When Stephen Hoffman took over at the helm of the North American federation system nearly three years ago, he had his work cut out for him. The fledgling United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group — created two years earlier by a merger of the Council of Jewish Federations, the United Jewish Appeal and the United Israel Appeal — had failed to live up to its creators’ hopes that it would become the central address for U.S. Jewish giving, both domestically and overseas.
Local federations were complaining about high dues and inadequate services; UJC had failed to increase overseas funding from individual federations, one of the central reasons for the group’s creation; and many federation professionals were criticizing the new group as bloated and inefficient.
Three years later, as Hoffman returns to his old post as president of Cleveland’s Jewish federation, he has won praise for making the UJC “leaner and meaner,” enhan! cing its professionalism, introducing a new level of strategic thinking and instituting other key federation reforms.
Still, in an interview with JTA last week on the day he left his New York office to go back to Ohio, Hoffman had no illusions about the challenges that lie ahead for UJC.
“We’re responsible for the social welfare and future identity formation of a lot of people,” Hoffman said. “It’s us or no one.”
Hoffman still is trying to sell federations — and, by extension, the Jewish community — on the continuing need for a centralized U.S. Jewish charity to address the big issues in Jewish communal life.
“The value of centralized giving is as important as ever if you’re going to tackle systemic issues,” he said.
Centralizing efforts is the only effective way to provide meaningful national solutions to such challenges as Jewish assimilation, support for Israel and aiding at-risk segments of American and world Jewry, Hoffman said.
“Only if we work to! gether can we get the government of Israel to pay attention,” he said. “Splintered efforts by individual federations are not as effective as UJC can be.”
But at a time when many Jewish federations are struggling to maintain their fund-raising levels — Hoffman acknowledged that annual federation campaigns have “flattened out” — the umbrella organization’s funding problems are far from over.
“We need to identify and ask for more help from more Jews on the national level,” Hoffman said. “The American zeitgeist of doing your own thing has become more pronounced, and we have to overcome it by having a competing vision of what we have to do as a Jewish people together.”
Among the priorities for UJC, Hoffman said, should be strengthening Israel-Diaspora connections, beefing up Jewish identity and renewal initiatives, attracting more talented leadership, and maximizing the effectiveness and coordination of American Jewry’s efforts in Israel.
Too often, he said, federations focus on support for specific programs while neglecting to follow! through with initiatives to address the overall problem. For example, a federation might support a program to help at-risk Ethiopian-Israeli kindergartners, but a broad, coordinated effort is needed to ensure that graduates of the program don’t fall through the cracks during elementary school and beyond.
“Who’s going to sustain it?” Hoffman said. “It needs to be sustained on a regular basis.”
Federations need to recognize the limitations of acting alone, he said, noting, “The federations have not confronted the consequences of their behavior.”
As the mantle of UJC leadership passes to Howard Rieger, who has been president of the United Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, the organization’s central challenge may be getting out that message of collective effort.
“I think the real issue for us more than anything else is to say, ‘How do we create a reality that says that there’s a tremendous value-added to the system by the existence of the UJC?’ ” Rieger told! JTA shortly after his appointment in March.
As for Hoffman, he sai d he hopes to be “a better consumer of what UJC has to offer” once back in Cleveland. And he said he would return with a “much deeper understanding of the pressures on this office.”
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.