Richard Wexler has come to the helm of the United Jewish Appeal with his work cut out for him — and he seems to relish the challenge.
The tall, imposing 54-year-old Chicago lawyer was installed in the spring as the national chairman — the top lay leadership role — at a time when change is the watchword at the UJA and throughout the Jewish organizational landscape.
Wexler believes that the UJA must reposition itself to remain relevant and competitive with other Jewish and non-Jewish philanthropies that are capturing ever-greater shares of Jewish dollars.
The UJA is in transition, with its leaders poised to "create a new fund-raising era" that will reflect a post-crisis climate in the Jewish world, Wexler said in an interview.
"This is not to say we’re beyond crisis," Wexler said. Although Israel is more secure militarily and economically, he said, "the volatility" of the former Soviet Union continues as does the emigration each year of about 65,000 Jews from there to Israel.
The expense for their resettlement is shared by the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel, the principal recipient in Israel of the annual campaign run jointly by the UJA and local federations.
The UJA will continue to "sell the centrality of Israel to American Jewry, Wexler said. But if "we are coming to the end of an era of needing to rescue Jews, we’re entering an era when we have to rescue Judaism" and "build communities in new ways."
Wexler waxes passionate when he speaks of what drives the campaign, repeatedly invoking the "love of the house of Israel," spirituality and the impulse to repair the world. He also talks about the importance of providing Jewish learning within the UJA rubric to help build lasting commitments to the community.
For Wexler, the key to the new era is a closer partnership with local federations and a fund-raising campaign that integrates overseas needs with local needs in a new way.
The UJA historically has been responsible for the overseas pitch. It also distributes the overseas funds to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and to the Jewish Agency via the United Israel Appeal.
Wexler appears to garner universal admiration and respect that should serve him well as he navigates the highly politicized waters of his new job as ambassador, spokesman and top solicitor for one of the biggest non-profit organizations in the United States.
The UJA, in concert with local federations, runs an annual fund-raising campaign ranked fourth in the nation by The Chronicle of Philanthropy. The campaign has raised about $725 million annually for the past few years.
Those who have worked closely with Wexler repeatedly describe him with the same litany of accolades: smart, articulate, tough, hands-on, passionate and dedicated.
"He’s going to be a dynamo," said Gary Tobin, an expert on Jewish philanthropy with the Brandeis University Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies.
"Richard Wexler believes to the core in what he is doing and is prepared to act on his convictions," said Art Sandler of Norfolk, Va., a UJA national vice chairman and chairman of the major gifts division.
Mark Levin, executive director of the National Conference of Soviet Jewry, offered, "He is one of the best lay leaders the Jewish community has had."
Wexler was president of the National Conference from 1992 to 1995. Much of that time he also served as chairman of the UJA’s special Exodus campaign for the rescue and resettlement in Israel of Jews from the former Soviet Union.
"He will bring a strength to the organization that it hasn’t had in the last few years," said one insider who asked not to be named. The joint UJA- federation annual campaigns have been flat in recent years and the national organizational leadership has been scrambling to stem the trend with efforts to restructure the enterprise and hone its message so it speaks more to a donor base that is changing dramatically.
The money raised in the annual campaigns is divided by each federation between Jewish needs at home and Jewish needs overseas.
But the federations’ overseas allocation has been steadily dropping in recent years, from about 51 percent of the gross campaign about 12 years ago to less than 42 percent today.
This has fueled a long-standing tension between the UJA and the federations, represented by the Council of Jewish Federations.
The UJA loyalists charge that the bulk of the campaign always has been raised for an Israel at risk, for Jews in need of rescue and for refugees in need of resettlement.
A local nursing home, they say, simply does not have the same "sex appeal" to donors.
Indeed, the appeal of the overseas pitch was dramatically proven in the special Exodus campaign, which raised a stunning $901 million between 1990 and 1994.
Some say that success masked problems that were developing in the regular campaign and delayed efforts to correct them.
For their part, federations attribute their drop in overseas allocations to Israel’s rising economic and military strength, to their need to fight assimilation at home through Jewish education and their effort to compensate for government cuts that have hurt their human service agencies.
But the drop also parallels increasing frustration in some federation quarters over what they describe as the UJA’s lack of organizational focus, vision, discipline and accountability in recent years.
Such frustration was part of what led big-city federation executives to begin to push about two years ago for a merger of the UJA, the CJF and the UIA.
UJA leaders are also self-critical, but say the problems are being rectified.
"We have had problems," acknowledged Richard Pearlstone, the UJA’s president and former national chairman. "We have had some poor management, we got distracted by the national study" on restructuring and experienced "changing economics and demographics. But these are things every organization suffers from."
UJA now boasts new campaign plans, marketing strategies and a reorganization of its professional staff designed to "help our system raise more money," according to the UJA announcement of the reform.
The top professional is currently Bernie Moscovitz, UJA’s vice president and chief operating officer.
A search headed by Pearlstone is now under way for a new chief executive officer to replace Rabbi Brian Lurie, whose contract expires in September after five years in the post.
Meanwhile, the comprehensive merger plan has been shelved in favor of a new proposal calling for a "working partnership" between the CJF and the UJA. This calls for the two entities to maintain separate chief executives, staffs and boards but have a joint "superboard" and executive committee.
Enter Wexler, who sits on the national restructuring committee, and who also serves on the CJF executive committee.
He opposed the original merger plan, in part because he feared that there were no workable assurances that overseas programs would get their fair share in the system and because he feared that the influence, talent and energy of the UJA fund-raisers for Israel would be lost in the shuffle.
Ultimately, Wexler’s objective is to harmonize the enterprise and to increase the annual campaign by sharpening the message and the marketing, especially to key, undertapped constitutencies, including women and baby boomers.
While there is "some misgiving" in some UJA quarters that the overseas message will get diluted in a consolidated system or campaign, Wexler said, "My own view is the only way we’re going to get more money to the Jewish Agency and the Joint is if we raise more money.
"And the only way we’re going to raise more money is in partnership with federation."
Meanwhile, the new campaigns will reflect lessons learned from mistakes made in the past, said Wexler.
The Exodus campaign, he said, "sapped a good deal of energy" and "when it was over we breathed a sigh of relief."
But, he said, "we had gotten away from the kind of campaign we used to do," including an aggressive face-to-face solicitation process based on personal cultivation of donors.
A return to this approach in cooperation with federations began in February. It has already proved fruitful — increasing donations from major givers by an average of about 25 percent — and will continue on a broader basis, said Wexler.
For Wexler, one of the biggest challenges is telling in a compelling way the story of what the campaign money does on the ground, especially overseas.
The campaign now is poised to send into communities for the first time teams of representatives from the Jewish Agency and the JDC to tell that story and sensitize those who decide how to split the allocations to the way their dollars work.
Agency Chairman Avraham Burg is slated to spend a month here as a fund-raiser as part of the effort to showcase the agency’s achievements, Wexler said.
At the same time, the UJA’s signature overseas missions remain a linchpin in the campaign, telling the story, leaders say, better than any pitch can.
"Many people’s experiences with missions is that it lights something in their bellies," said Wexler, who remembers his first trip to Israel in 1975 as a "true epiphany."
Wexler said a mission he led last month to Minsk, Belarus, and Israel spurred participants to increase their campaign contributions by 39 percent "because of the kind of work on the ground" they saw by the Jewish Agency and the JDC.
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.