Cleveland may be best known for its rock’n’roll museum and its unforgiving weather. But those who know Cleveland also know it is a die-hard federation town, and in light of the local federation’s centennial celebration, it’s a fitting venue for the upcoming General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities, the North American federation system’s umbrella organization.
The G.A., as it is called, is a time for federation professionals and volunteers to hobnob with colleagues and attend workshops and discussions reflecting the work of federations and their many partners — from boosting fund raising to serving the elderly and advocating for Israel on campus.
This year’s conference, to be held Nov. 14-17, finds the federation system at a crossroads.
The UJC, formed five years ago from the merger of the Council of Jewish Federations, United Jewish Appeal and United Israel Appeal, is undergoing a transition after the recent accession of its third president, Howard Rieger, former president of the United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh.
Federations are reporting an upswing in their annual fund-raising campaigns, but attendees still will look to the General Assembly for inspiration — specifically, for evidence as to whether Rieger can chart a vision for the federation system that many say has yet to be clearly elucidated and put into practice.
“Right now is the real turning point,” said Barry Shrage, president of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies.
Echoing a common opinion, Shrage said that Stephen Hoffman, UJC’s immediate past president who returned recently to his post as president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, stabilized the organization. People now want to see how Rieger will build on that, Shrage said.
The UJC must decide whether it should be a driving force in the federation world or primarily a facilitative agency for constituent federations, Shrage said.
That question has dogged the UJC since its birth as it has tried to unite a group of independent-minded federations, many of which have distinct visions of their own.
But Rieger and many federation professionals argue that a coordinated system is greater than the sum of its parts.
One “can’t solve some of the problems facing the Jewish world sitting in your own community,” Rieger said. He cited the UJC’s Israel Emergency Campaign, which brought an extra $360 million to Israel early in the Palestinian intifada.
Yet Rieger also emphasized the UJC’s facilitative purpose: His goal as president is to service federations, primarily by helping them raise funds to meet needs, he told JTA.
“It’s about saying, ‘Is there a value-added that can come at the national level?’ ” he said. “I think we need to align ourselves nationally and locally in terms of what are our objectives.”
In addition, the federation system must be relevant to attract the enormous financial resources of American Jewry, he said.
Rieger only recently took office, but many already have expressed support for his approach. Some say he is a more collaborative worker with lay leaders and staff than Hoffman was.
“I think he hit the ground running,” said UJC Vice Chairman Richard Wexler of Chicago. “He’s a quick study, and he wants to be focused on matters that will make UJC totally relevant to the federations.”
Against this backdrop, the General Assembly appears to be drawing its lowest number of attendants in at least six years.
UJC officials said more than 2,000 attendees are expected this year. Since 1998, the number of participants has ranged from 3,250 to some 6,000 when it was held last year in Jerusalem, according to spokesman Glenn Rosenkrantz.
Still, the federation system hopes to reinvent itself with this G.A. under the theme “Imagine.” Key plenaries are devoted to leadership and professional development.
Jim Collins, author of the bestseller, “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap. . .And Others Don’t,” is a plenary speaker. So is Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a Harvard Business School professor who has advised corporations and governments on models of leadership and change.
The conference is as much an opportunity for receptions by various groups — ranging from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to ORT, the Organization for Rehabilitation through Training — as it is for workshops.
Seminars address everything from gender equity to the feasibility of an Israeli constitution to security at Jewish institutions to Kabbalah.
There are discussions on outreach to gays and lesbians, the impact of the U.S. presidential election and, of course, best fund-raising practices.
The General Assembly comes as the federation system’s annual fund-raising campaign — which generates some $830 million a year — is several percentage points ahead of last year.
Federation insiders cite a better economy and the lingering effects of the special Israel Emergency Campaign. In some cases, people continued to give money for the embattled Jewish state through their general gift; in other cases, the UJC’s message on the ongoing intifada has driven home the importance of a federation gift.
While the robust state of this year’s campaign indicates a healthy federation system, elements beyond fund raising have discouraged some federation leaders.
“I believe that the national system had a difficult time in defining itself the last few years, and that has translated” into the local lay leadership’s “sense of indifference,” said Gary Weinstein, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas.
Weinstein says the UJC’s still unsettled identity makes it difficult for him to recruit lay leaders for national assignments, or draw top leaders to the General Assembly.
“Our lay leadership is kind of finding it ‘same old, same old,’ and fund raising continues to be the dominant force” in federation life, he said.
Others, like John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York, say it’s difficult to generalize about the state of a system made up of so many components and communities. Many local and overseas programs are vibrant, he said.
But “UJC remains a work in progress,” Ruskay said. “It continues to struggle with inflated expectations from a prolonged birthing.”
“We’re at a time in which local federations want to be more directly involved in determining national and international policy, and hence the challenge for UJC leadership to align all of the federations to maximize impact remains serious,” Ruskay said.
The UJC should act as a think tank, providing consulting support and facilitating partnerships, while it supports “an unparalleled system of agencies that can respond to challenges and opportunities in Argentina, in Ethiopia, in Israel, in the former Soviet Union, in extraordinary ways,” Ruskay said.
But Rieger’s key message for the federation system comes down to making a difference.
“We have been really damn lucky. We ended up in a country at a time in history when we have more resources than we can ever dream about,” he said. “What are we going to do to give back and make this world a better place? What’s our unique contribution to the Jewish world?”
“We are on the road to finding our vision, our voice and our purpose,” he said.
Rieger will have to make that case crystal clear in his debut as president in Cleveland.
“There’s a level of doubt on the national level about a compelling vision, and people are coming to the G.A. to assess if the new leadership can answer those concerns,” said Yosef Abramowitz, CEO of Jewish Family & Life!, an online publisher of Jewish educational material.
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.