Monday, April 13, 2009


In an insightful Haaretz article (April 13,2009) on the impacts of the financial tsunami on our system -- Will U.S. Organizations Survive the Economic Crisis? -- Joe Kanfer offered his own unique skewed analysis based upon...hard to tell. First, Kanfer in his own words:

"Many federations are cutting, and it hurts for people that have been laid off and it's sad, but most organizations can stand and go through a one-time cut", said Joe Kanfer, chair of the Board of Trustees of United Jewish Communities. "But they haven't been cutting historically, so for some it might be the way to stop doing activities you probably shouldn't have been doing." Kanfer believes that the first year of the crisis is the time to make those cuts, though if they persist into the second year, the groups may really start to feel the effects.

"I didn't hear about federations on the verge of bankruptcy," he said. "The federations are fundraisers and fund dispersers. Our income may be down 5 percent or 15 percent, maybe in some very bad cases 20 percent, but there still is plenty of money there, it has just to be spent wisely."

The Jewish social agencies supported by the federations are a different story, he admits. "If you run a Jewish center or a school and your constituents can't afford to pay - they are in trouble. And the smaller institutions with no endowments are in trouble. So we are going to see a number of institutions close, or combine with another institutions, or restructure. But that's the way it happens in business every day - the ones that are on the edge, when there is a downturn, have to find a new way. We have to get creative; we just can't run away from this. It's hard to prioritize - we have to support Israel, we have to support Soviet Jewry, we can't say one is not important. But each community has to make their own decisions."

Joe Kanfer believes the crisis is not as bad as many make it out to be.

"I think it's going to take us a while to realize that it's not the end of the world", he said. "People lost some money and they don't know when it will end, but most are in a place that their wealth will increase again. It's a year for us to adjust to a fewer dollars and how to spend them. In some cases it's just a psychological effect.

"When you buy a house for $100,000, and it grows to $300,000, you feel like you have a lot, and when it goes to $200,000, you feel like poor, forgetting that you initially bought it for $100,000. Our Torah teaches us to give 10 percent of the income - no less - but no more than 20 percent. Very few people are within a range of their 10 percent. Not everyone was giving at a maximum before, and some people say well, there is more need and we have the means. In general, we don't lack wealth. So there is plenty of room for giving." (emphasis added)


Now I am not sure of the empirical evidence on which Joe relies, perhaps it was based on how his community of Akron has reacted to the economic crisis, but how out of touch can one be, let alone he who Chairs our national institution. Read the article and contrast Kanfer's outrageous conclusions with the actions being taken by UJA-Federation of New York and the Chicago and Washington D.C. Federations.

The entire article can be found at and is worth reading just to note the courageous and painful responses to the crisis by three federations -- three federations of the 156 (apparently Joe's federation can be excluded) who are struggling with the crisis that "...Kanfer not as bad as many make it out to be." As my Professors used to say "Compare and contrast" the outrageous rhetoric of a Chair who should know better but doesn't, and federations leaders in the trenches confronting the challenges 24/7.



Anonymous said...

I don't get to read your blog as often as you write, so I'm catching up with this post, and I'll confess to being somewhat mystified.

What exactly is the problem with the substance of what Joe Kanfer is quoted as saying? Every point he makes is accurate: Individuals are being hurt, in some cases deeply, but the system is not collapsing (thankfully). This is a time for organizations to look hard at what they are doing and make tough choices about what is really vital, and what is perhaps less relevant and central than it once was. Organizations do tend to avoid this when times are good. The current situation does have a strong psychological component (which is why the President is trying to encourage us to look beyond the immediate situation). Almost everyone has less than we did, but many still have much and are in a position to give generously (and few do give up to the traditional Jewish norm).

I found nothing in Kanfer's comments that reflected your "headline," but rather a sober and thoughtful assessment of just where we are and how we should be responding - by trying to do as much as we can with diminished resources, and by encouraging donors to do as much as they can to mitigate the hurt.

I'd much prefer that from a leader than hysterics.

RWEX said...

To this "Anonymous" --

I wish you would read this Blog more often as I find your Comments always thoughtful and always supportive of the Board Chair. Did your organization "tend to avoid (tough choices) when times are(were)good?"

Anonymous said...

In some instances, yes. We did not move as quickly as we might have to make changes that turned out to be good ones because the pressure was not there. Don't get me wrong - more resources are better than less, and there is a real loss in many of these "tough choices." But, as they say, when you have lemons, at least try to make lemonade. I think that is also the thrust of today's Jerusalem Post editorial.

RWEX said...

Dear Anonymous,

Your agency is fortunate to have had adequate resources. Yet, unfortunately, so many national agencies' have experienced the impacts not only of underfunding but of UJC's own neglect, not benign, just constant. National agencies' experiences in many ways parallel those of JAFI and JDC.

The Post editorial today was about the need for priority setting and focus neither of which UJC has. UJC has failed to "make tough choices about what is really vital" to the federations...and these leaders don't want to do so.