Can Federations Seize The Moment?


This is the moment, in the midst of philanthropic crisis, for Jewish federations to reclaim their status as the primary and central address of the American Jewish community.

But while one could make the case, logically, there is more to leadership than logic. And the fact is that the national federation system, embodied by United Jewish Communities (UJC), the umbrella group of North American federations, has been a major disappointment to many of its members, seen as lacking focus and behind the curve. Executives and lay leaders question whether it is up to the current challenge, with the philanthropic community at a crossroads, if not a precipice.

Over the last decade, centralized giving — the backbone of the federation concept and system — has
been eclipsed by family foundations, which generated and distributed major dollars for innovative projects, and by smaller, hands-on charities that appealed to donors who wished to play a more direct role in determining where and how their money was spent.

The foundations represented a new level of philanthropy in the community, with some of the so-called mega-donors contributing tens of millions of dollars a year for Jewish causes. And the hands-on, or “boutique” charities were particularly popular among a younger generation uninterested in contributing to the big and somewhat anonymous umbrella of communal charity.

As a result, some predicted the further decline, if not demise, of the federations in the 21st century.

Now, though, with the economic crisis beginning with the collapse of Wall Street and punctured further by the Madoff scandal, the entire landscape of communal life has been shaken and the philanthropic sphere is being severely tested.

Foundations have proven vulnerable, susceptible to the market meltdown and to poor investments.

Some of our finest charitable institutions closed virtually overnight, victims of the Madoff fiasco, and many others have been forced to scale down their ambitious plans.

Similarly, some of our most creative, hands-on charities are faced with the possibility of cutting back, merging or even shutting down because they rely on year-to-year grants and have no endowments.

Enter — or rather, re-enter — the federations, often criticized as yesterday’s version of Jewish charity: overly bureaucratic, slow to act and lacking in vision. But also credited with being in place, representing the community as a whole, and enjoying the respect and envy of other communities for their wide range of professional expertise.

Indeed, at this time of crisis, no other component of the Jewish community is as prepared to respond to the wide array of social service needs at home, from feeding the hungry to finding employment for the jobless to offering counseling for the depressed. And no other single source could mobilize support for Israel as the federations have, from providing care for the tens of thousands of residents under rocket attack to coordinating rallies and lobbying efforts at home.

‘Jewish Tax’

Now in their second century on the American scene, federations were created to meet the needs of immigrants and others struggling for equality. Communities formed a centralized agency to raise and distribute funds, and the annual campaign was launched to pool resources and then distribute them according to priorities and needs, from health care to Jewish education.

The annual campaign became a voluntary “Jewish tax” for those involved in Jewish life, the modern-day version of the half shekel all adults were commanded to contribute to the building of the mishkan (or, the tabernacle) in the Bible.

In time, though, as the system grew more complex and as succeeding generations of American Jews who had less understanding and appreciation of its efforts came of age, federations came to be seen by some as out of touch with the inner needs of younger Jews interested in new causes and in being more directly involved with those causes.

Today, though, with a renewed emphasis on transparency and unity, federations are ready to resurface as the leading instrument for Jewish giving in this country, for both practical and philosophical reasons — if they can overcome some major challenges, like the perception that they lack vision and leadership, and are elitist.

“Federations could indeed emerge out of the current situation with a rejuvenated role within our communities,” noted Ted Sokolsky, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Toronto, one of the most successful federations in North America.

He recently predicted to his board that “the appeal of the boutique charities would fade” in the current economic environment, and he senses a “very rapid shift in terms of greater value being placed on mutual responsibility versus unbridled individualism.”

Sokolsky and others interviewed expressed great admiration and appreciation for those mega-donors who have brought innovation and generosity to Jewish philanthropy over the last two decades with a range of successful projects, most notably Birthright Israel, which has brought some 200,000 young Jews on free trips to the Jewish state.

But he noted “there was a price to pay for the kind of raw, self-centered individualism that we saw in the markets and unfortunately that spread to philanthropy.”

In response to this “my way or the highway … rallying cry of a new generation raised in the excess of the boom years,” Sokolsky thinks there will be a shift toward “a new emphasis on shared values, greater collective responsibility and a return to working within a shared communal framework.”

Engage And Inspire

John Ruskay, CEO and executive vice president of UJA-Federation of New York, agrees, and sees hope for cooperation between the foundations and federations, with each recognizing the other’s strengths.

“My critique of boutique giving was of exclusive boutique giving,” he said. “It can be positive, but there is also a need to support not only the things you care about but also the things you care less about,” like the unglamorous but vital work of free loans societies, burial societies and other agencies that are part of the federation system.

The primary challenge, according to Ruskay, is not fundraising, which is how federations are perceived by many, but rather to “engage people in Jewish life.” If you can do that, he says, they will want to support the causes and projects they come to value.

“If people don’t develop a Jewish identity, issues of federations will be irrelevant to them.”

Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston and known as a bit of a gadfly among his peers, said, “The biggest problem with most federations is they don’t have the dream or vision or story to tell.”

Simply asking people for funds each year to support the same agencies as the year before won’t cut it, he said. “The goal can’t be just to raise more money than last year. Before you ask people for money, you have to offer them something worth doing, something that inspires them.”

That happens through personal contact and listening to people’s hopes and goals, not mass marketing, Shrage said, noting that he meets not only with major donors but “with anyone who wants to meet with me.”

Making up for the loss of some of his biggest givers will take decades, he said, “but we have to rebuild every day and be there for every Jew.”

And for all the problems facing federations, “with everything else shaking, the stability of our federation system is important,” according to Shrage. “This is a moment for us.”

But he is concerned that many are operating as if it’s business as usual rather than in crisis mode.

“We should be on the phone every day meeting to deal with the Birthright situation,” he said, in light of the concern that the program will have to cut back drastically on the number of young people it can bring to Israel this year.

What’s striking is the dearth of national leadership at this juncture.

“The federation system has not been exerting itself the way one would expect at this moment,” observed Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. He noted that UJC has been largely silent on the crises within Birthright as well as the Coalition for Advancement of Jewish Education, a national organization struggling to survive, and other groups.

The innovation seems to be coming from individuals and smaller groups, like the Jewish Funders Network, which brought several dozen groups together last month to strategize and formulate an action plan, Sarna said.

UJC is planning a major meeting in Florida early next month that will focus on leadership, but it is in transition now, with its chief executive, Howard Rieger, stepping down this spring at the completion of his five-year tenure, and no successor named.

Several observers said the community needs a Jewish communal version of Barack Obama, a talented advocate for innovation who can inspire confidence. Sarna made the analogy to how the federation system, like big government in Washington, was once viewed as part of the problem but now is seen by many as part of the solution, if not the salvation.

What is clear is that the community is facing major decisions about how to move forward at a time of economic contraction, and questioning priorities, modes of operation, and goals.

Such reflection can be healthy, and the federation system should be poised to step in and say, in effect, “follow us.” But so far the silence is deafening.

was editor and publisher of The Jewish Week from 1993 to 2019. Follow him at