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Transforming the Jewish Community: Ujc’s Inaugural Event Reflects Hope, Uncertainty About Future

November 23, 1999
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North American Jewish community federations decided years ago that it was time to change the way they relate to one another and the rest of the Jewish world.

Last week in Atlanta, the formal transformation began to take shape.

But its real effects may take years to reverberate throughout the United Jewish Communities, which represents nearly 200 federations and some 400 independent communities.

People generally “have a feeling” that a change is afoot, but “they don’t know what it is,” Richard November, the president of the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond, said at the end of the UJC’s inaugural event here.

The UJC, formed through the merger of the Council of Jewish Federations and the United Jewish Appeal, became legal Nov. 17, according to papers filed with New York state.

The event capped off more than six years of deliberations over how to promote efficiency and give communities a greater say in the way the funds they raise are allocated for Jewish needs at home and abroad.

As more than 5,200 delegates from North America and Israel converged on the southern capital, the UJC’s governing bodies met for the first time, beginning the business of reorganizing a social-service and fund-raising system that raised $790 million in the 1999 annual campaign.

But for all of the structure now in place, much of the groundwork for beginning the new organization still lies ahead.

The key to the merger is federation “ownership” of the system, with federations making up the majority of representatives on the UJC’s governing boards and committees.

Even among the federations’ volunteer and professional leaders, however, no clear consensus exists on what the UJC should aspire to do.

Moreover, the federations have yet to define what ownership entails, actively and financially.

To shape the UJC’s future course, a two-day retreat for representatives from all member federations is being planned for next spring. Discussions of what is being termed “critical governance issues” — such as dues, responsibility for supporting overseas needs, decision-making and defining UJC’s aims and scope of activity — will provide the basis for the UJC’s future bylaws.

The retreat idea grew out of interviews conducted among 130 federation presidents and executives over the past month by McKinsey & Company, a New York-based management-consulting firm.

The McKinsey report, made public at the General Assembly here, found that “clearly articulated priorities and a vision of what UJC will be and accomplish have not been embraced by the system.”

As one interviewee, quoted in the report, put it, “You can’t start using a road map if you haven’t decided where you are going.”

Federations agreed that “a national system is needed to enhance the effectiveness of local federations,” but differed on its role, McKinsey found.

Some of the people interviewed envision the UJC as a kind of “trade organization” for federations, providing a way for communities to work together on common issues.

Others believe the organization should take the initiative in setting a continental Jewish agenda.

The interviews also revealed a tension between overseas relief and local needs, an issue that was one of the driving forces behind the merger of the UJC’s predecessor organizations.

But Charles Bronfman, the philanthropist who serves as the UJC’s first chairman, told the first meeting of the 123-member Board of Trustees that “this is not simply a merger. This is a new institution.”

Joel Tauber of Detroit, the chairman of the executive committee, counseled patience. Noting that 1,000 board and committee appointments have already been made, he said at a news conference that the definition of ownership “was left aside because it is so controversial.”

Bronfman said that even though questions remain, the high attendance level at the UJC’s kickoff event was “an indication of the tremendous groundswell of interest and the desire to be part of it.”

Indeed, the G.A., as the gathering is known, had the feel of a communal celebration, and Bronfman marked its opening plenary by leading the delegates who filled Atlanta’s Civic Center in the Shehecheyanu, a Hebrew prayer traditionally said to mark beginnings and happy occasions.

High points of the event included appearances by Vice President Al Gore, who decided to speak only days before the G.A., and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who delivered his address to the closing plenary by video after his plane was damaged while refueling in England en route to Atlanta from a conference in Turkey.

Addressing the delegates, Gore told the delegates they “are forging a unifying coalition for social justice here at home and abroad.”

Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Barak thanked delegates “for all you give and have given to the dream of Zion” and asked for their continued partnership, both financially and philosophically, in building a secure Israel.

“We need your ideas,” he said.

In his address to the G.A., Rabbi Michael Melchior, Israel’s minister for Israeli society and world Jewish communities, raised the issue of religious pluralism, an explosive issue at past G.A.’s that was largely absent from formal programming at this year’s event.

The delegates applauded heartily when Melchior invited them to “consider my office” in Barak’s Cabinet “as your representative around the table of the Israeli government.”

The G.A. included dozens of sessions. Jewish authors read from their works, and religious scholars — including Israeli feminist Alice Shalvi and Rabbi Donniel Hartman, associate director of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem — led lunchtime study sessions.

But most of the G.A. revolved around developing the technical and conceptual blueprints for the UJC.

There were sessions devoted to outlining issues around the four areas of focus, or pillars. “Pillar elaboration sessions” featured roundtable discussions on subjects such as building partnerships with synagogues, new realities in Israel, fund raising, spiritual connections to Judaism, and challenges in American Jewish life, from domestic violence and children with special needs to sheer affordability.

During the G.A., the UJC’s 25-member Executive Committee, the Board of Trustees and the 550-member Delegate Assembly convened for the first time. Appointments to the pillar committees, which will begin to meet in the coming weeks, were announced as well.

A separate committee responsible for assessing overseas needs and the distribution of funds raised to support them, known by the acronym ONAD, also met in Atlanta to hear presentations from the system’s two main overseas partners, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

The only fireworks to flare publicly at the G.A. crackled as the Delegate Assembly began to vote on a slate of resolutions that covered issues such as long-term care for the elderly, domestic violence, security at Jewish institutions, the status of Jews in the former Soviet Union and the Middle East peace process.

Objecting to resolutions that he said “call for the enlargement of the federal government in our lives,” John Uhlmann, the immediate past president of the Jewish Federation of Kansas City, requested that resolutions include a minority opinion to “give a voice to those in the Jewish community” who do not espouse liberal politics.

His request was denied, the chairman of the Resolution Committee said, because the positions were unanimously believed to be non-partisan and necessary.

A minority opinion, the chairman, Michael Newmark of St. Louis, said, “would only dilute” their impact.

In an interview with JTA, Uhlmann questioned the need to “speak as one on issues that are not central to rescue and relief.”

“We care about pluralism in Israel, but the Resolutions Committee doesn’t care about a minority voice,” he said.

Another potentially explosive issue passed unignited as the UJC Executive Committee and Board of Trustees agreed to postpone the confirmation of David Altshuler as president of a new UJC foundation, being created to foster independent philanthropy to enhance the UJC’s mission.

Members who had set the preliminary plans for the UJC’s pillar on Financial Resource Development had called for the creation of the foundation in a report approved by the UJC’s transitional cabinet this summer.

But some believe that the foundation’s structure was altered, changing it from a semi-autonomous arm of the UJC to an independent organization in an effort to attract Altshuler to lead the endeavor.

To resolve the situation, Robert Goldberg, president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, will head a committee charged with outlining, over the next two weeks, a mutually agreeable governance structure for the foundation.

In an interview, Goldberg, who is the chair of the UJC’s governance and budget committees, took the blame for the oversight, but said he expects its resolution to be “simple.”

For his part, Altshuler, who is scheduled to take office Jan. 1, declined to discuss the matter except to say, “It will be over before it begins.”

Instead, he suggested, “let’s talk about the work that the trust will do.”

During a separate news conference, Altshuler, who is the founding director of New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, summed up the feeling of anxious anticipation at the G.A., comparing the event to a brit milah, or Jewish ritual circumcision.

Everyone attending a brit, he said, is a little nervous and uncertain not only about the impending procedure, but about the child’s future.

“The only thing that gives you confidence is the lineage” of the child, he said.

Likewise, the UJC is heir to the “most important philanthropic life force on earth,” he said, adding that that should “tell you something about the future.”

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