Thursday, November 19, 2009


Well, it sure didn't take long for the spirit of the collective and the good will generated by the GA to be doused by a single letter from the JDC to The Jewish Federations of North America. About a nano-second, actually. For on Thursday, November 12, less than two days after the GA closed, Irv Smokler, the Joint's Chair, advised Kathy Manning that JDC would not be bound by the agreement it had reached with JAFI on the allocations "split" only weeks earlier.

This writer is on the Board of the Jewish Agency but, as my friends at the Joint know, the work of JDC has been an inspiration for me and has enabled me, coupled with the work of the Jewish Agency, hopefully to inspire others. But the substance of the JDC letter and its timing, and an almost simultaneous Op-Ed written by its CEO, Steve Schwager in The Jerusalem Post, and a clearly planted article in The Forward and another in the JTA, are matters that bring no honor and, worse, suggest a JDC-inspired communications strategy the effect of which, if not stopped now, threatens the system that JDC once helped to create and once helped to sustain.

For over a decade, the JDC's efforts to feed hungry Jews, to provide them with basic needs -- shelter, drugs -- have been heroic. And the federations have stepped forward to fund these needs -- inadequately and on a declining basis to be sure. And during this time, until the financial catastrophe that affected everyone, the Joint grew its endowment which stands today at...what, exactly? And if that endowment is for a "rainy day," how can the Joint argue that we are inundated, but fail to use all of the resources at its command and in its total control to meet the needs it has identified in the midst of the storm. But the Joint has a different strategy in mind.

Sure, JDC should receive more in allocations; so, of course, must JAFI. Now, JDC's leaders appear to ask, in writing, for a reinstitution of the infamous failed ONAD process (in a different guise, of course) in place of the terms to which they had just agreed. (I think that's what a request that JFNA "develop a needs-based allocations system" means.) Just how did the prior process help the Joint or the federations? The answer is simple: it didn't, it hurt everyone, and a new process mirroring the prior one will have the same negative impact. It is past time for JAFI and JDC to join together in a common effort, coordinated by The Jewish Federations of North America, to help federations raise more money and to advocate for the vital, underfunded needs they represent.

Steve Schwager, in his Op-Ed, Guess who did not come to the party?, makes a strong and compelling argument. He wrote: "WHAT ELSE worries us? The UJA -- the grandfather of today's newly created JFNA -- was formed in the wake of Kristallnacht...precisely 71 years ago. Numerous speakers at the GA last week made references to this historic event that catapulted American Jewish philanthropy into a superpower world army (sic), bringing rescue and relief to every Jew. UJA was always a relentless and indefatigable advocate of Jewish needs in Israel and overseas. Seventy-one years later, will we abdicate this moral commitment under the pressure of domestic issues and needs? Can we -- the more secure 80% of the Jewish people -- cut off the neediest 20% of our brethren? Since when has a hungry Jew anywhere become an 'overseas issue' marked as less urgent compared to local needs?" That is the Steve Schwager I was proud to partner with in visits to our communities on behalf of our national system, the Joint and Jewish Agency. That is the call to The Jewish Federations of North America to assert its proper...its moral...role to lead our system and to join hands with JAFI and JDC...not tomorrow, but now.

At the GA just concluded, we heard our new Board Chair and CEO commit themselves and us to a reinvigorated, resuscitated partnership with JAFI and JDC -- a recognition that the collective is what ennobles our federation system. And, with clear forethought, two days later, leaders of one of those partners, not liking the deal they had made just weeks (or was it just days) earlier, pulled the rug out from under not just JAFI, but the federations and The Jewish Federations of North America. After five years of a leadership who either neglected the partners -- JDC and JAFI -- or deprecated their work and value, the new JFNA leaders -- Manning, Gelman, Silverman -- appeared prepared to work in a robust partnership with them. Now what?

Why, at a time that JDC and JAFI appeared to be working closer than ever before, when a direct approach by either or both organizations to the federations separately plants the seeds of systemic disintegration, when new national leadership has already demonstrated a renewed commitment to the historic partnership on which our system was built, would the Joint's leaders, so many of whom I know and deeply respect, and who understand all of this, threaten this emerging unity? Is it that at the GA just passed. Joint leaders saw the federations poised to embrace not only Natan Sharansky but his agenda for JAFI and they simply overreacted, or is it something else?

Why now, you might ask? In fact, you should.



paul jeser said...

In one sense you answer your own question (why?) when you wrote "Sure, JDC should receive more in allocations; so, of course, must JAFI.."

And, so should the community JFS, HDS, and may other local, national and international organizations.

That's the problem. And, as long as the Federation system does not drastically change, the amount of funds for allocation will continue to decline.

The Feds need to become advocates for all worthy local, national, international institutions. The Feds need to work with them all, and with all donors, to develop the strongest support possible.

Under the current system this can not happen and the JDC and JAFI will have to eventually join the hundreds of other institutions and organizations who work directly with the donors and not through the Feds.

usedtobeimportant said...

It's deja-vu all over again. That "rainy day" metaphor for the JDC endowment was the currency of 1997 pre UJC thinking!! While Mr. Jeser's right about the system needing to change; that change is the same change that was needed when overseas allocations took their drastic downturn in the mid and late nineties. But the change that came was, essentially, the delegitimation of overseas Jewish needs in favor of placing focus on local needs and attendant power in local hands. The demise of UJA as the powerful, national Campaign organization that was not afraid to make the "ask" meant that instead of insisting on enlarging the pie (the only way to meet growing local needs while sustaining the two great entities that addressed global Jewish needs ...and I defy ANY Federation person anywhere to show us who or what has done as extensive and excellent a job as JDC and JAFI have always done)the decision was made to tear at the smaller pie and we got the United Jewish Catastrophes we deserved. It couldn't work. Back in the time of Partnership and Merger negotiations, JDC leadership was strong and did a far better job of ingratiating itself with the large City Federation leadership than JAFI ever could. That strength made it easy for JDC to threaten to raise its own funds on a direct basis with individual Federations. They did it then because the system had weakened itself and they seized a strategic opportunity. It would be destructive and disappointing if they are doing it again, but this time, at a time of promise for potential renewal of the system. This is why we changed that old "We Are One" slogan. We are not.