The United Jewish Communities: Can Politics Keep Pace with Change?

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March 1, 2000
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Carl Sheingold

For 13 years I worked within the national Federation system. Some of my warmest memories are of occasions when local Federations and leaders worked together to fulfill a historic, national role. I recall several tangible examples of the Jewish community and its central fundraising institutions working together: the vote on collective responsibility for refugee resettlement in the early 1990s (which helped distribute the cost of Russian absorption among 200 federations), and the miraculous airlift of Ethiopian Jews during Operation Solomon.

Now, it is not clear whether the Jewish world can or should mandate collective action, and we are faced with less tangible challenges like Jewish identity. The Federation system understood that it had to adapt to this new reality.

The reorganization of the key national institutions of the Federation system, now functioning as the United Jewish Communities, has been a long, tedious process, with many critics. Even the harshest critics wish the UJC could become exactly what the community needs it to be. But what is that? What role do we want it to fulfill? Interpreting the UJC metamorphosis is a challenge best understood as the restructuring of an entire industry in response to a changing marketplace.

The key changes are familiar. The classic Federation system galvanized a communal response to human service needs worldwide about which all could agree. The challenge was to raise the necessary dollars, done within the annual campaign in which gifts were regarded as an obligation of voluntary citizenship and a communally based allocations process.

Increases in Jewish affluence, security and acceptance, combined with general changes in modern culture, have transformed the environment of Jewish life. Donors are increasingly interested in directing their giving to particular causes rather than central institutions. Many major donors are creating their own foundations and institutions to manage the ambitious goals appropriate to their level of philanthropy. Within Federations, personalized endowments now grow at a faster rate than the annual campaign. Today’s historic challenges are building Jewish identity and enacting a contemporary vision of Jewish community (which encompasses the Israel/Diaspora relationship.) Even our capacity to fund human services is based partly on building Jewish identity and community. Financial resources remain critical, often supporting creative experiments that foster Jewish meaning rather than sure responses to concrete needs.

In these changed circumstances, how can we understand the unfolding reorganization process? The simplest, if “insider,” story line grows out of the Federations’ desire to align the national and local systems. Local UJA campaigns and Federations merged years ago. The split nationally was perceived as a hindrance to service delivery locally and, even more, to a coordinated approach to representing Federations’ external interests, particularly in regard to Israel. The fact that the organization responsible for helping Federations raise funds (UJA) was also the advocate for overseas needs was of central importance. Another story line was sparked by massive Jewish emigration from the Former Soviet Union and the fact that individual Federations lacked the resources to fulfill their traditional role in funding refugee resettlement. In response, a system of “collective responsibility” was developed for domestic resettlement, as was a collective guarantee for a loan program in Israel. It seemed the first step in the evolution of CJF from a trade organization to a body capable of playing a quasi-governmental role similar to that played by many Federations in local communities.

Working out the future of “collective responsibility” is a political/diplomatic challenge revolving around a classic political question: to what extent and on behalf of what goals are local communities willing to reduce their autonomy in order to collectively address common issues? The immediate focus will be the carryover issue of developing a system to evaluate overseas needs and determine local obligations.

The UJC merger also makes possible a more effective national role in the renegotiation of old and the creation of new institutional connections that will cross the increasingly porous boundaries of Jewish life–most obviously to religious, educational, and cultural institutions. A wide range of new relationships in Israel is also being sought. Complicated issues are raised; for example, what is the role of Federation in regard to divisive ideological issues? Where Israel is concerned, what are the ethics of intervention? What about the controversy over “Who is a Jew”? It is not an accident that local Federations have sought national leadership here. Diplomatic activity to explore and develop new or changing institutional relationships is where national activism in representing local interests is most welcome.

We’ve identified two story lines. The first focuses on business/management, the second on political/governance. A third story line addresses the profound changes in the philanthropic environment. Will the national system develop productive relationships with major, independent donors who have emerged and represent an informal, but important, national force in Jewish life? And will that relationship continue with the children of these philanthropists? This represents an evolving relationship between the Jewish community’s private sector (businesspeople and a business culture) and public sector (the lay and professional leadership of established Jewish institutions, and a political culture, often mistaken for being merely bureaucratic).

An important thread runs throughout all of these story lines. What will be the relationship between individual donors and the public interests and institutions of the Jewish community, as they both seek to respond to profound changes in Jewish life? The answer cannot be one-sided. The annual campaign is no longer the beginning and end of Federation-based philanthropy. That statement reflects the realities of contemporary culture, but also the limits of what a single, fixed structure can do in response to a fluid and dynamic environment. Put more positively, the capacity of independent donors to experiment and take bold initiatives is a key strategic asset of the community. Will the annual campaign’s infrastructure meet human needs and fulfill Jewish responsibilities that are the less popular or attractive causes of the moment? Independent donors increasingly recognize that for their innovations to have widespread impact, not to mention life after the experiment is over, requires establishing relationships with institutions and their leaders. The above is about the relationship between individual donors and the larger community. Change the phrase “individual donor” to “individual community,” and you have the central challenge built into the UJC’s potential to serve as a vehicle to collectively address communal needs that transcend local realities.

These issues are not unique to the Jewish community. In an era of individualism and marketplace predominance, do individuals have broader communal obligations, and how is the broader public interest defined and supported? In an era benefiting from individual autonomy, creativity, and entrepreneurialism, to what and whom are individuals

While the restructuring of the UJC’s service to Federations will take initial precedence, the philanthropic story line will be regarded ultimately as the most important. Collectivity will be the hardest theme to tackle. Federations are happy being autonomous, as are major philanthropists. The politics and diplomacy of collective governance, and negotiating new institutional ties, are tedious to say the least. Politics generally is out of fashion.

Nor is this story line more important than the others. But, I would argue, addressing the issue of collectivity seriously and creatively, and not only or primarily in regard to allocations, will be the glue and determinant of whether UJC, itself an experiment, will fulfill the community’s needs. The ability of serious philanthropists to achieve ambitious goals depends, in the long run, on the existence of and their relationships to a vital sense of community and communal institutions. The most effective and efficient national service mechanism will not, in the long run, generate enthusiasm and loyalty from individuals or individual Federations unless also connected to larger issues and larger dreams. The historic role, in contrast to the day-to-day job of the UJC, is to address the long-term tensions. The idea is not to return to the past. Rather, it is to forge a new, creative relationship between enduring values and new realities. What could be a more Jewish challenge?

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Carl Sheingold is Management Professor in the Hornstein Program and Director of the Fisher-Bernstein Institute on Leadership Development in Jewish Philanthropy, both at Brandeis University. He previously served 13 years at the Council of Jewish Federations, most recently as Associate Executive Vice President for Strategic Analysis and Organizational Planning.

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