Troubled Conference


Philadelphia — Call it “The Phantom GA.” This year’s General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities was the shortest annual conference of the North American Jewish federation system and lagged in attendance. It was also the least spirited in memory, a shadow of its once-proud past — the victim of limited imagination, chronic over-programming and awful luck.
The subtext of the 21/2-day program that ended here last Friday was that the GA itself was a microcosm of the myriad problems surrounding the 3-year-old UJC as it continues to struggle to define its vision and goals and justify its expense, still uncertain as to whether it is to lead or follow the 156 federations in its orbit.

Having attended the GA for most of the last 28 years, I recall a time when the event was truly the closest thing our community had to a Jewish parliament, with an array of international Jewish leaders coming together, often focusing on a compelling theme, from Soviet Jewry to adult Jewish education.

This year, though, there was no over-arching topic; visitors with their own agendas and communal professionals seemed to outnumber lay leaders; and just about everything that could go wrong, did.

There were no star attractions because Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon canceled his appearance, citing pressing needs in Israel, and no major figure in the Bush administration was on hand to add luster. The results of the National Jewish Population Study, which were to have been the centerpiece of the meeting, were held back at the last minute due to technical problems and a lack of faith in the advisers overseeing the project. Evening plenaries dragged on, so that by the time keynote speaker Natan Sharansky took the stage, most of the delegates were gone. And an early-morning evacuation on Thursday of the two hotels housing the thousands of delegates underscored the jittery nature of large Jewish gatherings post-Sept. 11.

The hotel alarms, scary as they were, proved false. But the signs of concern that permeated the meeting rooms and corridors at the GA — from worry over the impact of the population study fiasco to distress over the news of the latest suicide bombing in Jerusalem — were all too real.
Among the prime topics were whether UJC would meet its debt to birthright israel and continue its partnership in the project (which it resolved to do) and support a resolution to terminate membership for any federation that does not pay its dues to the national body (which it also did).
To be fair, this year’s GA came at a time when the organized Jewish community is being rocked by an economic downturn that seriously threatens its social service network and when alarm over Israel’s future and the increase in worldwide anti-Semitism are growing. None of these problems appears to be short-term.

But even as the need for a strong national response mounts, the longstanding model of a primary centralized-giving structure like UJC is being undermined in a variety of ways.

“I had hoped this GA would help alleviate some of the worries we were having about the future of our system and the strength of UJC,” said one executive of a small-city federation on the East Coast. “But I came away more troubled than before.”

His views are born out in a study on the UJC done by Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, and Susan Holzman Wachsstock of Hillel to be published in the December issue of the Journal of Jewish Communal Service.

Surveying key “stakeholders” in the federation system, the authors found that while “few had great hopes” for UJC, formed from a merger in 1999 of the Council of Jewish Federations, United Jewish Appeal and the United Israel Appeal, “even those modest hopes were not achieved. Indeed, performance is reported at approximately one half of the level of expectation.”

In addition, “UJC is plagued by the lack of clarity of mission.”

The roles for UJC viewed as “least desirable” by the dozen or so officials surveyed were those of “a continental planning and allocations agency for continental and overseas needs” or “a leadership organization that sets the agenda for the North American Jewish community.” Preferred was the far more modest agenda of “industry association.”

While key professional and lay leaders received good ratings and the organization was praised for its response to emergency needs in Israel and Argentina — indeed, a remarkable sum of $320 million has been raised — “effectiveness in meeting organizational needs” was rated “unsatisfactory.”
At the GA, the population study — or rather the lack of knowledge of its findings after more than two years of research and a cost of $6 million — was the focus of dissatisfaction and frustration, but larger areas of concern for UJC center on what it should be doing and how it should be funded.

In the current dues structure, federations pay large allocation to the national agency to support its $42.5 million operating budget. Some critics suggest UJC cut dues in half and charge significantly for consulting fees to the federations.

“If they have a good product to sell, they’ll end up making more than $40 million and it would be earned, not just taxed,” said one communal consultant.

Compounding the problem is not only the dollars themselves but the perception that UJC is still casting about for a primary purpose — a critique Stephen Hoffman, the president of UJC, has heard and strongly rejects.

“Our mission is to help federations be the best they can be,” he said the Monday morning after the GA, citing a number of personnel and organizational moves over the last year and a half in the areas of young leadership, human resources and Israel partnership designed to “deliver higher quality services” and justify the dues contributed.

Insiders give Hoffman high marks for his talents and knowledge but note, with empathy, that he operates in a constant state of crisis-overload, from dealing with the war in Israel to the frustrations of member federations, some of which want to do more on their own while others seek greater support from UJC.

A nagging complaint is that UJC has too many masters and is dragged down at times by the model of consensus, the backbone of a centralized, voluntary philanthropy but one that is not conducive to bold or creative moves.
One example, perhaps more annoying than serious but illustrative of the larger problem, is the perennial GA tendency to overload its programs. From plenaries to panels, there is an effort to cram in too many speakers and/or too many topics. Sometimes the primary presentation doesn’t take place until most of the audience is bored or gone, as when Sharansky, Israel’s deputy prime minister and stand-in for Sharon, took the stage Wednesday night to speak more than 90 minutes after the session began. By then, most of the audience had left the convention center.

It’s more than a scheduling problem; it’s a way of thinking that tends to backfire. Trying to please everyone pleases no one.

Maybe that’s a message the leadership of UJC should consider as it grapples to solidify its identity and purpose.