Ujc Takes Steps to Renew Confidence in National System

The North American Jewish federation movement, struggling since its reconfiguration three years ago to serve different masters, has taken a series of steps that appear to have renewed confidence in the system.

The developments come after intense scrutiny of the United Jewish Communities, with federations criticizing the system for its high operational costs compared to services provided, difficulty in reaching decisions and an inability to lead with a clear vision.

Complaints reached a new level after the group’s annual General Assembly in November when the UJC, citing lost data, canceled the much-anticipated release of the $6 million 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey. At the G.A., lackluster programming also disappointed participants.

Around that time, some federation leaders from around the country began to call for reform, with executives from the large-city federations deciding to discuss the issue at their regularly scheduled retreat in March.

But recent actions undertaken by the UJC may spell new faith in the system, say some of those involved.

Others say they approve of the latest decisions, but separate them from other complaints, including the UJC’s $42.5 million annual budget, a cost they deem too high.

And questions about the purpose of the UJC, a merger of the Council of Jewish Federations, the United Jewish Appeal and the United Israel Appeal, still abound.

Among the recent developments:

The UJC overwhelmingly passed a resolution Jan. 22 that would bar from membership federations that do not pay their dues. The resolution would also expel these federations’ community members from national positions. The measure arose after a new dues formula was approved in May 2002.

It passed a resolution earlier this month to pay overdue funds to Birthright Israel. Failure to fund the free trip to Israel for 18- to 26-year-olds who had never been on an organized trip was a festering wound between federations that had paid for the program and their noncompliant counterparts.

It took several steps at its board of trustees meeting in Miami on Jan. 24, including approval of $39 million to aid Argentine relief and welfare. The board also approved new chairs for UJC divisions.

While some cited poor turnout at the Miami meetings as a cause for concern, most of those who were here described a newfound optimism for the group’s purpose and power.

“Every federation president who was there was encouraged by what they saw and is taking stock of the direction of UJC,” Jay Sarber, president of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, said afterward. “I’m hopeful that the system is moving in the right direction.”

The moves to fund Birthright and to oust federations that don’t pay dues, coupled with the $340 million the system raised last year for its Israel Emergency Campaign, “show very good results for the organization this year,” said Robert Aronson, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.

However, it took too long to decide about Birthright, he said. “We made the commitment three years ago.”

But the vote to eject delinquent members shows that federations “are finally realizing that the UJC belongs to them and that they have to pay for it in order to have a stake in it,” said Aronson, who did not attend the Miami meetings.

Still, efforts to reform the UJC are taking place. The UJC itself has hired consultants to clarify the goals of its members, results of which will be used for discussion by the large-city executives in March.

Large-city executives were instructed not to disclose initial results they heard from a consultant who interviewed federation leaders about their concerns.

But the prevailing issues federation leaders are grappling with are UJC’s role and direction.

Jewish federations want a national system, but they appear divided on its goals.

Many federation leaders seem to be wishing for a smaller, coordinating body that advocates and allocates for overseas needs.

Some want a stronger, focused central system to service both local federations and respond to needs abroad. Others simply want the system to prioritize its needs.

Highlighting that debate is a current UJC discussion to require federations, beyond their dues obligations, to fund collective programs, such as overseas spending and Birthright Israel. Currently federation contributions for programs are based on UJC recommendations of a community’s fair share, but they are voluntary.

According to Albert Ratner, chairman of UJC’s fair share and collective responsibility committee, demanding compliance with UJC initiatives is one more crackdown that will serve the system well.

Indeed, the issue of federations not paying their fair share has been a grievance for many federations. And despite the new policies to pay Birthright and fund Argentine relief, several voiced concern over whether federations would meet those commitments.

But many federation leaders say their colleagues are unlikely to cede their power to the national system.

According to Lee Wunsch, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, the heart of the UJC’s struggle is enormous uncertainty about how to respond to “challenges like we’ve never had before.”

Local federation leaders are “quite frankly not sure what to do” and the UJC has a “tall order” to gain consensus on handling a host of needs from havoc in Israel to troubled Jewish communities around the world and the impending war in Iraq, he said.

But “in a world of diminished financial resources and the kinds of pressure that are on the community, priorities have to be set,” and they have not, Wunsch said.

However, media reports that “the system is out of control” are “very far from the truth,” he said, pointing to the system’s accomplishments in raising funds for the Israel Emergency Campaign and $800 million to $900 million raised in the general campaign.

“That’s not a system that’s in chaos to me.”

But, according to Richard Wexler, a member of UJC’s budget committee, “UJC will remain in a fragile state” until it better engages local federations to stave off disenchantment and spawn ownership.

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