Sunday, January 4, 2009


At the end of 2008 UJC's beleaguered "leaders," so far out of their league, must have felt totally besieged. Cash collections that fund UJC's Budget and overseas allocations (in UJC's "leaders" opinion in exactly that order) turned out to be millions under the projections given JDC and JAFI; the economic crisis was frustrating federations' plans and years of growth were at an end; some federations had postponed or delayed their 2009 annual campaigns; Madoff's villainy had cost federation donors hundreds of millions if not billions in assets; and the people and government of Israel were at war. Every one of these circumstances cried out for leadership, for strong, passionate direction from the federations' own national construction, from United Jewish Communities. Instead...literally nothing.

At a time of what are the most complex, the most difficult set of challenges the federation system has ever faced, our national organization is frozen in place, inarticulate, confounded, leaderless -- leaving the federations to fend for themselves, to make individual decisions where the challenges call for collective ones. It's like having the leaders of the defunct Lehman Brothers at the helm of our most important national institution. Tomorrow UJC's Executive Committee will convene for the first time to discuss the Gaza War -- we've come to expect nothing from these Conference Calls just as we now expect nothing at all in the way of leadership from UJC itself...but we can hope against hope can't we -- if we have any left. It is as if these "leaders" are even looking for excuses to do nothing. (And, over this weekend, have the CEO, Board Chair and Treasurer been calling their fellow travelers on the Executive Committee urging them to join UJC's leaders in support of doing nothing?) You could stuff these "leaders'" credibility into an olive.

"What could they do?" you ask. Some thoughts. At any point during the build-up to the economic meltdown, UJC should have convened the federations leadership at a national UJC Summit on the Economy -- at any time from January 2008, when the warning signs began to appear to so many...but not to the "leaders." When it was immediately evident that Madoff's fraud would impact our Donors and beneficiaries (and, you recall, it was immediate -- literally within minutes of Madoff's admission, two major foundations whose grants had supported Jewish causes, Chais and Lappin, closed their doors), UJC should have done as the Jewish Funders Network did -- convene, in UJC's case, federation leadership to discuss face-to-face the now double-barreled impacts of the economy and Madoff and begin to develop continental solutions. When Operation Case Lead erupted, continue critical cash collections (an effort that failed badly) but, instead of urging, demanding that our system's partners exercise caution and silence, UJC should have immediately been our system's spokesperson, rallying and inspiring us, reopening the Mailbox to aid Victims of Terror (as my federation and others did) and actually campaigning on behalf of those of our People most in need -- not 10 days after the fact, but immediately.

In response to the War, "What did they do?" you ask. But, of course, you know the answer. Nothing. Urging caution, restraint, even silence, they did nothing. When JAFI and JDC looked for answers from UJC, they received nothing but an admonition against sending out any updates on the War's impacts even to their own constituencies until UJC's massive Marketing arm could figure out its message. (Luckily, JAFI and JDC ignored UJC's thoughtless dictate.) On the economy and Madoff, opportunities time and again were lost -- deferred to retreats and an "FLI" in February (where UJC's agenda will again be so out of touch and at variance from that of the federations as to be irrelevant). When we need leadership the most, we see Kanfer and Rieger frozen in place, fearful of not just recommending actions that might express the federations' collective will but not willing to issue the charge, not willing to make the rallying cries, immobilized as if locked in amber.

When we most need a nimble national organization, we find UJC stuck in the concrete it has poured over the past three years. What was hinted at by the failure of these leaders to modify the agenda of GA08 to confront the economic crisis hitting federations full in the face (or even to place it on the Board Agenda in Jerusalem) has become fully evident in the weeks since. These "leaders" must be replaced now. Tragically, they have not learned how to listen, how to engage, how to react in the three years of their service. Our national organization is but an annual $37 million shadow and as such no longer exists to benefit the federations.

I share the despair that all of us are feeling in these first days of 2009 with the lack of leaders and leadership. In our communities heroic acts are taking place every day. At UJC, conference calls and timidity even as we know that this is not the time to err on the side of caution. While we may have the sense of being overwhelmed with problems and issues, this is the time for us to rise up, demonstrate our strength and our leadership. It is not the time for our "leaders" to go into hiding, to cringe, to stick their fingers in the wind to see which way it blows, to "strategic plan," and to call an "emergency" Executive Committee meeting apparently requiring 4 days' notice, while our People need food, shelter, loans and respite from terrorists' rockets.

We have put up with this long enough...too long. It would be easy to forget that the Federations still own UJC even as some federations have willingly forgotten. The owners have to confront these "leaders" immediately and say "we have had enough," put interim lay and professional leaders in place to clean up the mess, to inspire us, to drive us forward. Allow this interim set of lay and professional leaders to restore UJC as a place where the best and brightest for whom the Search Committee futilely looks today will step forward with enthusiasm rather than stepping away to avoid the disaster that UJC has become. You, the federations, must take action now.

Ein breira.


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