The North American Jewish federation system just got leaner.
The United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group for the federations, is cutting 38 percent of its field operations — the folks who service local federations.
The cuts, which will be completed by July 1, meant laying off 16 professional staff, closing regional offices in Chicago and South Florida, and moving UJC’s New Jersey office to its Manhattan headquarters.
Its Southeastern and Western offices — relatively newer federation strongholds where UJC devotes significant resources for development — will remain open, according to UJC President and CEO Steven Hoffman.
The cuts are part of an overall budget crop from $50.3 million to $42.5 million, which was approved overwhelmingly by the budget committee in April and will be voted on by the member federations on June 10.
Hoffman said the cuts are a response to the demands of its member federations, many of which have complained of a bloated budget.
The cuts in the regional offices represent 35 percent to 40 percent of the cuts in the overall budget. The two other biggest cuts will apply to reduced subsidies for missions and travel for lay leadership.
The decision is also a reflection of lean economic times, with local federations having trouble meeting their own costs, let alone making dues to the UJC.
The cuts come at a time when crises in Israel and Argentina, along with a rise in world anti-Semitism, have spurred the federation system’s largest fund-raising effort since the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
For Hoffman, who took office last summer, the cuts represent an opportunity to put into his action his vision for UJC.
He said he plans to enhance Israel-Diaspora relations with a more effective UJC Israel operation, groom a more professional federation and lay leadership, beef up the endowment fund and reform the regional services from what he termed an “antiquated system” to teams of consultants.
“I believe insufficient attention was paid to how the consulting was actually done” in favor of counting the numbers of consultants and how many contact hours they clocked, he said.
While there’s concern over the implications of these cuts in particular, faith in the system under Hoffman’s charge seems to override it.
The young UJC — a three-year-old merger of the Council of Jewish Federations, the United Jewish Appeal and the United Israel Appeal — has encountered obstacles in its effort to serve as a central address for American Jewry and its overseas giving.
It has struggled to combine organizations with different cultures and satisfy the local federations, which some say have tried to micromanage it. And it has been accused of weak leadership and an unclear vision.
But Hoffman, the popular longtime president of Cleveland’s Jewish federation who has gained respect in his ability to run a tight ship, has insiders withholding judgment.
Richard Wexler, a former UJA president and member of the UJC’s budget committee, said he “would have liked to have seen cuts that didn’t devastate the professional cadre of UJC” and cut into the “backbone of UJC’s work.”
At the same time, he said, he wants “to see the UJC emerge with the vision of its CEO, and this budget reflects Steve Hoffman’s vision for UJC in every possible way.”
Wexler, schooled in the previous organizational structure, said one of its strengths that hasn’t translated in the merger was the “significant engagement” between the local federations and national leadership.
Part of that engagement, he said, came from the consulting services and regional structure that existed.
Hoffman responded that under the new system, such engagement would be found by linking the right resources at the UJC with the federations that are seeking help and information.
The information would be provided in such a way “that will actually help them change,” not just “flood them with information and then walk away,” he said.
The cuts are a “smart, strategic move,” said Jeffrey Klein, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County.
He added that he didn’t think the regional closures “will have a negative impact at all.”
Still, Klein noted that “regional services are predominantly a benefit to smaller federations and not a large federation like ours.”
Indeed, Steven Low, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Southern Illinois, Southeast Missouri and Western Kentucky, has a different take on the cuts.
“I desperately need much more engagement,” he said.
With only two full-time staff and one part-time assistant to connect scattered Jews across 45,000 square miles, “everyone in our office has to be a jack-of-all-trades,” he said.
“We’re stretched thin to get the job done,” he said, and could use someone “who can give me an idea, a methodology, maybe to provide materials.”
Low has headed his federation for 10 years, and said consultants were once very “proactive.”
Before the merger, he had a UJA consultant as well as a CJF one. But in the last year, he said, “frankly, I’m not sure if we have a consultant,” or “who that consultant is.”
Now he calls the central office in New York for help and relies on the mutual support that federations offer each other — for instance, through the new listserv that links them.
The regional staff was in major need of reorganization, said Karen Barth, the consultant behind the consolidation.
Barth, who worked for the powerhouse consulting firm McKinsey & Co. before starting her own firm, Atid, or future in Hebrew, said her research revealed that the UJC consultants spent more time doing UJC work rather than servicing their client federations.
“We’re just refocusing,” she said.
UJC consultants will employ a “best practices” approach — business jargon for scouting out what works across the federations and implementing a “cross-fertilization of ideas” with teams of consultants specializing in different size federations.
There will be “more consistent, high quality service,” she said, and consultants will remain geographically close to their clients.
It was only an “accident of history” that there was ever a South Florida office, she said, noting that that region will now be served by the Atlanta office.
And the middle of the country will be supported by the other offices or perhaps someone who lives in that area who can offer service without the overhead.
“I’d say I’m moderately concerned,” said Eric Stillman, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, who will be losing his community consultant.
But he takes a “wait-and-see attitude” along with the “big picture view.”
Although his federation wasn’t one of those pushing for the cuts, he expects to support the budget at the June meeting to do “what is best for the system rather than how it is parochially going to affect my federation.”
Stillman, like many federation officials, said he wants to ensure that the maximum amount of dollars is going overseas, and one way to do that is through a smaller national system.
Despite his concerns, Low, too, is willing to give it a chance.
“They say they have a plan, and they have consulted with us,” he said of UJC.
He’s hopeful, he said, that what UJC is doing “is reorganizing to become more efficient, and in the long run I’m going to have everything that I need.”
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.