When the annual conference of the North American federation system convenes next week in Philadelphia, delegates will be grappling with two issues preoccupying much of the organized Jewish community — Israel and Jewish identity.
The General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities, Nov. 20-22, will unveil the results of the National Jewish Population Survey 2001-02 that focus on Jewish identity and affiliation.
The issues, and the underlying focus on funds needed to address them, illustrate the tensions inherent in a system that historically has been committed to meeting Jewish needs both at home and abroad.
And several issues of UJC governance are likely to stir debate, including:
UJC’s relationship with Birthright Israel, the free trip to Israel for young adults. UJC will discuss a proposal to pay its overdue portion to support the program and set new guidelines for its future commitment.
A resolution ousting federations that don’t pay their designated dues to the UJC system.
This year’s G.A. trumpets the theme: “Justice, Justice you must pursue” with an opening plenary on the “traditional Jewish pursuit of justice,” featuring Israeli Supreme Court Justice Dorit Beinisch.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who was scheduled to appear in person, will not be there, according to UJC officials, but may now be speaking via satellite during a plenary session on Israel.
The latest NJPS results and anti-Semitism around the globe dominate the remaining plenary sessions.
Some 4,000 people are registered for the conference, and the UJC expects about 4,500 to cram the halls of the convention site, the Philadelphia Marriott.
At the latter number, the G.A. would match its height of the year before last — its first sellout crowd.
Among the approximately 100 sessions and workshops are agenda items ranging from fund-raising strategy and Israel advocacy on campus to running for public office and the plight of Ethiopian Israelis.
But some of the thornier issues will be addressed at meetings of the UJC’s Board of Trustees and the Delegate Assembly, which is a larger body representing federations.
Slated for discussion at the Nov. 22 meeting of the Delegate Assembly is a resolution that would oust from the UJC federations that don’t pay their dues.
The resolution, already approved by the Board of Trustees, would bar federations from voting rights in UJC matters and bar members of the delinquent communities from national UJC leadership roles, as well as serving on the boards of any national agencies funded by the UJC.
The issue arose after federations in Tidewater, Va., and San Francisco questioned their payments, according to sources.
Both Tidewater and San Francisco federation leaders insist they aim to stay in the UJC system and are currently discussing the issue with UJC.
For Tidewater, it’s a matter of assessing all its expenses under severe budget constraints, according to Daniel Lepow, assistant director of the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater.
It’s a matter of “looking at every penny,” Lepow said, noting that his federation’s campaign has been flat this year and that its dues to UJC are $198,000.
San Francisco is concerned that its dues have been raised more than $250,000, to $1.15 million, said Sam Salkin, CEO of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties.
“If we just pay it, which we might, then a quarter of a million dollars that would have otherwise gone to beneficiary agencies goes to communal administrative support,”said Salkin.
All of UJC’s $42.5 million budget comes from federations’ dues.
UJC’s CEO and president, Stephen Hoffman, is in discussions with both federations.
On the Birthright issue, the Board of Trustees will discuss at its Nov. 20 meeting a proposal for the federations to pay its overdue portion of the cost of the initial five-year program.
The $210 million program, now in its third year, was originally intended as a partnership among Jewish mega- philanthropists, the Israeli government and the federations, which had committed $52.5 million over five years.
“We have a situation where we’re not producing enough federation income to fulfill the commitments we wanted to make to the Birthright program,” Hoffman said.
He said that a new plan is going to be presented to do that for the remainder of the five-year initial program, “and we’ll see if the federations go along with it.”
Beyond the issues of governance, the delegates to the G.A. will grapple with a host of pressing topics and what they mean for the federation system, its policies and funding priorities.
In addition to the findings of the new NJPS and the crisis in Israel, these include implications of a new American political landscape, the economic meltdown in Argentina, the spread of worldwide anti-Semitism and the prospect of a U.S. war on Iraq.
For local federation leaders, who ultimately determine their own communities’ allocations to local and overseas needs, the convergence of critical issues intensifies the familiar tug of war among funding priorities.
For now, however, Israel seems paramount in the minds of many local leaders.
“First and foremost in my mind is the situation being confronted by Israel and what we can do to help her in these very uncertain months ahead,” said Max Kleinman, executive director of the United Jewish Communities of Metro West New Jersey.
The federation system has been engaged in an Israel Emergency Campaign since the spring, and has already raised more than $230 million since then.
But they also want to focus on non-Israel matters.
Capitalizing on spiritual renewal in America is key, according to Barry Shrage, president of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies.
Indeed, the UJC and the Jewish Education Service of North America will sponsor a two-day pre-conference to address such issues. Among the agenda items at Hadesh: Renewing Jewish Communities are Jewish camping, adult Jewish learning, congregational and communal education and arts and culture.
This marks the first time in three years that the UJC has formally held a conference on Jewish renaissance and renewal.
“The Jewish renaissance in learning and community is already a fact of life at the grass roots,” Shrage said.
“The challenge will be for UJC to understand and build on these trends so that the UJC itself remains relevant,” he said.
For John Fishel, president of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles, the greatest challenge is a long- term one — looking beyond the crisis in Israel.
Fishel is wrestling with how to inspire in his community “an ongoing sense of responsibility once the crisis has abated” so that “we don’t all just go back to sleep.”
While each community must address its particular challengers, it is up to the UJC to “make sure the overseas picture doesn’t get lost in the cacophony of local agency demands,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman said it is “the job of every federation leader” to exacerbate the tension among different funding priorities and to make donors aware that “the way to reduce the tension is to raise the money.”
Federation leaders should “tell our donors that they can make all the headaches go away. All they have to do is increase their gifts.”
Richard Wexler of Chicago, the national G.A. chair, refers to precedent when asked about competing priorities.
The release of the 1990 NJPS, which shook the Jewish communal world and shifted its funding priorities with its high rate of intermarriage, came amid “the greatest challenge our system’s ever faced,” Wexler said, referring to Operation Exodus, the North American campaign to help the emigration of Soviet Jews in the early 1990s.
“Our system during that period of time produced record achievements” in the campaign and in federation endowments, which he said has now reached $10 billion.
“There is nothing to suggest, given the accumulation of wealth since that time, that we’re not capable of doing that same thing again, of meeting all of our domestic needs, responding to them” and responding to the emergencies in Israel and Argentina, he said.
“Part of the function of the General Assembly is to begin to discuss those very issues,” Wexler said, “to be sure that we’re focused properly.”
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.