Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Joe Kanfer's three years as Chair of what was UJC have ended, not with a bang but a whimper -- actually with what I understand was a beautiful serenade from his successor. Over $100 million of our donors' dollars, of federation allocations spent on his watch...on just what, exactly? Someone other than I will have to recite the accomplishments of the past three years; they are not self-evident. Joe, to his credit, persisted to the end -- a final speech at the GA Opening Plenary. His dreams for the future of The Jewish Federations of North America, a mishmash of programs either already in place in so many ways in so many federations ("volunteerism") of which Joe remains singularly unaware, or plans rejected by the federations. Joe's message resonated with the mantra "I believe it is possible" and we agree. But Kanfer's vision of where The Jewish Federations of North America should go is far different than the sorry place he has taken it.

And, Kanfer cited a crucial challenge -- "...the challenges of affordability and access to Jewish life." Here he struck a chord and had he led us for the past three years in grappling with this critical, seminal issue, what a contribution UJC:The Jewish Federations of North America might have made under his leadership. To raise this now is like Ike reminding us as he left office after eight years of the dangers of the "military-industrial complex" having done nothing about the issue during his Presidency.

Joe's legacy cannot be that which he wished for but something far, far less. There is a "new culture" -- unfortunately, it is one of secrecy, lack of transparency and lack of accountability -- a new culture which Jerry Silverman and Kathy Manning will certainly correct. It has been three years without measurable accomplishments other than a "new brand" -- one which had been an alternative rejected ten years ago, revived when the "old brand," United Jewish Communities, proved to have no traction -- and a new mark, a new logo; a new Chief Executive who offers the promise of a new era but who will have to spend critical time righting a ship that has careened far off course.

As the lay and professional leadership ranks were culled, Joe assured that there would be no institutional memory. He wanted to hear nothing that would disrupt the narrative that he and Howard Rieger were building. (And, truth be told, as we have learned, Kanfer arrogated more and more of Rieger's management responsibilities with no evident pushback from anyone, making it harder and harder to determine Rieger's real role in the emerging mess.) Myths rather than facts passed for reality; their counterfactual history was offered as a substitute for reality. Our system was not served well by this retelling.

Rather than expanding the leadership ranks, Joe drew the a "circle of trust" ever more tightly, pushing away those who pushed back at policies imposed upon them with no discussion...and sometimes doing so in a manner suggesting a lack of sensitivity...UJC became a shop closed but to a chosen few. The doors and windows will now have to be pried open...let the sun shine in.

It has been all so sad.

In The New Yorker last year, the brilliant Hendrik Hertzberg wrote of a person who "...will be remembered as a tragedy in the Aristotelian sense, in which a hero is ruined through some terrible choice(s) of his own..." To paraphrase Hertzberg's conclusion: "One can only hope that the tragedy will be his alone and not..." that of the organization he was elected to lead. Unfortunately, as Joe confused his own goals for those of what was then UJC, the tragic circumstances in which The Jewish Federations of North America finds itself are those that were created by and literally demanded by Joe, supported by a small claque. And, now it is over.

Let the sun shine, let the sun shine in, let the sun shine in once again.



Jon said...

It will not surprise you that I have a rather different take on Joe Kanfer's achievements over the past three years than you do. When Joe was selected as Chair of the Board, UJC was directionless and the federation system was adrift. The roll of donors was dropping; the national infrastructure to support federation FRD efforts was largely the same as it had been in the 1950s and 60s; federations collectively were not identified with any compelling ideas or vision for the Jewish future; young people remained largely on the outside. UJC had made a number of false starts -- well-intended, but ultimately ineffectual -- to "herd the cats" of the federation system. The whole was distinctly less than the sum of its parts.

This is not a condemnation of individuals, lay or professional, nor of my former colleagues on the Jewish Federations of North America staff. It is a reality that many good organizations and organizational systems face as the environment changes more rapidly than they can assimilate.

Joe Kanfer and the leadership team that came into office with him -- Kathy (who is, rightfully, no longer a target for you) and Michael (who, for reasons unknown to me, still is) -- faced an unenviable task. They had to re-orient an organization and a system that were inexorably declining and re-position it for renewal and new growth. To paraphrase the words of Les Wexner cited by Jerry Silverman: "What got us here wasn't going to get us there."

Well, lo and behold, at the end of three years, even you see some light at the end of the tunnel. I think it strains credibility to assert that the signs of turn-around now visible -- a highly regarded new executive, a new continental identity (accompanied by tachlis innovations like a database system that will enable us to track donors as they move), the successful embrace of social networking, an expanding positive relationship with young Jewish innovators (see Sunday night's overflow session with innovators, YLC members, and federation execs), the upbeat spirit at this year's "open source" GA -- owe nothing to the person at the helm of UJC during the past three years.

Being the individual who has to deliver and deliver on the message that change is needed is rarely easy or the route to popularity. However, as someone who has been an intimate part of federation life for more than three decades and has studied it for as long, I'm confident that the vast majority of those who care about the Jewish community, now and in the future, will conclude that Joe Kanfer did what was needed at a difficult time and laid the groundwork for what will hopefully be a new period of federation vitality and impact.

I'm sorry, Richard, that you felt excluded these last few years. But, I believe it was your own choice to be a critic and a nay-sayer. I assure you and your readers that it is no reflection on Joe Kanfer, as fine a leader and a mentsch as any I have known in decades of Jewish communal involvement. He has left behind an organization with far greater potential and prospects than the one he inherited, and that's a legacy he can deservedly be proud of.

RWEX said...

Dear Jon,

You know the respect I have and have had for you, for your contributions to our system and for your insights. I have always felt, as you once did, that there must be room for criticism and critics inside the tent; it saddens me that you would mischaracterize my purpose and intent.

In the first paragraph of your Comment, Jon, you provide a brief environmental scan of the state of our system in your critical view at the onset of Joe Kanfer's three years as Chair. It is a good and fair list of challenges. If one accepts that litany as fact, we find ourselves actually worse off today, don't we, than we did three years ago...but we have a new brand and new, invigorated leadership.

When, many Posts ago, I asked the question whether we were better off on that date than we were at the beginning of Joe's leadership, the question was rhetorical. It still is but the results are in. If you choose to believe that it was Joe's leadership that "...reorient(ed) an organization and a system that were inexorabluy declining and reorient(ed) it for renewal and new growth..." I want some of that Purell you have been drinking.


Usedtobeimportant said...


One element of the multitude of forces that created UJC was the gift Les Wexner made of the time (many, many hours of it); of a group of renowned consultants he used regularly in his businesses. My recollection is of their youthful exuberance and their complete lack of understanding of the history, cultures and roles of the disparate organizations the "merger" would attempt to bring together. I said at the time, in a Leadership meeting, "They have taken the extraordinary and are going to make it ordinary". Saying "what got us here wasn't going to get us there" should give Mr. Wexner pause. He made a large contribution to the way we got there.

Anonymous said...

I can't imagine a more thankless gig in the world than being the CEO or President of UJC. Kol Ha'kavod to Joe and Howard and best of luck to Kathy and Jerry.

Anonymous said...

the irony of remarks directed personally is that they reflect on the commentator as much as the target. In this case Jon's defense of his benefactors (past and possiibly future) is forgivable and Richard's critique of process and culture is undermined by the personal.

And a hearty mazel tov to Richard and his family. May your grandchild grow to have your committment to truth and enduring love of our people!


RWEX said...

Wexler thanks the last Anonymous Commentator for his/her good wishes on our family simcha.

Anonymous said...

...And may your grandchild grow to embody the Jewish ideals of kindness and magnanimity that their grandfather so sorely lacks.

RWEX said...

I published this last Comment noting that it came from one of those who "hides behind the mask of anonymity" who frequently accuses your Blogger of in personam attacks. Irony.