Charles in charge at the General Assembly’s close
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Charles in charge at the General Assembly’s close

To the casual observer, the fact that Charles Bronfman would speak at the most widely attended Jewish philanthropy event of the year shouldn’t be much of a shock. But to longtime observers of the industry, the billionaire’s address at the GA’s closing plenary at least had some interesting subtext.

Bronfman was at one time a major player in the federation system, acting as chairman of the United Jewish Communities just after it was formed out of the merger of the Council of Jewish Federations, the United Israel Appeal and the United Jewish Appeal.

But Bronfman’s tenure as the top lay leader of the newly formed entity was rocky at best, as he several times threatened to quit the organization, primarily over concerns he had about the Jewish Agency for Israel.

He walked away for good after his tenure as chair and became one of the agency’s leading critics, hellbent on forcing it to reform policy that he and other critics said left it open both to Israeli political manipulation and to financial malfeasance because of a general lack of transparency and accountability within the quasi-governmental organization.

Things worsened when Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt founded Taglit-Birthright Israel nearly a decade ago.

The two philanthropists had struck a deal with the Jewish federation system, the Jewish Agency and the Israeli government, stipulating that those entities would become equal funding partners.

While these organizations have indeed poured money into the program that sends young Jews on free 10-day trips to Israel, it hasn’t been enough in the eyes of Bronfman and other philanthropists that support Birthright. And that’s especially true considering how much the federations use their involvement with Birthright as a major fund-raising card.

Yet there Bronfman was on Tuesday morning at the close of the GA, making a friendly — and happy — pitch for Birthright funding. And, gasp, actually praising the Jewish Agency, and saying it is an organization "of such great importance."

Fundermentalist’s take: Bronfman hadn’t spoken at a GA for six years, according to Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Foundation and a confidant of Bronfman (the two men are in the middle of co-writing a series of books on philanthropy).

Solomon acknowledged that Bronfman’s appearance marked a significant moment.

Let’s start with his praise of the Jewish Agency. That part of the speech is another sign that Bronfman has confidence that the Jewish Agency’s relatively new chairman, Natan Sharansky, can turn it around, or disband the organization if he cannot.

But the appearance might be a bigger signal of an erosion of the walls that existed between the world of major Jewish givers like Bronfman and the federation system. Solomon — who has long been a proponent of greater collaboration between the two worlds, so long as the federation system becomes a more modern fund-raising outfit — conceded as much and acknowledged that the federations might be making strides in terms of Birthright.

If you recall, Bronfman did finance a program to help both the Jewish Federations of North America and several larger federations hire development officers to work specifically on Birthright.

From where the Fundermentalist sits, Bronfman’s GA appearance is part of a pattern that includes the significant presence of the federations a few weeks ago at a conference on special needs put on by the Ruderman Family Foundation and the Jewish Funders Network. Both developments are signs that in the post-recession world, the federation and foundation worlds are increasingly coming to the conclusion that they need each other to accomplish their goals.