At 100, UJA Marks Milestone By Embracing Change


Life expectancy in the United States has increased to 78.9 years, and many people are living even longer than that. But turning 100 is still a really big deal. I remember the 100th birthday party we threw for my husband’s grandma, Ruth. Friends and family gathered to talk about her impact on everyone’s lives, and it felt like a rare, precious moment to be able to share those memories in her presence.

So when it came time to celebrate UJA-Federation of New York’s 100th birthday earlier this year, I thought back to how we celebrated Grandma Ruth and observed many of the same wonderful things taking place. People who were involved with UJA in years past showed up to check in, friends shared memories and looked back on a century of impact. And, of course — there was cake. But while loved ones at Grandma Ruth’s party gently poked fun at her idiosyncrasies, the folks at UJA’s celebration were far more blunt. Professionals, volunteers and leaders alike took the milestone moment as an opportunity to ask: Are we prepared to meet the challenges of the next 100 years?

In some cases, the answer was a resounding “yes.” We celebrated the cutting-edge work we’ve done responding to historic imperatives, helping people in need and engaging young adults in Jewish life. But we also had to be honest about the bad habits that can develop over the course of 100 years. Had our organization become so large that we forgot how to work together? Had we placed too high a premium on following a prescribed strategic plan, so that we lacked the capacity to be flexible and dynamic when we needed to be? Were we so data driven that we weren’t speaking enough to people on the ground or “going with our gut”? Were we so efficient with our time that we stopped providing open space for thinking and creativity?

These are just some of the questions that led us to create the UJA LAB — a department dedicated to creating solutions to emerging needs and challenges within the walls of and beyond UJA-Federation. In a changing world, the LAB is about upending the status quo and embracing the risk. Since its establishment in January, the LAB has created prototypes for a number of solutions in answer to these questions.

To ensure that we have our ears to the ground, we pulled a page out of the handbook of “The West Wing,” and, like the fictional Bartlett administration, hosted an Open Door Day. We invited people from across our community to come and tell us about their aspirations and concerns. We launched “DIY Retreats” to enable UJA’s core partners to spend time thinking creatively about how to Do It Yourself and advance their organizational goals. And we’re putting grant-making decisions into the hands of the people most affected. Recently, we launched an online allocations experiment where voting on a $250,000 grant is open to all. And offline, we hosted neighborhood-based giving circle events so communities can tell us what they need most.

We’re so serious about innovation that we bought furniture. We now have an open living room space on our sixth floor to encourage unlikely collaborations between the diverse people and organizations that walk through our doors each day.

Two years into my tenure at UJA-Federation, one thing has become abundantly clear: UJA is the only place where professionals and lay leaders spend their days thinking together about every aspect of Jewish life — from Holocaust survivors to day schools to synagogues, from day camps and millennial engagement to good governance. I know we’ll outlive all expectancy rates because our community depends on it.

What’s so remarkable about 100th anniversaries, though — whether Grandma Ruth’s or UJA’s — is that they force us to realize just how many things have stayed the same. In reading historical documents from the founding days of UJA-Federation and listening to the minutes recorded during meetings in 1917, it’s become clear that the values and principles that inspired those leaders a century ago — caring for people in need and ensuring a strong and vibrant Jewish future — are the same guiding principles that continue to inspire us today.

I expect that the second century of UJA will bring us to new heights of innovation, so that the Jewish community of tomorrow will be positioned to build on our legacy. They’ll remember us and the work that we did to secure their future. And of course, there will be cake. 

Hindy Poupko is deputy chief planning officer of UJA-Federation of New York.