NEW YORK (Feb. 5)
When the North American Jewish federation system chose the name "United Jewish Communities" three years ago, some insiders joked that since the first two words already appeared in the name of one of the groups that preceded it, "communities" was the most expensive word in the Jewish lexicon.
The new name — decided on after focus group research and input from consultants — represented the merger of the United Jewish Appeal, Council of Jewish Federations and United Israel Appeal.
But now, at the request of several member federations, including Detroit and Chicago, the UJC is considering changing its name again — back to the United Jewish Appeal.
While supporters of the idea say the change could improve the group’s name recognition and reaffirm its commitment to overseas needs, others say the UJA name carries negative baggage, and that it is ultimately more important what the group does than what it calls itself.
The UJC is the umbrella for 189 North American federations, Jewish philanthropies that raise and allocate money for community needs domestically and overseas, and 400 independent communities.
The group, which underwent a full leadership change at the top this fall, is currently in the process of trying to move from the merger stage — in which it was preoccupied with hammering out governance issues — to becoming a more active player.
In a related development, the UJC announced the hiring of two senior vice presidents this week.
Ron Meier, currently executive director of UJA Federation of North Hudson and Bergen County, N.J., will oversee human resources development, and Nachman Shai, chairman of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, will run the UJC’s Israel office, including Israel missions.
UJC is in the middle of a priority-setting process, in which it is under pressure to offer strong leadership and vision and be a coordinating body, while also trimming its approximately $42 million annual budget.
It also is struggling to unite its diverse and sometimes disenchanted member federations.
Some federations believe the UJC has not offered enough services to justify its big budget.
Others are disappointed because their hopes that the merger would result in larger federation allocations for overseas needs have gone unfulfilled.
Federation campaigns raised a total of $850 million in 2001, $25 million more than in 2000. That is on top of separate funds raised as part of an Israel solidarity initiative and for endowments.
"The issue is simply that we had what marketers would call a significant amount of brand equity in the UJA name," said James Tisch, chairman of the UJC board.
"You say UJA to people, and they know what you’re talking about," he said. "You say UJC, and more often than not they don’t know, unless you’re talking to people that are into inside-the-park baseball."
The discussion is still in its early stages, Tisch said, adding that he does not yet have an opinion on the matter.
Richard Pearlstone, the UJC’s lay leader in charge of marketing, is gathering information, but member federations have not yet received a proposal or any details in writing.
"A number of federations brought up the issue and we’re taking it under advisement," Tisch said.
Founded in 1938, the United Jewish Appeal ran widespread and largely successful grass-roots fund-raising campaigns that made it a household name.
For some, the UJA era represent a heyday in American Jewish communal philanthropy — in which Jews came together as never before to support Israel and rescue Jews around the world.
In contrast, the UJC has not yet carved out a name for itself.
In addition, its member federations are allocating less money for overseas needs than they did in the past.
The name-changing discussion comes as the UJC is "still in the growing pains of trying to get this organization up and running to be really functioning well," said Pearlstone.
Pearlstone, who is a past president of the UJA, declined to say which name he prefers.
Robert Aronson, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, said he is among those pushing for a name change because "United Jewish Appeal was the most important brand, if you will, for our national system."
"It’s a distinguished name," he said. "It’s a name that represents our commitment to overseas needs."
"Bringing back the UJA name maybe will bring back a stronger commitment to our overseas partners," Aronson said, referring to the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Many people — unaware of the merger — still make bequests to the UJA, Aronson said.
While the UJA name has positive associations for many people — particularly loyal older donors — it also has some negative connotations, according to people who researched the matter three years ago.
Focus groups showed that "while UJA definitely has brand recognition, it’s recognition that cuts both ways," said Jon Friedenberg, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater San Jose, Calif., and a member of the naming committee three years ago.
According to one person involved with the market research at the time, some younger Jewish research participants said the UJA name made them think of something that was "elitist, closed, not welcoming."
Richard Wexler, a board member of Chicago’s federation and a former president of the UJA, said he is pleased to see the matter back on the table, because, he said, not all of the federations had the opportunity to vote three years ago when the group’s governance procedures were still not finalized.
"Had over the past two years UJC asserted its proper role as a central address of the North American Jewish community, it might be persuasive that there’s no reason to even examine this issue," Wexler said.
"But we’ve been silent on the great issues affecting our people," he said, adding that it might be easier to "establish our bona fides" with a "name that’s recognized around the world."
However, several federation leaders were lukewarm — if not opposed — to the idea, with some saying they worry that a name change would be off-putting to prospective younger donors.
Friedenberg said changing the name now — after investing time into researching the matter three years ago — doesn’t make sense.
Instead, he suggested that the UJC improve the brand equity of the current name by stepping up marketing efforts.
The UJC has not spent as much money on marketing as the UJA did, he said, and "it’s not fair to say that because the name doesn’t have the kind of recognition that UJA had, therefore the new name is wrong or failed."
Barry Shrage, president of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies, said he does not object to exploring the UJC’s name, but "there are other issues that are more important for us right now."
"I’d argue that we should be focused on who we are, what we are and what we do," he said.
Jack Ukeles, a former consultant to the UJC, said he is "puzzled" to see the discussion raised anew and that changing the name now has the potential downside of "appearing to go backwards in time."
He also warned that going back to the name of one of the partners in the merger could "be construed as a signal that UJA," with its focus on Israel and overseas needs, " ‘won’ over the other merger partners," which were more focused on domestic needs.
"One might say that fiddling with the name is grasping at cosmetics," he said.
The UJC "should focus on the substance of what is the UJC and what is it going to be and how is going to operate to create a sense of national community," he said.