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Federation System at a Crossroads Amid Political, Economic Uncertainty

November 14, 2001
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On the second day of the North American federation system’s annual gathering, word began to travel of the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in New York.

Some participants at the United Jewish Communities General Assembly in Washington crowded around the television in the lounge, others checked the Internet at a cluster of computers in the exhibit hall, and still others used their cell phones to check on the safety of their family and friends.

Reaction to the crash — with its echoes of the devastating Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington — only heightened a sense of uncertainty and transition facing the Jewish federation system right now.

It is unclear how global forces like the U.S. war in Afghanistan, the U.S. economy and the situation in Israel will affect the federations, both in terms of the needs they will be asked to support and their ability to raise funds. Federations serve as the communities’ central fund-raising arm and provide monies for local, national and overseas needs.

Echoing the external uncertainties is the fact that the UJC itself is at something of a crossroads. Its top founding lay leaders are handing over the reins to new people, and it recently installed a new CEO and president.

The product of the merger of three Jewish groups two years ago, the UJC has been hammering out issues related to governance and confronting internal conflicts, both among the players in the different groups that formed it, as well as among the 189 Jewish federations across North America which are its “owners.”

The merger has a few final steps left, most importantly developing a new budget and clarifying its priorities — amid pressure from many large federations that would like to see serious cuts in spending. The organization will be undergoing a “rigorous budget review” in the coming months, said Stephen Hoffman, UJC’s new president and CEO.

Neither he nor the top UJC lay leaders indicated where any cuts would come.

Discussions at the G.A. reflected “the transition going on in the American Jewish community right now,” said Howard Ross, executive director of the North Louisiana Jewish Federation in Shreveport, La.

“We have new leadership in the UJC, both professional and lay, and we don’t know where they’re going to take us,” he said.

In addition, Ross said, federations are awaiting the results of the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey to help determine domestic priorities.

Findings of the UJC-sponsored study — the first comprehensive survey of American Jewry in 10 years — are expected to be released during the summer.

“We’ve got to wait and see,” he said. “But we know we’re on the precipice of the future.”

Most large federations are reporting that their campaigns are unaffected by the recession so far — and in some cases, they are enjoying campaign increases, at least in kickoff events with lead donors.

Many have also raised new funds for Israel, as part of an Israel solidarity campaign launched this summer aimed at helping Israel as it faces an ongoing Palestinian intifada. That campaign has already raised almost $86 million.

Leaders with many federations, including Cleveland and MetroWest, N.J., say the Israel fund-raising campaign has actually boosted contributions to the general campaign as well.

However, it is too early to tell the long-term impact of the recession, and many are nervous.

“We’re all waiting to see how things shake out,” said Mark Lainer, a member of the executive committee of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation.

Robert Aronson, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, said the economic uncertainty means “federations are taking hard looks at their expenditures.”

“This is not an easy year,” he added.

Many federations, like the United Jewish Federation of San Diego County, are making special appeals to their top-tier donors, asking them to significantly increase giving this year because the recession “could mean the average donor may not be as generous as previously anticipated,” said Michael Hirsh, the federation’s director of planning, budgeting and administration.

But many UJC officials are downplaying the recession.

“We’ve been through economic tightenings in the past. There’s no reason to believe this will be worse,” Hoffman said.

Carole Solomon, chair of the UJC’s Campaign and Financial Resource Development Pillar, said campaigns are “doing very well so far,” although “potential uncertainties in the economy may manifest themselves later.”

However, she said, over the past eight years, many donors “have made tremendous sums of money,” and market losses are not wiping out their fortunes.

In a speech to the UJC’s Delegate Assembly, Solomon said, “We can worry, or we can redouble our efforts.”

Some are hopeful that the difficult times — at least the events of Sept. 11 and the crisis in Israel — will actually spur giving.

“A lot of people may want to be more involved and are looking for meaning,” Lainer said, echoing the sentiment of many others.

Others hoped that the Jewish community’s visibility after Sept. 11 — particularly the work of Jewish social service agencies in the New York area — will draw in new donors.

“Social service agencies no one ever knew of are being talked about now,” said Helaine Loman, a member of the UJC’s Young Leadership Cabinet and a board member of the MetroWest federation.

“People give in times of crisis,” Loman said. “And this is definitely a crisis.”

Joe Brodecki, a board member of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and a former fund-raising director for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, said, “Sometimes when things get tough, people pull together and do things they never thought they could have accomplished.”

It is not clear precisely what role the UJC will play in the coming years.

Many saw the Israel NOW rally scheduled for Sept. 23 as the group’s first decisive act of leadership.

However, the rally — expected to draw approximately 150,000 people from around the country — was canceled in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The UJC’s new volunteer leaders, James Tisch of New York, chairman of the board, and Robert Goldberg of Cleveland, chairman of the executive committee, are promising an expanded role for UJC and a smaller budget.

In an interview, Tisch said doing both is possible. “Just because we cut the budget doesn’t mean we’re cutting services and doesn’t mean we’re not growing,” he said.

It is also not entirely clear what Jewish federations want the UJC to be or do, although a variety of federation executives and lay leaders said they want it to be a combination of organizer, visionary, disseminator of best practices and a forum for collective action.

“We need an organization to coordinate our efforts,” said Elaine Berke, a board member of the Los Angeles federation. “And it keeps us together like a mom and a dad keep a family together.”

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