Monday, September 29, 2014


Could what happened in London late last August become commonplace in our North American communities as well?
" a town hall-style meeting two weeks ago, in which the community leadership was attacked for its failure to lead. The hope that life will continue as usual, including the freedom to retain and celebrate ties to the Jewish state, has been shattered." (as reported in Tablet Magazine: Crisis of Confidence for British Jewry 
"[A]ttacked for a failure to lead" -- imagine that? 

And, what have we got right here at home? Well, whatever it is, it was wholly "predictable" from the beginning of what is JFNA through today. In fact, our friends, Gerald Bubis and Steve Windmueller, published their analysis in From Predictability to Chaos way back when. 
"The creation of United Jewish Communities (UJC) in 1999 - involving the merger of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), United Jewish Appeal (UJA), and United Israel Appeal (UIA) - resulted in the largest consolidation of Jewish communal resources ever undertaken. For this study of the merger, the authors interviewed those most directly involved in the effort regarding their motives and perceptions, and their satisfaction with the outcome to date. 
The study reveals a tale of unclear expectations, unshared visions, mixed motivations, and multi-layered power games. But it is also a story about men and women who live the Jewish people, want to serve it, and desire to see it flourish. There are no villains. As the picture unfolds, it demonstrates the difficulties born of grafting differing organizational cultures together while seeking to merge the better or best attributes of each of these separate entities."
The authors convened a public meeting at HUC-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City upon the release of the Study in February 2005. I and others who were involved in framing the merger were invited as were federation lay and professional leaders. I remember vividly the Large City Executives present sat with arms folded in seeming objection to the Study itself (thinking back, this should have clued me in to how this Blog would be "greeted" by the same folks).  In candor, I am not sure that any of them (other than Howard Rieger, having just succeeded Steve Hoffman as CEO of the then UJC, made a presentation on the merger that day) had actually read the Study. (I am absolutely certain that Steve Hoffman, who in a newspaper article described the analysis as worthy only for wrapping stale fish, had not read it or any part of it.) In any event the "system," as embodied in these men, and they were all men, rejected the premise of the Study and, certainly, its conclusions.

And, based upon their extensive interviews, Bubis and Windmueller recommended:

  • Restoration of the role of Rabbis and intellectuals, then and now excluded, as one of the pillars of communal governance;
  • Provide opportunities for discussion of and reaction to Israel's policies encouraging full airing of diverse opinions on the challenges facing Jewish life in North America, now suppressed in the name of unity;
  • Expand the "old boys" network of the wealthy in Jewish life by including more women and young people;
  • Appoint an ombudsman to examine and report on the stewardship of federation funds supporting the continental organization;
  • Underwrite and use think tanks;
  • Restoration of UJA "brand" in one form or another; and
  • Balance to division of power between lay and professional leadership.
The authors also concluded that while there were few "winners" in the merger -- namely large city federations and their CEOs -- there was one sure "loser" -- Israel.

The authors could not have foreseen how right they were about how much the "loser" might lose and how none...that's zero...of their recommendations would be incorporated into any reset of what is now JFNA or that there would be neither introspection nor reset at all.

As Bubis and Windmueller told JTA at the time of the publication, after interviewing 88 lay and professional leaders: "The end result (of the merger) was a new organization which met few if anyone's expectations. Many described it as a 'work in progress,' yet serious questions remain regarding its status. One of our respondents stated 'Nobody got it right. We simply were not able to do it at this time." The authors continued: "In the end...those who guided the merger were well-intentioned, but...the result is fundamentally flawed. Areas of concern include who has power in UJC and whose voices are being heard, the relationship of federations to (JFNA) and even the name of the organization."

Almost ten years after the publication of's conclusions and recommendations are not only spot on in retrospect but even more telling today when a CEO not up to the tasks of running a most complex organization is partnered with well-meaning lay leaders who have driven JFNA by personal agendas and a lack of commitment to transparency and transformational change.

There is plenty of blame to go around -- and I and those who partnered in the merger have accepted our share and apologized for the imperfect model we turned over to the federations in whom we entrusted it. Yet, when one looks around for those who might take the mess that a succession of failed leaders have created through that model, we seed no one even acknowledging that anything is amiss let alone doing anything about it.

As I have written, more's the pity.



Anonymous said...

Rabbis and Intellectuals?

Rabbis have been part of our system for years as both pro's and laity...their track record is no better or worse than the rest of us with some hall of famers and some we can all have done without. Actually, Peter Beinert made an interesting point lately when he said Rabbi's should stick to teaching Torah which is presumably something they know about.

As for intellectuals/academics thet too should earn their wayon the local level as individuals. They have made little past contribution to American Jewish communal life and as a group have shown contempt for fundraising and most of the communal process. (Bubis and Dan Elazar z"l are true exceptions.) We should all be thinking, learning, writing and reading more but there a few issues I would defer to academics on - sorry. Last year a group of these folks suggested that we should be actively encouraging higher birthrates and earlier marriages - with social engineering nonsense like that I'll take a pass. It is interesting that with so much attention and funding to Jewish studies not one serious study (and nary an article) on the Jewish communal system has recently come forth. The dichotomy between thinkers and doers is a phony one on so many levels.

Dan Brown said...

Not one person - professional or lay - has the courage to write a serious article on the Jewish communal system as it exists today. I know - I've invited submissions from some of the most visible.

Anonymous said...

My guess Dan is that some of the most cogent observations are found in Richard Wexler's inbox.

paul jeser said...

I resigned from the JCSA (Jewish Communal Service Association of North America) when they refused to carry a piece on the Bubis/Windmueller book. Pressure from some of the 'high-up' pros...

paul jeser said...

Dan - there is no Jewish Communal System - or Jewish Communal service left...

Anonymous said...

Bubis and Windmueller were just reporting findings, informed by almost 100 interviews. Of course their findings would be ignored by those who knew and know better.Do you think we would be better off today, Richard, if our leaders at the time had listened, when we have a JFNA lead professional like this one and lay leaders who care but seem not to know how to lead?

Anonymous said...

Why does this "failure to lead" continue? Simple -- those with the reins are incompetent and those who should take the reins are unwilling to do so. JFNA continues to be worse than nothing.

Anonymous said...

It's clear that the seeds of JFNA's destruction were planted at the outset (I guess you know that). Leaving things for a succession of failed lay and professional leaders (and I include Steve Hoffman among them even if you do not) has left us with an empty shell that we continue to throw millions of precious dollars at each and every year as if each New Year will see a miracle occur. In fact, the only miracle is that federation lay and pro leaders still throw our money at this entity.

Anonymous said...

In 1995 Samuel Norich, the current publisher of the Forward wrote a brilliant 86 page essay titled "What Will Bind Us Now" A Report on the Institutional Ties Between Israel and American Jewry in which he posited that a merger between UJA and CJF would lead to a dramatic reduction of collective communal support of Israel.

The merged organization would lose focus and water down efforts as it aspired to be everything to everybody and include a domestic agenda that would polarize the American Jewish community.

He could not have been more prescient.

It is time to allow UJA to leave the union and merge the JAFI and JDC fundraising efforts under one roof and get JFNA back to its holy agenda of building capacity of Federations.

Everybody wins.

Under the current construct, the Jewish People lose.

Anonymous said...

To anonymous 9, JFNA holy agenda of building capacity of federations? Are you kidding? Have we seen any signs of their doing this in the last 7-8 years? This leadership can't even do that.