Beyond Politics: Changing the Jewish Organizational Scene

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March 1, 2000
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Jeffrey R. Solomon

Carl Sheingold provides a valuable analysis of the creation of the United Jewish Communities and its opportunities and challenges. I would argue that this analysis understates many of those opportunities and challenges. Further, by framing them within the context of political issues, one loses the rich fabric of substantive, historical, human resource, and marketplace issues that, in my view, dominate the political framework.

As one looks at the philanthropic marketplace, one views charitable entities as the switching station between unmet needs and those generous people who seek to improve the human condition to meet those needs. In North American Jewish communal life, the UJA-Federation system has dominated the marketplace both in dollars made available to meet needs and in market share of Jewish contributors. Following the Holocaust, this system became the communities’ primary vehicle to provide rescue and relief to Jews at risk while helping to build a nation in Israel. Before that in many communities and since then in all, local agencies were built and supported by this system. The factually and emotionally compelling needs of world Jewry resulted in the extraordinary success of this effort. In many mature communities, on an inflation-adjusted basis, 1948, the year of Israel’s creation as a State, represented the high point of giving. Spikes again were seen in 1956, 1967, and 1973 as a result of the existential threats to Israel and in the early 1990s resulting from the unbelievable opportunity for mass aliyah from the Former Soviet Union and other countries where physical risk existed for Jews.

While many will argue that the educational, spiritual, religious, and self-identity issues of North American Jewry are no less compelling than these issues, donors have not responded accordingly. Similarly, the challenges of being a caring community with high quality available health and human services to those in need seems not to have the same resonance in part because these are not always perceived as “Jewish” as opposed to societal concerns.

On the donor side, the six conditions precedent to this historical success were:

  1. The Jewish community was affluent.
  2. Jews self-identified as Jews.
  3. As such, they felt a sense of insecurity due to anti-Semitism in the society and risks to Jews in different parts of the world.
  4. There was an organic connection to nation building in Israel.
  5. There was comfort with making a single gift to the “community” and letting that leadership decide how best to divide it among competing needs.
  6. There weren’t many non-Jewish philanthropic options because Jews were not welcome to the leadership of the great universities, museums, and hospitals.

Of those six conditions, only the first remains true. The community continues to be an affluent one. Assimilation has eaten away at the self-identity of Jews. The community’s very success has resulted in little to no sense of insecurity. The very universities that had Jewish quotas a generation or two ago have Jewish presidents and board chairs today. Recent research demonstrates that the connection to Israel is diminishing, especially among younger Jews who did not experience the Holocaust and/or an Israel constantly on the brink of survival. Individuals now want to follow their philanthropy to endpoint decision making. In the last decade, the annual campaign of the affiliated Federations has lost over a third of its purchasing power while endowment and planned giving (primarily donor participatory) has increased by 186 percent. Finally, secular charities outside the Jewish community are capturing two-thirds of Jewish giving, up from one-third just a generation ago.

This extraordinary combination of changes, both in the needs and in the giving sides of the marketplace, requires sound national leadership. The previous national structure became dysfunctional. The UJA wanted to play the role of the general but discovered it had no army (the Federations reduced their overseas allocations from 55 percent of the annual campaign to 38 percent within a decade’s time). CJF, while nobly attempting to use collective responsibility as a way for collective action, failed more often than it succeeded.

Dr. Sheingold places politics in the center of the challenge. While not denying the political challenges, I would argue that a collective vision with clarity as to role and priorities is more essential at this moment. I fear that satisfying the political needs of the system can too easily paralyze its ability to move the North American Jewish agenda.

Is United Jewish Communities to be an industry association that simply “services” its members? Is it to be a place that helps develop and highlights best practices including the creation of community standards? How does it balance the “consent of the governed” with those who don’t see themselves as part of a global Jewish enterprise seeking to implement the sacred values of our texts? How can the UJC capture, on behalf of the larger community, the energy and generosity of donors who have no patience with what is perceived as the “endless process” of its culture? How does it recruit and retain for its members and itself the leadership, both lay and professional, that can stand up to these new challenges? How does it have its lay and professional leadership mirror the community in terms of gender, age, and affiliation? How does it create a welcoming culture that encourages both individual and organizational connectedness so that organic community emerges and artificial historical separations of “synagogue and civil state” end in favor of more inclusive models? How will it assure that greater organizational resources are spent on advancing the Jewish agenda and fewer are spent on organizational maintenance? Finally, how does it create a culture for both its members, amcha, and itself that is inclusive, compelling, and resonant with its sacred mission?

There have been numberous times in both our personal histories within our families and the communal history of our people where the larger good required leaders to look beyond the immediate to accomplish the great. This is one of those moments in our communities’ history and the destiny of the infant UJC with its thousands of parents throughout North America. In the words of William Jennings Bryan, “Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice; it is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.” The achievement of connecting the stark realities of 21st-century North American Jewish life to the timeless opportunities of our people’s history and values is the daunting challenge for all of our communal organizations.

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Jeffrey R. Solomon is the President of The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies. He previously served as Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of UJA-Federation of New York. He served as the consultant to the process that created the United Jewish Communities.

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