Tisch: We’re ‘Making People’s Lives Better’


James Tisch this month completed the first year of his three-year term as president of UJA-Federation. He recently reflected on his tenure in a conversation with The Jewish Week.

Jewish Week: Has this year been fulfilling?

Tisch: When you step back and take a look at what you are accomplishing, it’s gratifying to know that you are making people’s lives better. I had general goals I wanted to achieve, among them to improve fund raising and to maintain the momentum of the campaign. People want to give to a growing organization, not a declining one. I wanted also to begin to change the culture of the organization to make it more donor sensitive: to say thank you and be more responsive to the stakeholders. We also had management by committee and I wanted to have executives make decisions. When a committee makes a decision, nobody is responsible.

In the past we have heard of a conflict between volunteers at UJA-Federation who wanted more of the money raised spent in Israel, and others who wanted to see more spent here at home.

In my presidency I have heard nothing about it. There is a 70-30 formula [70 percent spent overseas and 30 percent domestically] that works. It is real. But there are a lot of deductions before you get to that formula. You first have to take off [such things as] operating and fund-raising expenses. … When people ask, I tell them that the split is about 50-50 between overseas and domestic. We are very satisfied with the way the formulas are working. They are giving us allocations that we think best serve the needs of the Jewish community.

Israel is a very important focus, but people tend to get confused about our relationship with Israel. People think that when they give to UJA-Federation, they are giving to the government of Israel. That’s not true. We are not giving to the general coffers of Israel; we are not providing generic human services to Israel. Our goals are specific. We provide for the rescue and resettlement of a huge number of Jews, principally from the former Soviet Union. … Last year, 50,000 Jews came from the former Soviet Union; this year about 60,000 will come.

The pluralism issue does not appear to be high on Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s agenda. Will UJA-Federation continue to press it in Israel?

We will continue to communicate the view of the majority of our donors on pluralism. We will make the administration aware that in the United States it is a very significant issue. But I think that we have to give the Barak administration a few months to deal with issues that are of greater priority. … UJA-Federation does not have a position with respect to the pluralism issue, but we will make known to the administration the view of the majority of our donors.

Why do you think people give to UJA-Federation?

The public at large knows very little about us. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, "Never before have so many people given so much and known so little." People give out of habit. If they knew what they were giving to, they would be pleased. And I want them to give because they really want to give. We have more than 80,000 donors and 99 percent of them donít care how we are organized internally, they just want to know that we are accomplishing our goals.