A View from the Inside

March 1, 2000
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Stephen D. Solender

The driving force at the heart of the United Jewish Communities–its vision, its mission, those who work for and with us–is the sacred responsibility of every Jew, one for the other. It is our dream that the way we fulfill tikkun olam, repair the world, will insure the continuity of Jewish life in Jewish communities where our Jewish identity is no longer based on the fear of anti-Semitism or the trauma of the Holocaust but rather on the profound satisfaction that comes from knowledge of our Jewish heritage and being immersed in our Jewish spiritual and cultural traditions. I take the thoughtful and passionate dialogue in these pages as further evidence that, as a diverse and global community, we are thriving and better positioned than ever for living out our responsibility. There can be no return to the past, only a future informed by our efforts.

I agree with Carl Sheingold that the three major story lines the United Jewish Communities is confronting in its first year since merger are the business management line, the political governance line, and the philanthropic line. Within the political governance line, we must include the provision of programs and services to enable the Federation system to continue to be “our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper.” It is gratifying to note that UJC is making progress in each of these areas. And I agree with Carl’s closing, that the idea behind UJC’s emerging role should be to “forge a new, creative relationship between enduring values and new realities.” As UJC (the national entity of the North American Federation system) becomes increasingly successful, that concept will enrich the Jewish spirit in communities and individuals around the world, with their guidance and support.

To answer Jeff Solomon’s questions about how the new UJC will create a welcoming and inclusive culture: We will not continue the business-as-usual of the three predecessor organizations (the national UJA, the Council of Jewish Federations, and the United Israel Appeal). We are committed to building, with our own Federations, an increasingly creative, informed and relevant 21st-century vision for the North American Federation system. We see the product of this new model to be not only new programs and services, but also exciting, stimulating and spiritually significant connections–both domestically and internationally–for members of the Jewish community with a wide variety of affiliations. We are convinced that as relationships and connections with Jewish cultural, spiritual, and communal institutions become truly relevant and stimulating, more young people will identify in a significant way with our enterprise.

UJC was born of a system that has repeatedly proven flexible and adaptable in meeting the evolving needs of world Jewry. We are developing and populating our organization with a new generation of leaders that includes more young people, women, and geographical diversity, and represents a balance between large and small communities. These new leaders recognize that their values are essentially Jewish values. Their perspectives will not only be heard but will become the basis for significant contributions toward Jewish continuity.

The UJC is providing more self-determination to major donors within our philanthropic system who seek direct and personal involvement with the applications of their gifts. Consequently, the overseas needs assessment process is creating a system whereby in addition to significant allocations provided for core services, other contributions will be set aside for elective projects. This is one way that we are responding to donors’ needs for greater self-selection while protecting the genius of the unrestricted campaign that has evolved during the past century, a system that continues to be particularly impressive.

UJC is also committed to being certain, within our political governance line, that we respond quickly and creatively with programs and services that are being requested by our owners, the Federations. Our basic programmatic objectives are being focused on by our “pillar” committees: Jewish Renaissance and Renewal, Israel and Overseas, Campaign and Financial Resource Development, and Human Services and Public Policy. In each of these programmatic areas, we are attracting the highest caliber and the most creative professionals and volunteer leaders to form partnerships to move quickly to respond to 21st- century needs. To paraphrase Dr. Beryl Geber, we are in the business of leveraging the best that our “multifaceted Jewish community” has to offer.

UJC shares Michael Hammer’s observation that, in this type of a situation, top lay and professional management needs to have the vision and the confidence to make major changes boldly, quickly, and efficiently. That is the commitment of the UJC’s leadership. Within the business management line, the UJC is already creating a more cost-effective entity. We have reduced the overhead by approximately $3.5 million through the merger of the back office operations of the three previous organizations. Our new budget, which goes into effect by July 1, will affect other significant economies.

Our mandate calls for UJC to quickly and decisively reposition itself in spiritual, programmatic, and cultural ways. This will include changes in North American Jewish Federations’ relationships with the Jewish Agency, the Joint Distribution Committee, and other organizations that operate in North America, internationally and within Israel.

In committing to and carrying out our collective responsibility, we are gratified to find that, during the first nine months of UJC’s existence, we have found the passion and the resources to reinvigorate the spirit of the Jewish people. We recognize that we face unprecedented and daunting complexities in achieving our objectives and in making our dream a reality. However, we are increasingly optimistic that we have the vision, the volunteer and professional leadership, and the support of the Federations to reposition the Federation system in a significant way as we move forward in the 21st century.

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Stephen D. Solender is President and Chief Executive Officer of United Jewish Communities. He has spent his professional career in Jewish communal service, including several years as the Executive Vice President of UJA-Federation of New York, a period in Switzerland with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and in Baltimore with the Associated Jewish Charities & Welfare Fund.

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