Friday, December 19, 2008


A headline writer for the Chicago Tribune sports section clearly has a sense of humor. In the December 11 section, the Trib announced a New York Mets trade as follows: Mets add Putz to bullpen. Now, it's true that the New York National League team had traded for relief pitcher J.J. Putz but, couldn't the headline writer have put it a bit, uh, differently? No, because he has a sense of humor.

Speaking of which, on December 8, the UJC Board Chair, Joe Kanfer, he of an absolutely phenomenal sense of humor, issued the formal invitation to the UJC Federation Leadership Institute. If you thought the GA Board Meeting in Jerusalem was meaningful, you'll love the Palm Beach Institute in February. Here's the deal: "[T]he FLI (you recall that everything at UJC is gleefully reduced to acronyms) theme is Federation System: Managing through difficult times, positioning for growth." So what if it's a year late and a dollar short, and the crisis magnified in so many places by Madoff's fraud, you would think that UJC will focus its Board/federation leadership on the impacts of the economic crisis from this tag line, wouldn't you? Not so fast.

Not so fast because if one reads on in the 8 December Kanfer Memo, you discover that the Institute as planned will have little if anything to do with the crisis, with the federations' needs, and everything to do with Kanfer's and his CEO's perception of "what's good for the federations." "[W]e will tackle a number of critical issues, including UJC's roles, governance and the approaches we take to the major challenges we face. We will also have an opportunity to review the results of market research we are conducting to help the system build a stronger continental federation brand." Important stuff? Not so much.

Then, Kanfer's Memo was followed by a double-barreled attempt at UJC humor -- a UJC Communications announcement Strategic Plan Group Nears Final Recommendations and last Friday's Howard's View. Where's the humor you ask? Well, it turns out that UJC's Strategic Planning Working Group is chaired by (trumpets please)...UJC Board of Trustees Chair Joe Kanfer. The insularity of the current leaders has never been more in evidence. The Work Group of 38 "representing all city-size communities" excludes lay leaders (and, in some instances, lead professionals) from critical (and by that I mean "vital") federations, many of whose leaders' requests to participate in this process were summarily ignored. (Then, in that font of great humor, the weekly Howard's View [December 12], Rieger, among other things, reports that the Strategic Planning Work Group is populated by 36, not 38. But we already know from the various estimates of GA attendance, Howard can't count.)

The Work Group met in NYC last week as they "near final recommendations." Then, we will have the chance to discuss them. Try as they will UJC's tiny group of leaders can't convince me of the relevance of a Strategic Plan at this critical time of the federations' greatest needs that they are paying anything but lip service to the federations themselves. These leaders have their own agenda, their own prescription of what's "best for the federations," and they are going to pursue that agenda even while the system is at risk. No joke there.

The capper? Kanfer is quoted: "The discussion marked a crucial point for the strategic planning process, in that the work group achieved consensus around some complex and critical issues that will help our continental collective system." BUT WE'RE NOT TELLING YOU WHAT THEY ARE! WE COULD, BUT WE WON'T. No Joe doesn't think we have the intelligence to comprehend these "complex and critical issues" on which consensus was built unless better minds -- a "steering committee comprised of the sub-group chairs" -- visited us and explained them to us. Oh, "if we only had a brain..." And if UJC's leaders "had a brain," would they not immediately refocus the FLI on the crisis facing federations today -- on the impacts of the economy coupled with the impacts of Madoff's perfidy. are on one path and we're sticking to it no matter how irrelevant. (During the UJC Executive Committee meeting this week, Rieger, into the fourth and final year of his failed Presidency suggested that UJC "collect" federation information on the individual instances of Madoff investments in the communities. When ask "what for," Rieger, as could be expected, had no answer.)

For humor, one needs only to read Howard's View each week, a veritable treasure trove of unintended comedy. In addition to the idiocy cited above, last Friday Howard again cited, among the UJC "Economic Initiatives" at GA08, "...the plenary on economic implications for Israel and its supporters with bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer and ...Benjamin Netanyahu" as if that Plenary had anything to do with our federations. Howard, Howard, Howard...THIS HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH THE CRISIS THE FEDERATIONS FACE TODAY. I repeat, THAT PLENARY HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH THE CRISIS THE FEDERATIONS FACE TODAY. In fact, nothing...nothing... at the GA had anything to do with the economic impacts our federations are confronting.

I have observed before that this sorry leadership emulates Nero fiddling while Rome burns. And the music just gets louder while the flames grow closer and Kanfer and Rieger are heard to shout: "Let them eat cake." Add the massive fraud perpetrated by Bernard Madoff to the economic tsunami and one can only ask where, oh where has UJC been, when will it focus on federations' needs as opposed to what these leaders perceive federations need -- there is, as you know, a great gulf between the two.

Got to love them. But, the joke's on us.

Shabbat shalom, chevra.



Leslie said...

Look, you're not wrong. But is this the whole story? The simple fact is that Kanfer, Rieger and Co. work for the federations -- not the other way around. Even if everything you say is right (and it probably is), it does not absolve the system of its responsibility to provide direction.

Making communal decisions is hard. It means some degree of compromise. It means honoring dissent -- otherwise dissenters make their exit. It means not deploying power, including the power of the purse, if that best serves the common good.

How on earth can we expect the federation system to survive locally if the national system can't seem to operate on the same principles that guide the local scene?

Our UJC system, much like the local federation community, is made of of federations/people with different interests, different ideas of the right direction, different financial capacity and of course different experiences and local traditions.

It is easy to see how this could come apart at the seams. Much like our American democracy, the system will only work with the consent of the governed, which means those in decision-making positions must never lose their grounding or forget who they serve. But unlike a democratic system, our system has no elections, no direct accountability to our constituents that resembles voting -- which makes staying grounded even more difficult and even more critical.

Warts and all, this system is the best we can hope for. The alternative is randomness. It is everyone making shabbos for themselves. In American society today, individualism rules. Maybe that is the fate of our system. If so, what a pity.

The sheer losses among major and minor Jewish philanthropists and philanthropic foundations should provide a resurgence for the beauty that could be the federated system of Jewish community caring, engagement, and learning.

What I mean is this: aren't we all sick and tired of the individual Big Giver who decides priorities based on a whim educated by little knowledge or experience? Aren't we sick of these foundation initiatives that turn their back on any semblance of communal decision-making around prioritization and resource allocation?

To be sure I don't blame the foundations or the Big Givers. The federated system has been poorly run locally and nationally. How else can they register their protest?

We have an incredible opportunity now. Madoff and the economy have created a perfect storm. We cannot count on what we have taken for granted. Now we can ask the questions we have put aside for years and years: what is really important to us? What do we really want to say we have accomplished over the next five years -- over the next generation?

Are we really going to continue to fund those programs and services that were borne from needs identified over a generation or two ago? Do we really expect individual agencies, supposedly under the federation umbrella, to abdicate their refined (but badly misplaced) sense of corporate independence and entitlement (yes, these are contradictory) in favor of total fealty to the community? These agencies now exist for themselves. They see their own survival as paramount. Their original missions may be obsolete or largely accomplished -- but no matter, they'll twist themselves into a pretzel to survive because it's about them and not about the community.

Anyway, this is all to say that we must come together -- as the states did to form a "more perfect union." If we continue to believe we have more to gain as a Jewish people working together, sharing a purpose and building community, then both at the national level and the local level we need transformational change.

Dan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.