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With Governance Issues Solved, Federation System Turns to Vision

November 21, 2001
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When Charles Bronfman stepped down last week as chairman of the United Jewish Communities Board of Trustees, he threw out a bold challenge to the thousands of federation leaders who had gathered to hear his valedictory remarks.

Addressing UJC’s General Assembly in Washington, the former Seagram co-chairman dared to ask an almost unspeakable question: “In the new world of Jewish philanthropy, will UJC and the federation system be relevant?”

Citing a biblical proverb etched on his father’s gravestone that reads, “Where there is no vision, the people perish,” Bronfman said we are living in “an age that cries out for forceful vision.”

“The baton is in your hands, my friends, and with it, the future of the Jewish people,” he said. “In these early days of the 21st century, I pray that indeed you will be visionary pioneers.”

His words were proof enough that UJC is at a crossroads today. The heavy work of hammering out the governance details of the merger of three national organizations that took some six years to implement is mostly completed.

Now many, like Bronfman, are clamoring for the new entity to offer more vision and leadership, and to clarify its goals and priorities for the coming years.

Much will be determined by the actions of the new people at the top: Stephen Hoffman, the president and CEO, and James Tisch, Bronfman’s successor as chairman of the board.

In their new roles, Hoffman, 50, and Tisch, 49, face an array of competing demands from the 189 federations that are “owners” of the organization:

offer vision and leadership that is strong and decisive, yet not authoritarian;

address the major issues of the times without stepping on the toes of Jewish advocacy groups; and

trim the group’s approximately $44 million budget, while offering more services.

On top of these demands, is Bronfman’s call for vision, along with other advice and criticism.

In his speech, Bronfman urged the federation system to strengthen its relationships with Jewish family foundations and major philanthropists and to partner with them on bold new national initiatives, in such areas as adult Jewish literacy.

He also called on the UJC and its federations to be more aggressive in recruiting young leaders.

“We have to change the perception that is out there that rich, old guys who write big checks — guys even older than me — are the only ones who count,” Bronfman said.

In an interview with journalists, Bronfman also called on the UJC to be more vocal about major issues, even if it risks alienating some donors. And he criticized the group’s slow, consensus process of decision-making.

“You can process yourself to death,” Bronfman said, adding that it would be better for federations and the UJC to vote on major issues and move forward, based on what the overwhelming majority chooses, rather than deliberating until arriving at a plan everyone approves.

Hoffman, who joined the UJC this summer after serving as the top executive of the Cleveland federation since 1983, said he agrees with most of Bronfman’s observations and suggestions, particularly about strengthening ties to foundations and reaching younger leaders.

However, while acknowledging how “frustrating” consensus can be, he said it is necessary in a voluntary organization. Otherwise member federations “vote with their pocketbooks” or “vote with their feet” and choose to opt out of the system.

Nevertheless he believes the UJC can take a stronger role in “rallying support” for decisions once they are made — something it did this summer in planning a national solidarity rally for Israel.

Although the rally was ultimately canceled in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it was expected to draw approximately 150,000 people, and had the support and participation of virtually all mainstream American Jewish organizations.

Asked his vision, Hoffman said, “The bottom line is I want us to build people, to build communities and to build commitment.”

He said he is “not ready to go public with specific goals,” but will be outlining his strategy in the coming months.

Asked his leadership approach, Hoffman said he tends to do “a lot of listening, and I make an effort to synthesize what the various factions are calling for to have happen on a given issue.”

Then he presents a series of options for others to choose from.

“You have to do a lot of listening before you offer a vision, and you have to know where the clients are at,” he said.

Tisch, who is the president and chief executive officer of Loews Corporation and immediate past president of the New York federation, said he would like to see the UJC remain focused on its core goal: “to help Jews in need, here, around the world and in Israel” and make sure that the Jewish public is aware of the work of the federation system.

Asked his specific goals for the UJC, Tisch said he would like to “leave this organization yet even stronger than it currently is.”

“I’d like to leave it as an amicable place, where it can attract the best and brightest of the Jewish community to seek leadership roles,” he said. “I also want to create an environment where executives and laypeople feel that they can experiment and possibly even fail.”

If Tisch succeeds, he will have gone a long way toward inspiring the kind of innovation and pioneering spirit that Bronfman urged in his speech last week.

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