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Ujc Hires Former Head of Birthright to Take Control of Renaissance Pillar

February 25, 2003
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The United Jewish Communities’ decision to take over its Renaissance and Renewal department signals the latest change at the federation movement’s central organization.

The federation system’s umbrella offices last week dissolved its management deal with the Jewish Education Service of North America, known as JESNA, which led one of four UJC departments, called pillars, since November 2000.

The UJC named Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, who once headed Birthright Israel and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, to replace Jonathan Woocher, who headed the Renaissance and Renewal Pillar while also serving as JESNA president.

Jewish renaissance covers a broad range of efforts to boost Jewish identity and involvement, including day schools, adult education, summer camps, college campus activities and synagogue revitalization.

UJC’s chief executive officer and president, Stephen Hoffman, said the decision to hire someone devoted exclusively to renaissance and renewal signaled a campaign to get federations more active in renewal efforts.

“I thought it was time to put more share of mind into the role. It was time to get a full-time leader in the role,” Hoffman said.

But he insisted the move did not reflect any dissatisfaction with JESNA or Woocher.

Woocher said he had been happy with the partnership.

“We thought it was an effective arrangement and we were pleased to continue to do it, had UJC wanted us to do so,” he said.

In the wake of the split, JESNA will be seeking to raise money to fill the gap left in its annual $4 million budget, Woocher said.

Still, he said, “The financial piece was never a major piece” for JESNA. “It was an opportunity to move forward our agenda and use our expertise to make good things happen in the Jewish community.”

UJC’s decision to go its own way came amid continued uncertainty about the direction for the organization, which was formed four years ago to give its 156 member federations a stronger voice in how the money they raise for domestic and foreign causes gets spent.

Zimmerman stepped down as president of the Hebrew Union College, the Reform movement’s seminary, two years ago after the movement’s rabbinical group, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, suspended him from serving in a pulpit for at least two years for alleged sexual improprieties.

It is believed that Zimmerman had an extramarital affair with a congregant at New York’s Central Synagogue 17 years ago.

The rabbinical group’s executive secretary, Elliot Stevens, said Zimmerman’s suspension remains “open-ended.”

Zimmerman joined Birthright Israel, the program to provide free trips to Israel for young Jews, in mid-2001 as executive director of its North American office.

He left four months ago, and Birthright hired Simon Klarfeld, who had worked with the Charles and Andrea Bronfman foundation, as interim leader.

Hoffman stood behind Zimmerman.

“I am aware of everything that happened and I was conscious of that before I had any discussions with him,” Hoffman said. “There was nothing I learned that deterred me from my professional regard” for him.

For his part, Zimmerman said he intended to develop a “strategic vision” for the pillar that would emphasize a “localized” push for new programs rather than a “top-heavy” approach.

“Jewish renewal is taking place,” he said. “The question is whether we can get it onto the agenda of Jewish federations.”

Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network, which supports small and large philanthropies, and a former colleague of Zimmerman’s, said Zimmerman’s leadership offered one key to bringing “renewed attention and vigor” to the pillar.

But Charendoff said Zimmerman would need an appropriate budget and staff to fulfill his goal.

“What’s required are some bold experiments that will capture the imagination of the next generation of young Jews in America,” Charendoff said.

For now, Hoffman said he is hoping to “think big and start small” in the pillar, and will likely not significantly change its annual $790,000 budget in the next fiscal year starting July 1.

Under the JESNA-UJC deal, the pillar included four full-time staffers in addition to Woocher — and several JESNA members on a part-time basis. The UJC awarded JESNA an annual $650,000 grant for that group, which Hoffman said would remain intact through this fiscal year.

Several people familiar with the renewal pillar, including Woocher, said they felt the joint effort had achieved some success.

Woocher pointed to such programs as:

the launching of the Continental Council on Jewish Day School Education, which annually gathers a wide range of day school figures;

the Ezra Initiative, in which federations and synagogues collaborate to deliver intensive adult Jewish education classes in synagogues;

last fall’s “Hadesh: Renewing Jewish Communities” conference at the UJC’s General Assembly in Philadelphia, which brought together federation and education officials to discuss initiatives in Jewish identity; and

Jewish Education Month, a much-publicized joint effort with the Jewish Agency for Israel in January to revive Zionist education nationally.

Despite the split, Woocher said JESNA will continue to pursue its own mission of improving Jewish day school and congregational education and backing better teacher training and recruitment.

But not everyone welcomed the UJC move.

Billie Gold, a past JESNA chair and lay member of the pillar, backed what she called Zimmerman’s “terrific” appointment, but remained less happy about the split with JESNA.

Gold said the alliance was intended to be a “model” of how community agencies and federations could cooperate.

“This will probably be good for the UJC as an institution,” she added. “Whether it will be better for the community is another issue.”

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