs; Dennis Ross, the U.S. government’s special Middle East coordinator; George Schultz, the former U.S. Secretary of State; Alice Shalvi, one of the foremost Israeli feminists; and a host of Jewish thinkers, teachers and writers.
Vice President Al Gore, who had been invited to address the opening plenum, will not be attending the convention, according to UJC officials.
But G.A. participants, including approximately 300 Israelis, are also expected to learn from each other in round table discussions and in open forums focused on the four areas designated as pillars: Jewish Renaissance and Renewal, Israel and Overseas Concerns, Human Services and Social Policy, and Financial Resource Development.
“Everyone in the room will be able to discuss the topic, to put their ideas on the table, ” said Ivan Schaeffer, a Washington businessman who is co- chairing this year’s G.A. with Jodi Schwartz, a New York attorney.
Staff facilitators will communicate feedback from the discussions to the governing bodies that are charged with running the new entity: the Executive Committee, the Board of Trustees, the Delegate Assembly and the four pillar committees.
This is the UJC’s “first face to the public,” Schwartz said. “We want to show who we are” and also to “get input on what they,” the UJC constituents, “want from us.”
Since April, Solender said, the UJC, acting under an interim governance structure, has been soliciting recommendations from federations for seats on the 550-plus-member Delegate Assembly and the pillar committees.
The thousands of federation responses were reviewed by the UJC’s top lay leaders — Charles Bronfman, chairman of the board, and Joel Tauber, chairman of the executive committee — and a nominating committee, which made the appointments.
The final appointments are meant to reflect the federations’ actual constituencies, with an eye to creating a balance in terms of gender, age, geography and federation size.
“We’ve been conscious all along that these people are the owners of this entity,” Solender said.
Federations’ ownership role should also be clear in the work of the governing bodies, officials said, where federations have a majority voice. The bodies are constituted as follows:
• Delegate Assembly — 550 federation representatives, plus 15 seats for independent communities; one seat each for agencies that work with the UJC nationally and overseas, including the Jewish Agency for Israel, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee; Hillel and the Jewish Community Centers of America, and one seat each for representatives of the four synagogue movements.
The Delegate Assembly is mainly responsible for adopting annual budgets and voting on major public policy statements of a system-wide nature. According to the documents that guided the merger, the Delegate Assembly is slated to meet at least once annually.
“The overarching authority” of the UJC “lies in the Delegate Assembly,” where “all the federations come together,” said Stephen Hoffman, the executive vice president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, who heads the committee that drafted plans for the UJC’s governance structure.
• Board of Trustees — 120 seats, with 68 percent apportioned by federation city-size groupings and 32 percent representing the four pillar committees and the UJC’s five regions, with 10 seats at large. Additional seats are held for past officials of the organizations that are participating in the merger.
The Board of Trustees is charged with setting policy for the organization, recommending a budget to the Delegate Assembly and acting on the recommendations of a separate committee that determines global Jewish needs. That committee operates as the Overseas Needs Assessment and Distribution Committee, or ONAD. The Board of Trustees is slated to meet at least four times a year.
“This is where the ownership is lodged on a representative basis,” Hoffman said of the Board of Trustees, “where the policy decisions may get implemented, and issues are shaped.”
Because the board is to meet more often than the Delegate Assembly, it can deal with issues that come up over the course of the year — issues such as major immigration issues, or domestic concerns coming out of Washington. In such instances, the board would “act to represent the needs of the federation movement.”
• Executive Committee — 25 members, all of whom are members of the Board of Trustees, including the chairman of the board, the chairman of the executive committee, the chairs of the pillar committees, the regional services chair, the UJC treasurer, the UIA board chair, and local federation officers.
“It is anticipated that the Executive Committee will actively manage the UJC on a month-to-month basis,” Hoffman said. “In terms of lay leadership input — that’s new.”
The committee’s structure, Hoffman said, “reflects the notion of federation ownership” and will keep the UJC’s decision-making in a large arena.
“If anything, we’ve moved it into a situation in which people should be taking responsibility for the outcome of these decisions, because they’re participating” in shaping them.
The Board of Trustees will meet for the first time in Atlanta, and at least nine resolutions — on issues ranging from Middle East peace to U.S. health policy and Social Security — will go before the full Delegate Assembly.
Solender said that the legal incorporation that will finalize the merger is expected to be approved by the morning of Nov. 17, when the Board of Trustees meets.
Appointments to the pillar committees are expected to be announced at the G.A., but UJC officials do not plan for the members to hold a formal meetings during the G.A.
“They’re going to begin to pick up on the issues” identified this summer in reports by special task forces in the four pillar areas, said Robert Hyman, the UJC’s vice president for organizational development, who oversaw the creation of the governing bodies. “That’s work in progress.”
In fact, the entire organization is still under development. Along with Solender, two other professional executives, Louise Stoll and David Altshuler, were appointed last month, but they will not take office until after the G.A.
Since the UJA and CJF first formed a working partnership in the spring of 1998, officials have said repeatedly that the future of the organization could not be determined until the governing bodies and officers were in place.
Now, as Solender indicated, the UJC will have to start in on its work of setting a fund-raising and programmatic agenda for North American Jewish communities.