Friday, December 17, 2010


Let's start with an acknowledgment: World ORT's Robert Singer, Jeff Kaye and Harry Nadler are men that I have worked with over many years and for whom I have the greatest respect. Their work and leadership have elevated World ORT in important ways -- in North America and elsewhere. (That work is not to be confused with the critical efforts of ORT Israel, but one can readily understand the confusion, can't one?) They tell a compelling story. But, to hear World ORT raised to a level of co-equal partnership status with JAFI and JDC? That could only be accomplished through the hocus pocus of JFNA. Today we will ask two questions: how...and...why...and what does it mean? And how much cynicism can our system really stand?

The legerdemain of which I speak? In his closing at the recently completed General Assembly it was CEO Jerry Silverman who expressly referenced "our three great partners: JAFI, JDC and ORT." I went to The Jewish Federations of North America website and right there, on the homepage, there are links to, sequentially, JDC/JAFI/ORT, our "partners." I recalled that in their own negotiations over 18 months ago JAFI and the Joint reached an agreement without the intervention of JFNA, only to find that agreement rejected by JFNA because one federation, and one only, thought the five year term too long and didn't like the way ORT "was treated." Then, in the drafting and negotiation of the JFNA/JDC/JAFI Agreement, JFNA appeared obsessed with including ORT (as some form of third pa rty beneficiary). But you still have to ask: why the elevation of ORT? Can you begin to sense the cynicism?

There neither is nor has there ever been, until this JFNA administration, any sense of parity or equality among the Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committee on the one hand and ORT on the other. Nor should there be. For years ORT received its allocation through a contractual relationship with the JDC -- an allocation "off the top" of the Joint's core allocation. As its core allocations dropped without reason or national advocacy, the JDC ultimately ended that funding and JFNA began to deduct the ORT allocation from the federations allocations to JAFI/JDC as if this had been agreed to by the "partners." Without consultation with either the Agency or Joint, JFNA unilaterally determined to allocate to ORT a flat amount in disregard of the fact that core allocations to JAFI and JDC were falling precipitously. The allocation of $3.6 million became frozen as if in amber. (Proving, one again, that it is good to have friends in "high" places.)

Then Chicago's Betsy Gidwitz, a great philanthropist and our system's leading Sovietologist, was asked to undertake a study of ORT's work and recommend with regard to the future funding. Betsey's Report recommended, among other things, that the ORT allocation "float" with the decrease (or increase if ever) of the JAFI/Joint annual allocations. Thus, ORT learned the"benefit" of "partnership JFNA-style" as its allocation will reduce by $500,000 over time. "Welcome, partner."

So, here we have ORT, a truly minor recipient of federation allocations, a minor beneficiary as it were, raised to the same level of "partnership" as JAFI and JDC share. This yields at least one conclusion -- to JFNA's lay and professional leaders the concept of "partnership" has no meaning. None. Squadoosh. "Partner," being merely an empty term, when used is just a caution sign, even a "stop" sign. (And it is used frequently in the JAFI/JDC/JFNA Agreement.) Why -- much like new titles for professionals rather than increased compensation, it just sounds so important. but, on further isn't.

What does this "elevation" of ORT's status mean? Well, certainly not money -- unless of course ORT's brilliant fund raisers can play on ORT's newfound status in their fund raising activities across the continent. To JAFI and the Joint it means that ORT, unencumbered with the demand for guidelines on FRD and co-branding, and the like, incorporated in the Agreement by and among JFNA, JAFI and the Joint but applying only to the Agency and JDC, will not be subject to the same terms. It means that a small organization with major ambition may act as the "other partners" may not. Why? Your guess is as good as anyone's.

The term "partner" can mean many things. To the current JFNA leadership I am afraid that it means absolutely nothing. And, even "better," it costs JFNA nothing to keep using the term "partner" so why not keep throwing it out there; it feels sooooo good even if it means so little. Now JFNA will be challenged to give meaning to the term, if it can. Of one thing I am certain, World ORT's leaders understand how meaningless the term "partner" is in the JFNA context.


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