The increasingly powerful Council of Jewish Federations seems poised to rein in the United Jewish Appeal.
Meeting in Cleveland this week, the CJF executive committee formally approved a $500,000 study, to be conducted jointly with the UJA, of the two organizations and of the broader structure of the billion-dollar philanthropic enterprise known as the federation system.
While those involved insist it is far too soon to predict any outcome, and repeatedly preclude the “m-world” (merger) as a possibility, the study reflects dissatisfaction from many local federation heads with the activities of the United Jewish Appeal.
At issue is not the good work done by the UJA overseas, but the effectiveness of the work done from the organization’s New York office.
With a budget of about $25 million, the UJA is charged with coordinating the national fund-raising campaign for Israel and other overseas causes.
But it is to local federations that the donations are given, and some federation leaders are complaining that while they are, in effect, footing the bill for UJA, they do not have sufficient say over its activities.
In recent years, meanwhile, the CJF, with its $11 million budget, has strengthened its position with new bylaws that now make it a direct representative of its 189 member federations and able to coordinate joint activity among them.
With CJF’s star clearly rising, observers are viewing recent real estate moves as rounds in a larger game of Pac Man.
The National Conference on Soviet Jewry recently moved into the CJF offices, and the much larger National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council is expected to follow shortly. Both groups are primarily funded by federations, acting through CJF committees.
At the recent NJCRAC plenum in New Orleans, a CJF official brought nervous laughter when he assured the body that “we are only talking about living together, not getting married.”
Besides examining the UJA and the CJF, the new “Study of the National Structure,” as it is known, will examine the two organizations that distribute UJA money and which together technically own UJA corporation.
They are the United Israel Appeal, the conduit of UJA money headed to Israel for the Jewish Agency for Israel; and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which aids impoverished Diaspora Jewish communities.
But any precise description of the roles and relationships among these organizations requires rehearsing nearly a century’s worth of the history of American Jewish tzedakah, or charity.
They have evolved from the days when Zionists and non-Zionists joined forces for a humanitarian, non-political United Palestine Appeal, and when anti- Zionists preferred their charity go to settle Russian Jews in agricultural settlements in Russia.
Until now, however, these bodies have not been re-engineered from scratch.
“Any well-run system ought to be looking at its structures, particularly when they’re 50 years old,” explained Steven Solender, executive vice president of New York’s UJA-Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, and one of eight heads of major federations who put the study into motion.
“I think the average contributor wants to be reassured that we’re really prepared to look at ourselves carefully, and that will be the case in this study,” he said.
But for some of those whose organizations are being studied, the audit, which is expected to take at least a year, may be as welcome as one done by the Internal Revenue Service.
When the study is completed and its recommendations are adopted, “You’re not going to have seven executive vice president, each making $250,000 and above,” predicted one observer familiar with the federation system.
“You don’t commission these studies without, at the minimum, certain levels of cosmetic change,” said this observer.
Dissatisfaction with UJA among at least some major federations is only part of the UJA-CJF gap.
While there is overlap between the leaders of the two organizations, they are said to represent different priorities.
CJF leaders come directly from local federation leadership. And they are more likely to be advocates of local agencies and local concerns.
UJA leadership rises on a separate path, which frequently includes local federation activity, but almost always includes being big-league givers.
And because the UJA only disperses the federation money headed overseas, UJA leaders often find themselves at odds at the local level with advocates of keeping more money at home. Those advocates feel that funds are needed to pay for social services and the Jewish education and identity programs lumped under the rubric of Jewish continuity.
“We’re the surrogates for overseas, the stand-in for the Jew in Armenia or Ashdod, who can’t stand in (at a federation allocation meeting) to represent his or her viewpoint,” explained one member of the UJA partnership share committee, formerly known as the allocations committee.
At least one head of major federation finds it problematic that the UJA is simultaneously charged with advocating overseas causes and helping local federations raise money.
“I think we’re a little bit hampered as a national community by not having a campaign that in fact embraces all needs,” said this federation director, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
But the UJA is pushing a plan that would essentially remove itself from the local and federation allocation process, by moving discussions of how much stays at home and how much goes abroad to some sort of national arena.
Under a proposal that has been talked about for months, and came a step closer toward being hammered out this week in Cleveland, there would be some sort of a national formula aimed at ensuring a “fair share partnership” between local and international needs.
Rabbi Brian Lurie, UJA’s executive vice president, and other speak of a 50-50 split, a figure that was once standard but now held only in the rarest of communities; it is not uncommon for 60 percent of a federation campaign to be kept at home.
According to UJA and CJF insiders, the proposal currently being discussed would not directly force communities to change their present allocation formulas.
Instead, it would put in place an allocation formula that would only apply to new money – the amount the campaign brings in more than the year before. This would guarantee that UJA increases would not cause cutbacks to local agencies.
This proposal scares some advocates of increased federation emphasis on Jewish continuity. They fear that communities would lose some room to maneuver on continuity issues.
But losing the flexibility to allocate locally might seem a worthwhile price for averting an annual fight between committed partisans of overseas and local causes.
But there are some – including one of the major federation chiefs – who think that the price for guaranteeing overseas allocations will be paid by the UJA as its structure comes up for re-evaluation.
“Systems will be more likely to give up a piece of autonomy in terms of that (allocation) decision if they’re fully involved in a representative way in the governance of what they’re giving resources to, said this federation director.
“If federations had a better sense of the ownership of the UJA enterprise, perhaps some of the allocation difficulties that exist in some places might be less difficult,” he said.
This federation director concedes he does not know what form federation ownership of UJA might take.
“I think there are all kinds of possibilities for synergies between the systems,” he said, “and maybe the m-word (merger) isn’t the proper word to use. I can’t envision, frankly, that you’d ever see either organization disappear.
“I can’t imagine the national community ever give away the initials UJA. It’s a very powerful set of initials,” said this director.
Another insider familiar with the federation system suggests that what what may result is an “amalgamation” of the UJA and CJF.
“If I’m right,” this insider predicts, “there will be a new organization called UJA CJF. Really it will have the UJA as a campaign department with some kind of autonomy but no foreign policy, as part of the CJF family, which probably means you cut the budget in half and save $12 million.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.