My friend Harvey Barnett and I co-Chair Chicago's 20th Anniversary Commemoration Committee of Operation Exodus. As I was preparing a brief report on the Exodus Campaign, the last part of which I was privileged to Chair for our system, I began to reflect on whether we in North America could successfully mount such an effort today. What if rather than 20 years ago, we were at this moment on the cusp of the Exodus of 1,000,000 of our People from captivity? How would or could we respond?
First a look back. As Gerry Nagel, z'l, wrote so brilliantly as a witness to history in his history, Operation Exodus, in 1989 the Government of Israel turned to UJA and to Marvin Lender, then Chair-elect of the United Jewish Appeal, and a mega-donor, to assure that UJA would plan and mount a national campaign to support the Israeli Government's commitment of $3 billion to deliver the Jews from behind the Iron Curtain (a curtain which opened shortly after the Campaign began). Lender, in turn, could count on the outreach of Max Fisher, z'l, Les Wexner, the Bronfmans, Tisches, Crowns, Annenbergs and so many others to whom they would reach -- all of whom were represented in or available to the reach of UJA lay leaders. The UJA professional staff was trained in the art of solicitation and the cause was compelling. At the personal invitation of Lender, Fisher and Wexner,the most major donors raised $58,000,000 at what became known as the "Breakfast of Champions" (and even more when the numbers pouring out of the then FSU had increased beyond our dreams at what would be known as the Rabin Dinner two years later where $67 million was raised in one sitting). UJA lay leaders disbursed across the country to inspire and solicit -- even ahead of the federations' "approval" of a $420 million Campaign Goal (which was later increased and, at the Campaign's end, approached $1 billion).
Let's fast forward twenty years. Assume as before, that a grass roots and organized communal advocacy effort for the the freedom of our People in a literal captivity has been on-going and that the Government of Israel perceives that the conditions are ripe for Operation Exodus 2010. What might happen today -- the UJA is no longer. Marvin Lender has been invited out of the system, Max Fisher has passed away. First, where would the Government turn? To the Conference of Presidents I would think where Malcolm would point them in the direction of JFNA. And there the sense of urgency would be processed into dust by its leadership.
I remember meetings in the Prime Minister's Office over the past decade where the Prime Minister urgently asked for our system's support and a then UJC Chair responded: "We'll go back and talk to the federations and get back to you." Not even a "Prime Minister, you can be assured of UJC's leadership's support and we will urge our federations to join in this effort."
Twenty years ago, the men and women in leadership of UJA saw the crisis as an opportunity to write a brilliant chapter in modern Jewish history, relied on JAFI and JDC with trust born of years of working together, and acted with the Government of Israel. Today, if experience is to be our guide, JFNA would tell the Government, "we have to take this to the federations and get back to you" -- as some suggested even then. Asked "when," the answer would be "we'll get back to you." With contacts with major Foundations through what's called the new federation CEO/JFNA/foundation "Tarrytown Process," where Large City Federation Executives and the JFNA CEO meet with the largest of Foundations which participate, JFNA has some "talking privileges" but it lacks the powerful presence that UJA once had to convene the most major of donors to kick-start a Campaign -- it couldn't do it during the Israel Emergency Campaign (the success of which was the result of federations' [not the then UJC's) recognition of the crisis or Operation Promise (the failure of which could be laid at UJC's leaders' feet) and its links are even weaker today. JFNA would also demand weeks to "vet the budget" for Operation Exodus and to "determine priorities" -- a process it would put in the hands of a "Special Task Force" or "Summit." (That would be part of the "we'll get back to you" spirit.)
Twenty years ago there were bonds of trust between the national Jewish federation-centric organizations and the federations themselves; there were strong lay leaders in every community of every City-size engaged with the national organizations, with JAFI and the Joint. Today the fundamental trust so vital to federations' and their national organization's is breaking down everywhere -- our donors choose to "bowl alone," and our federations follow; JFNA lacks any focus, rousing itself only to deal with periodic crises -- hurricane relief, the "conversion crisis." Think of who our leaders were then; and look at the ones we have today.
To me, the question I posed for this Post, sadly answers itself. The answer begs the question -- how do we make federations relevant today and how do the federations then make JFNA relevant to them?
What do you think?