Search Process Under Way to Replace Top Ujc Executive

Just four months after the top executive of the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group unveiled his vision for the federation system, a search has begun to replace him.

Stephen Hoffman, the president and chief executive officer of the UJC, who is respected for his steely resolve, managerial and fund-raising expertise, and prowess for grooming Jewish professionals nationwide, took over a flagging federation system for a three-year stint in November 2001. Now, that stint is coming to an end.

Despite all the personal and professional praise he has received, Hoffman also has heard an earful of criticism about the UJC — the four-year old merger of the United Jewish Appeal, the Council of Jewish Federations and the United Israel Appeal — from the individual federations that own the system and the UJC’s many beneficiary agencies.

In June, he presented a vision to his constituents that included three general “areas of focus.”

In addition to reducing its budget by nearly 10 percent, the UJC, he said, should be a “vehicle for global Jewish responsibility,” an engine of innovation and an organization that must strengthen the federations by offering them improved services and top-notch professionals.

The move was, in part, a response to vigorous complaints — that the system was bloated and lacked focus, failed to fund its overseas partners sufficiently, inadequately served the federations and excluded smaller federations from decision-making processes.

Now, observers say, the new leader who will replace Hoffman will play a pivotal role in shaping the UJC’s future — one that has been called seriously into question by many frustrated Jewish professionals.

Robert Goldberg, UJC’s chairman of the board-designate, who also is heading the search committee to replace Hoffman, would not comment on the contenders for the position.

But federation insiders confirmed that the following names are being discussed: Robert Aronson, chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit; Steven Nasatir, president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago; John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of the UJA- Federation of New York; and Jacob Solomon, executive vice president of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.

Some of these individuals were considered for the post last time the top slot was being filled.

Already, that list has fueled one of the criticisms of the federation system — that it caters to large cities.

“It’s just rotating the chairs in the club,” said one federation leader who asked not to be identified.

Others are focusing on how the new top executive might lead.

Hoffman has developed a “wonderful vision for the future,” said Lee Wunsch, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston. “The success of that vision is contingent upon his successor.”

Houston’s federation made Jewish headlines after it sent a Jan. 13 letter to the UJC in which the federation threatened to suspend its dues until “significant concerns are addressed to our satisfaction.”

The letter cited a “flawed” overseas allocations process and attacked the UJC for “lurching from crisis to crisis” without “planning or prioritization.”

Since then, in the spring and summer, a flurry of letters have come from other federations — Boston, St. Louis and Chicago — sounding off on similar gripes.

“A lot of federations have jumped on the bandwagon,” said Wunsch, who said Houston’s concerns with the UJC are”ongoing.”

Resolution of all of the federations’ complaints will hinge on the next leader, he said. “The leader of an organization has a lot to do with the direction it goes,” he said.

Miami’s Solomon also expressed his hope that the next UJC leader will carry Hoffman’s agenda forward.

Solomon specified Hoffman’s work to make the federation system more accessible to its clients and build a “strong professional team.”

Still, supplying the system with “a talented pool of professionals” is “a crying need,” he said. “Alignment among the federations with respect to what we want to get out of our overseas partnership” is also critical, he said.

Robert Schrayer of Chicago, national chairman of the UJC’s fund-raising campaign, has some different ideas.

“I hope that they’ll have more emphasis on campaigning, on fund raising and not necessarily on Hoffman’s vision that he laid out.”

According to several insiders, Aronson is eager for the position, but he would not say so publicly.

“I’m not going to comment on whether or not I’m going to be a candidate,” he said. “Obviously I do care a lot about the organization. It’s an extremely important job.”

Asked about the role of Hoffman’s successor, Aronson said, “The most important thing is to make sure UJC remains and continues to develop as a strong national organization.”

Larry Jackier, president of the Detroit federation, said of Aronson that “while they’re looking to get him, he isn’t interested in the job.”

Jackier said he has had “numerous phone calls over the past six months” from “various people indicating that they would like Aronson to take Steve Hoffman’s job.”

This year, Aronson has pared down his work for the Detroit federation to three days per week. He divides his remaining time in the work week between work as a philanthropic consultant for Jewish philanthropist Michael Steinhardt and Detroit magnate Bill Davidson.

Nasatir was not available for comment. But leaders close to him said he was unlikely to accept the position unless he could work from Chicago.

Solomon of Miami said he has had only “informal conversations” about the post. “I don’t have any idea where the search process is right now,” he said.

Asked if he was interested in the position, Solomon said, “I have no idea,” and said he would have to discuss the possibility with his wife.

In New York, Ruskay declined to comment.

Some disparage the fact that the rumored contenders spring from a well of longtime leaders that perennially come up for the top position.

“As long as the large city execs consider this position their private reserve, all you can rely on is the best of that group,” said one federation leader close to the search process.

Others concede that the large cities provide the bulk of the funds to the federation system, and a representative from those places makes sense.

“Central to the leadership of the UJC” are the “relationships that you must have with your largest partners. And the largest partners are the large cities,” said Conrad Giles of Detroit, the former president of the Council of Jewish Federations.

Furthermore, he said, “All of those who would be considered for this job, I believe, will have the requisite sensitivities, while coming from a large city environment, to appropriately care for the needs of the smaller cities,”

Most agree, however, that the choice is critical when the viability of North American Jewry’s central fund-raising organization is at stake.

According to Solomon, there’s “no way one can overestimate the importance of coming up with the right person.”

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