Monday, July 6, 2015


Bret Stephens was comparing the Clinton Foundation with FIFA when he wrote those words in the WSJ  but I saw spot-on comparisons with the JFNA of today. "Unaccountable...opaque...mercenary...shameless" -- all apply to the woebegone JFNA. And we ought to be asking, we ought to have been asking ourselves why we have continued to endure the waste of our donors' funds on an entity that believes its "success" is the promotion of its brand and that the failure of everything else -- fund raising, donor numbers, GA's, Missions, the GPT...everything -- oh, those, they are our failures, not theirs. 

This is an organization so pitiful that when the Houston Federation confronts an unheard of disaster, one that conservative estimates place the community's needs at well in excess of $1,000,000, and Houston, which has no doubt paid JFNA Dues in amounts well, well, well in excess of that amount, makes its ask for less than the real needs, JFNA summons up the "courage" to allocate $275,000 and accepts kudos for its "generosity." Why don't some JFNA leaders ask the seminal question -- how much is in the Emergency Fund? And, what are we saving it for? Hasn't Houston suffered the very definition of "emergency?"

Why have we permitted this farce to continue after continuing and continuous terrible performance? In part, because of laziness. In retrospect, examining the record, to federation CEOs the very creation of JFNA was all they really wanted -- for they would now own all in their domain and control was everything. Ownership was the outcome they wanted -- now they (and, let's admit it, "they" were and are our Large City Executives) would control not just the totality of resources spent by the national system, the bulk of which were expended up to that time by the United Jewish Appeal, the organization they did not own, did not control. Hell, the UJA ran off on its own and led that $960,000,000 Operation Exodus campaign, solicited multi-million dollar mega-gifts from those the CEOs viewed as theirs, as untouchable by "outsiders." That would never happen again; they would see to that. So it was that shortly after Operation Exodus campaign ended, the CEOs began to agitate for merger -- their first effort failed after four years of effort, but their second...success. I have admitted my complicity and shame at my role in what has become the deconstruction of a once-mighty system. Our dear friend and mentor, Shoshana Cardin, never afraid of speaking truth to power, had the foresight to predict that the merger would be a disaster for our partners in Israel and for our donors and for our communities. We should have listened; I have apologized not for the intent but for the results.

And, then, these guys simply snatched defeat from the jaws of their "victory." They installed their "guys" as one JFNA CEO after another -- one, Steve Hoffman, would show what could be done, but the first and third left a disastrous legacy...and, then, came Jerry Silverman. The LCE had no one left to "step up" or none left that would "step in" and the JFNA Board Chair wanted a CEO from "out of the box" -- someone who would know less about the federations than she. Well, she got what she wanted and the CEOs got what they wanted -- someone so beholding to each and all of them (to Kathy Manning for the job and to the CEOs for direction). It was the true "perfect storm." Make that the perfect shitstorm. And we ended up with what we have today -- a chaos so overwhelming that no one wants to touch it. It's too much trouble. Just leave it alone and close your eyes to the damage it has created for what was once a glorious Movement.

So the CEOs required Jerry Silverman to get their "permission" before embarking on anything, or nothing would happen. Maybe "nothing" would have been better. The results, however, were even worse than one would have expected. As someone observed recently: "(they displayed) the kind of hubris that orders the pilot to set a course for the sun itself and then they look surprised, shocked, when the wax bolts on their Icarus wings begin to melt and, ultimately, crash." Last January, speaking to a group of CEOs, Jerry, as if in a moment of self-awareness, announced that, henceforth, "Jerry's going to be Jerry." Reading this, it sounds like a line from Seinfeld -- "let Kramer be Kramer." (I am told that a small group of playful CEOs even had tee-shirts printed in bold letters "LET JERRY BE JERRY." Don't know that they ever wore them.)

Yes, friends, we have evolved from an era of exceptionalism to one of patheticism in just over a decade and one-half and with the expenditure, the waste, of close to $800 million...that's $800,000,000. And over those years:

  • Allocations to our treasured overseas partners have dropped by over $200,000,000 to levels so minimal as to be unheard of;
  • The bottom fell out of our donor numbers which dropped like a stone, by over 60%;
  • One national special campaign after another failed to reach vital levels of support -- even those to relieve our Israeli mishpacha from the terror of wars;
  • An office in Jerusalem that went from a lean operation supporting both the continental system and federation professionals housed in Israel to a bloated silo offering little but spending so much (most of it narishkeit);
  • More and more federations were/are reaching out to consultants (many of them previously treasured professionals committed to their work at JFNA who left or were forced to leave) for everything from campaign planning, solicitor training, disaster relief and so much more that could have/should have been expected to come from a top-notch staff;
  • GAs became an annual exercise in frustration as the numbers of paid lay registrants dropped to 700 lay leaders while costs spiraled upwards;
  • And, failing in any and every effort to raise money for itself, JFNA, this year, just took money donated for other purposes and converted those funds to itself
All the while, JFNA was doing what, exactly? There were the TribeFests and #ish, four years and millions "invested" in the Global Planning Table, its Rube Goldbergian structures and failed "Initiatives" and "ask" after "ask," and hundreds of millions, wasted. JFNA evolved from an organization, owned by the federations, with an assigned set of narrow but achievable purposes at the time of the merger that would have propelled our system forward to a purposeless, priority-less, leaderless organization that even fails when it is only engaged in constant self-aggrandizement over...nothing.

So, what to do? First, nothing will happen if the current and emerging leadership continue to ignore the realities of the sinking ship on which they are both crew and passengers. Instead, they must summon the energy and the courage...yes, it will take storm the bridge and take the helm. Place in power a single LCE as interim CEO. Then convene that continental leadership meeting that has been recommended on these pages, in the works of Steven Windmueller, and in the Comments to this Blog -- a meeting like that in 1998 on the McDonald's Campus in Oak Brook, Illinois -- one including federation lay and professional leaders, Foundation and rabbinic leadership, academics and mega-donors. Bring new life, enthusiasm, and passion to and chart the course for the continental system for the next decade. 

One idea that has been floated in conversations I have had with a number of you and with some CEOs as well: dissolve the current JFNA Board and terminate the CEOs contract. Appoint an interim CEO. Then, create a JFNA "holding company" owned by the federations with two subsidiaries -- (1) a Dues-funded trade association with its own Board and professional staff to advocate for federations (not for itself) and provide counseling on matters ranging from professional and lay education, national agencies, community planning, JFNA-Israel, federation mergers and the like; and (2) a fund-raising and advocacy organization with its own Board and professional staff with an annual Budget funded by JAFI, JDC and World ORT pro rata to their shares of core allocations and which would engage in FRD, solicitor training, donor acquisition and retention, Women's Philanthropy, Young Leadership Cabinets, Missions and overseas allocations advocacy. Special campaigns would originate within -- oh, let's call it "the United North America" or something like that -- subject to the approval of the holding company.

Or do something else. But do something. We can't go on like this. But, I am pretty certain, if you are looking for something positive...anything positive...from this group of "leaders," you will need the Hubble Telescope.



Anonymous said...

Sometimes the world is not all about us and certainly not about JFNA. The next 18 months will be taken up by the 2016 elections beginning with an ugly battle over the Iran treaty in which the Jewish community will be a focal point. Michael Oren's irresponsible memoir has guaranteed that the issue of "who is a good Jew" will bring out nonsense and demagoguery into the debate. As a weakening system Federations may be caught up in the mishugas if we cannot find the sweet spot between ideological diversity and unity.

RWEX said...

Thanks for writing. I respect your opinion but as I am in the midst of Ambassador Oren's "Ally..." and so far find your criticism offering little to enhance our discussions on these pages.

Anon 1 said...

Fair enough, call my comment a preemptive strike against those who will see using the Iran treaty debate as a way to restore JFNA relevance. I would merely submit that the road back to Federation centrality is through aggressive fundraising for big ticket global Jewish purposes that can unite rather than divide Jews.

paul jeser said...

I have just finished Amb. Oren's book and find Anon 1's comment to be absurd. Read Yossi Klein Halevy:

Gary Rosenblatt (NY Jewish Week) wrote: "Critics didn’t have to read “Ally,” and probably hadn’t, to conclude that Oren was deeply partisan against Obama." My response to Gary - is telling the facts the new definition of being partisan?

HOWEVER, as wrong as Anon 1 is wrong about Oren, s/he is partially right in his/her 2nd comment. But the question really is, how do we do that?

Richard's suggestions certainly make sense, but other than the Moshiach arriving, how is that to happen?

Anonymous said...

Oren is a political opportunist. And for a historian, he has made some egregious assertions in some of his publicized that have already been duly noted and debunked.

At any rate, whatever one feels about Oren he is a divider not a uniter. Agreed that JFNA needs to look elsewhere if it wants to draw in Jews of all backgrounds, ages, religious beliefs, etc.

RWEX said...

Let me be clear, criticism or applause for Michael Oren have no place in this Blog -- certainly not in response to this Post. If there are those of you, dear friends, who wish to further condemn or applause Ambassador Oren on these pages, I will Reject any further Comments that reference him or his work.


Anonymous said...

So an article on the ugly side of federation goes jewish viral on EJP and one chuchum CEO gives you an assist in creating the atmosphere fot the hit job. It is an unfair article but shows the vacuum we have created by losing touch with our constituents. The animus in the comments are particularly troublesome.

Anonymous said...

Richard, It's clear that JFNA is just failure on steroids. Other than Washington, the organization can't get out of its own way. A failure like TribeFest, let's fail twice more; failures like successive General Assemblies, let's throw hundreds of 1000s of dollars more to make a bigger failure. Yeah, it's pitiful.

paul jeser said...

The Ugly Side of Jewish Federations

Wow is all I can say. Read the original column and the many comments. Much food for thought....

The original column and the responses should become a resource for all those connected to the federation system.

I am no longer connected to a Federation, but still feel close to what I believed the Federation system needs to be – an all-inclusive umbrella for the local community.

I look at the challenges the Federation system is facing from a different perspective than the column and comments. It has to do with the breakdown of the national structure. Without going into detail, if there still were a CJF and UJA, I do not think we would be seeing so many of the problems that have been detailed.

J.Bubis/S.Windmueller’s study of the merger (a must read or reread) pretty much told us what was going to happen – and they were right.

I do not know if the system can be fixed, but if not, our community will be further damaged.