United Jewish Communities: A New Paradigm for Collaboration

March 1, 2000
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Beryl A. Geber

The challenges defined by Carl Sheingold crisply sketch the issues that confront all the organized Jewish communities of North America. The UJC offers but a larger canvas and a broader audience in front of whom the solutions are to be tested and evaluated.

The major challenges are not new. Finding an organizing principle to replace peril and insecurity has been on the communal agenda for some time. It challenges not only the Federated system but also schools, synagogues, local and international agencies. The need to refocus has coincided with a generational change that has presented its own related challenge–engaging in a meaningful way the children and the grandchildren of current leaders and funders of the communal endeavor. Local Federations, the new owners of the UJC, have been adjusting to this, some with greater success than others, for a while. It is therefore not unexpected that one of the major challenges that the UJC will have to address is how to serve the Jewish community transformed by the increased “affluence, security and acceptance” that is our fortunate lot.

Donor-directed giving and the desire of many to define their own agenda certainly provide a challenge to Federations that have traditionally used the annual campaign and volunteer-based allocation to address a variety of Jewish needs. But the system has historically adjusted to and reflected the issues and attitudes of the day. This flexibility has ensured over a century of existence in some communities, and provided a template for newer communities seeking to organize their communal endeavors. The UJC, as Sheingold points out, is reflecting in its structure what already has occurred in most Federations.

Mirroring the independence of many donors is pressure within communities to establish their own priorities not only locally but also nationally and internationally. The challenge is to mediate between the conflicting approaches of collectivity and centrality, and community independence and autonomy. It is expressed in discussions about how much independence and money local Federations are willing to cede to a centralized body to operate on behalf of the collectivity and about what this means for local initiatives and for local fundraising.

Articulating the meaning of “ownership” to describe the relationship between the UJC and local Federations gives evidence that the system as a whole understands the need for a new paradigm to describe Jewish communal organization. We are indeed in the midst of a major change and, as with all innovations, there is uncertainty about what the final product will look like. New partners have joined the endeavor. The UJC, especially in its Renaissance and Renewal Committee that brings together Federations, academics, foundations, and the religious streams, declares that the national agenda requires broad-based collaborations. For those who have served under the previous iteration of national organizations, the change may well be difficult.

The challenge is to harness multiple visions of community, to leverage the excitement of change and the independence of philanthropists, to use the various initiatives that have sprung up throughout the country, and to bring these all together in new and innovative ways. To do this well, and to bring benefit to the Jewish community locally, nationally and internationally for the long term, we need an effective, open, interactive centralized system representing the many constituencies of our multifaceted Jewish community. The UJC is the only organization that can serve in this capacity, and it needs to succeed. If we didn’t already have it, we would need to invent it to do the work of the community as we change with the generations.

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Beryl A. Geber is the Director of the Graduate School of Nonprofit Management at the University of Judaism, where she also serves as Director of the Center for Policy Options. She received her doctorate at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is currently a Vice Chair of the Board of the Jewish Federation-Council of Greater Los Angeles and Chair of the Renaissance and Renewal Committee of the United Jewish Communities.

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