NEW YORK, April 4 (JTA) Five months after a highly touted new system for coordinating North America’s Jewish federations and setting a continental Jewish communal vision made its debut, a lot of questions remain about just how it will work.
Some of those questions will be addressed next week when leaders of more than 100 federations gather in Washington for what is being billed as an “owners retreat” for their new umbrella organization, the United Jewish Communities.
Most concretely federations are expected to approve a plan that would essentially commit them to maintain current levels of funding for the UJC and overseas needs for the next two years.
However many believe that the most critical long-term issues facing the newly formed organization such as how strong and centralized it will be, the relative powers of the large and small federations and, most controversially, how to ensure that each federation contributes its “fair share” ultimately will be determined over time and not as a result of one particular vote or discussion.
How these issues are ultimately resolved is important because they will determine the future course of the system that has traditionally been seen as American Jewry’s central fund-raising and social welfare organization.
Last year the system collectively raised nearly $790 million for everything from funding Jewish day schools to rescuing and resettling refugees from Ethiopia, Chechnya and Kosovo.
“No matter what we say on pieces of paper, or what the actual resolutions will be, over time things will evolve,” Charles Bronfman, chairman of the UJC’s board, said in a telephone interview this week.
In addition while federations next week will hear preliminary reports from the UJC committees charged with developing a national budget and assessing overseas needs, neither committee’s final recommendations will be ready until June.
Instead of nailing everything into place, the retreat is being viewed as the latest step in the development of the new organization and an attempt to get the federations’ “buy-in,” as one federation executive put it.
The UJC is a product of the merger of the United Jewish Appeal and the Council of Jewish Federations, which was spurred in large part because community federations wanted to have more control over the national system, particularly on decisions about funding overseas needs.
Next week’s owners’ retreat so named to emphasize the federations’ new control will define “what federation ownership of the UJC really means,” according to the UJC’s president and chief executive officer, Stephen Solender.
“We’re looking to the federations to tell us what they want,” he added.
In perhaps their first assertion of ownership, the federations have already decided to take the issue of obligation and enforcement initially scheduled for discussion and a vote at next week’s meeting off the table.
The feeling, for now at least, is that instituting threats of punishment and sanctions for federations that do not contribute a certain amount to the national system for dues and overseas needs would only turn communities off. The issue, say many involved, is needlessly divisive, particularly at a time when many federations are uncertain how the UJC will work and whether it will benefit them to participate.
“We’re going in focusing on what we’re going to do together, not what we’re going to do to each other,” said Stephen Hoffman, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland.
“We’re a voluntary system and we believe that when the right process is followed to a conclusion and the needs are self-evident,” he said, there “won’t be a need to talk about sanctions, but instead almost everyone will be where we need to be.”
Wayne Feinstein, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco a federation that some consider a maverick because it has for years operated its own foundation in Israel and channeled only a third of its overseas funds through the national system echoed that view.
“If the UJC is effective and if members feel the benefit and value received for that membership, then all of us will willingly and voluntarily contribute what’s necessary,” said Feinstein.
Most people involved in the process, including Bronfman, Solender and the UJC’s executive committee chairman, Joel Tauber, anticipate that the system will ultimately get federations to contribute through “moral suasion,” rather than imposing penalties or sanctions on federations that don’t cooperate.
Despite their calls for greater control, it is unclear how large a priority the whole national system will be for federations, which are preoccupied with the concerns of their local communities.
“Every community has a list of high-priority items, and this is not going to make their top three,” said John Uhlmann, past president of the Jewish Federation of Kansas City and a member of the UJC committee making recommendations about overseas needs and allocations.
However Cleveland’s Hoffman believes that if the national process is engaging enough, federations will participate.
“It’s the wrong analysis to say federations are more concerned with local needs. That’s just a given,” he said. “When the national system is able to present a transparent, easily understood picture of what we want to do collectively and the federations participate, they’ll pay the appropriate level of attention.”
For their part, UJC leaders are heartened by what they describe as a high turnout level for the retreat: 110 out of 189 federations will be sending a total of more than 300 people, according to Solender.
“In a voluntary system, people vote with their feet,” said Solender. “They have to pay to get there, so the fact that 300 people will be there speaks volumes for the investment the federations are making.”
While the merger process has been a lengthy one, UJC leaders say they have made key strides since the last large meeting with the federations, the General Assembly in Atlanta in November, where the UJC was officially launched.
The organization’s four pillars, or focus areas Jewish Renaissance and Renewal, Israel and Overseas, Campaign and Financial Resource Development and Human Services/Social Policy have formed and held planning meetings.
UJC officials say they hope to leave the retreat with a timetable for working out the remaining details of establishing the UJC and with a green light and at least temporary funding guarantees for the pillars to begin their work.
“As a result of the retreat, we’ll have the rules of the game set and we’ll be given time to produce results,” said Tauber.