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In Picking Solender, Ujc Opts for Head Who ‘understands System’

October 6, 1999
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The man chosen to head the Jewish community’s central fund-raising and social service system has spent his entire career working for Jewish organizations.

In picking Stephen Solender, 61, to become the first president of the newly formed United Jewish Communities, the group’s search committee opted for a man with extensive experience and intimate knowledge of the federation world.

“We were looking for people who understood the system,” Charles Bronfman, UJC’s chairman of the board, said in a news conference Tuesday announcing Solender’s appointment.

In recent months, Solender has balanced two of the most demanding jobs in communal Jewish life: serving as acting president of the UJC — the product of the merger of the United Jewish Appeal, the Council of Jewish Federations and the United Israel Appeal — while continuing his 13-year post as executive vice president of UJA-Federation of New York.

When he accepted the temporary UJC post in April, Solender said he was not interested in taking the helm of the UJC on a long-term basis.

However, in the months that followed, as the search process continued, Solender — who describes himself as a workaholic — decided to go for it after all.

Federation executives from around the country, many of whom had pushed for someone with extensive federation experience, praised the appointment.

Asked why he has devoted his career to Jewish organizations, Solender said it was out of “family tradition and a natural interest.”

“What’s been most rewarding is the impact we’ve had on so many people’s lives,” he said. “We’ve helped so many people in the U.S., Israel and around the world.”

Solender is part of a three-generation dynasty of communal machers: Solender’s father, Sanford, was executive vice president of what was then the New York UJA-Federation Joint Campaign, and his grandfather directed a Jewish community center in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood.

Solender’s first job out of graduate school — Columbia University School of Social Work — in 1962 was working with teens for the Jewish Community Centers of Chicago. Within seven years, he had risen in the ranks to become program director and then branch director of that institution.

He later worked for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and then became the executive vice president of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

In New York, he oversaw the 1986 merger of the New York Federation of Jewish Philanthropies with the United Jewish Appeal of Greater New York to form one of the country’s largest private philanthropies. He also helped craft a strategic development plan and almost triple the fund-raising revenues of the UJA- Federation of New York.

The longtime Jewish professional has been known to hammer out e-mail messages at 4 a.m. and said he goes jogging every morning at 5 a.m., “no matter where I am in the world.” Asked if he sleeps at all, Solender said, “Quickly.”

In the few hours that he is not working, Solender enjoys spending time with his five grandchildren, listening to music, reading biographies and nonfiction and — occasionally — joining his wife of 40 years, Elsa, for discussions about Jane Austen’s work.

Elsa Solender, a former journalist, is the international chairwoman of the Jane Austen Society, an organization that — according to its Web site — “brings scholars and enthusiasts, amateurs and professionals together on equal terms to study and celebrate the genius of Jane Austen.”

The couple worship at Manhattan’s Or Zarua, a Conservative synagogue, every Shabbat they are in New York, said Solender.

James Tisch, president of the UJA-Federation of New York, praised Solender for his dedication and savvy.

“Steve has a phrase he loves to say sometimes in an exasperated way: `Well, just another day of service to the Jewish people,'” said Tisch.

“The thing is, he really means it. He is totally devoted to what he does, is totally devoted to serving the Jewish people and does a phenomenal job of doing it.”

Tisch added that Solender “understands the UJA-Federation world and has avoided a large number of problems that people of less capability might be able to get out of, but he never gets into.”

Solender and his fans say his insider status will not be an obstacle to effecting change in the world of communal Jewish philanthropy.

Solender noted that the new members of his management team — Louise Frankel Stoll, who has been named chief operating officer, and David Altshuler, who will head UJC’s newly created independent foundation — bring experience from outside the Jewish federation system.

Stoll, the senior vice president for strategic planning and corporate communications for an international engineering and consulting firm, is the former assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation for budget and programs and served as chief financial officer of that department from 1993 to 1997.

A former pro-Israel activist in the San Francisco area, she has also been involved with the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League.

Altshuler is the founding director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York, a position he has held since 1986. Before that he occupied the Charles E. Smith Chair in Judaic Studies at George Washington University.

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