Sunday, October 25, 2015


I have been watching in great pain, and commenting upon the collapse of collective action by the federations. It is the power of the collective that has historically been the distinguishing and ennobling departure point between the federation system qua system and "just another charity." I have despaired as: (1) the systemic discipline that enabled collective action has broken down; (2) and the one organization literally created to be the framing entity for collective action not only doesn't understand it but, lacking that understanding, has been the major force in its deconstruction.

We have always known, and acted upon, the premise that the Jewish People are at our strongest when we gather our multiple fingers into a fist. Our work collectively to partner in the building of the State of Israel, in funding aliyah from the "Magic Carpet" from Arab countries to the massive financial support for the incredible Operation Exodus following hard upon an unprecedented advocacy effort for freedom for Soviet Jewry, to constant support for Israel in every crisis -- right up to the last decade when a failure of leadership coupled with a failure of will has seen our continental organization standing mute and even encouraging our collective efforts to dissipate and fracture. This is what happens when and where there are those in leadership who fail to understand Jewish communal history...or reject it.

What began as a trickle of individual decisions has exploded into a torrent. Decades ago, pre-merger, in the mid-90s, one Large City Federation, whose CEO, then as now, had worked himself into a frothing hatred for the Jewish Agency, who, along with some of his lay leaders, directed that community's allocation to the Joint Distribution Committee directly to that organization, bypassing the Council of Jewish Federations' collective allocations process. I pleaded with the community to "cancel the check;" I pleaded with JDC's leaders to "return the check" -- to both I expressed UJA's concern that this violation of the sacred collective threatened our system. My pleas and those of UJA were ignored. Little did I know how right I would be proved to have been.

But, even back then, communal discipline held...for a while. Sure, there were other instances that indicated the collective fabric was fraying -- federations which withheld the transmission of Special Campaign funds from the emerging United Jewish Communities to spray small amounts of money among favored organizations to gain some short-term kavod but without the impact...any impact...that a major collective effort would have had on the same beneficiaries. At no time, however, did the national/continental organization of and for the federations (and, as the organization's leaders knew, of and for the system's historic partners as well) acquiesce in or condone the then outliers, few as they are at the time.

And then came the JFNA regimes that brought together a veritable "perfect storm" of non-leadership, lay and professional, over the past 5+ years. You may have read about the episodes on the pages of this Blog. Combining a lay Chair who made a conscious decision to ignore, confuse or misrepresent the principles of collective responsibility and collective response with a CEO who couldn't comprehend the place of the collective as a bedrock principle of a federation system which he did not relate to (and still doesn't), had a wholly predictable result. When federations were called upon for a collective response for, e.g., "Completing the Journey" -- meeting the aliya/klita needs of Ethiopian Jewry --or providing vital assistance to Ukrainian Jewry or anything else, the response was a "collective" yawn. 

Meanwhile JFNA itself was stabbing the concept of the collective in the heart. 

  • First, with but a whine from the Federation CEOs and none from federation lay leadership, JFNA adopted a so-called Second Membership Criterion that was originally conceived to set a minimum threshold of overseas allocations to the core budgets of JAFI/JDC to qualify for or maintain federation membership in JFNA. Instead, what was adopted, with the active connivance of the destructive duo, was totally meaningless, referencing the historic partners not at all and creating a totally illusory "criterion." 
  • Then came the now failed Global Planning Table. The so-called Plan for this mess would have included the so-called three Signature Initiatives the participants in which would have been a limited number of funding federations -- a "coalition of the willing" as they called it. In other words, JFNA itself, created to preserve, protect and enhance the federation system, was busily at work deconstructing the collective that is at the heart of that very system.  
As the brilliant analyst, Bret Stephens, wrote in his weekly column in the Wall Street Journal, in another context but so relevant to JFNA's systemic destruction: "Having ignored and undermined their own foundation, they wonder why their house is coming down."

And here we are today. At a point in time where federations themselves are creating small safety nets, forming and funding coalitions of those with similar concerns and focus...and doing so with or initiative-building by the organization that lacks all credibility for building a true collective response. Another Terrorists' War has been declared upon Israel -- the Victims of Terror grow day-by-day, and all that JFNA can muster is a woeful statement condemning the terror-inspired violence, calling it "The Situation." 

Meanwhile the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles reached out and acted: it allocated $1.2 million in partnership with the Israel Trauma Coalition and dozens of Israeli municipalities in the South, in the North and in Jerusalem. To the JFGLA kal ha'kavod. LA began this effort after Summer 2014 while JFNA, which knew of the effort did nothing. Waiting for Chicago, Cleveland and New York to do something, or to give Jerry the thumbs-up? Or is this the latest example of "Jerry being Jerry?" The nothing man for the nothing organization.
And, when JFNA had the opportunity it had been seeking to lead the federation system in Birthright follow-up, the Jim Joseph Foundation chose to work with the wonderful Israel-based Livnot U'Lehibanot to undertake this critical task. Where was JFNA? Probably still kvetching about not having access to Birthright's participant lists -- to which, as it turned out...they had...all along. A chance to act for the collective...missed...again.

Friends, JFNA need not be put out of business -- it is putting itself out of every business it must be in to be relevant as anything more than a minor trade organization. We need a strong Continental organization -- if the current management continues in place, we will never have one. 

JFNA leaders should be looking at themselves in the mirror. They won't like what they see.



Anonymous said...

And there you were, Richard, ignoring the Joint's pleas for equal funding, when they came to you in desperation to help feed and give medicine to hundreds of thousands of elderly Jews. And how did you respond? Yeah, we know. It's all JFNA's fault. Please.

Anonymous said...

Just LA? No other federation? Are you sure?

RWEX said...

I do feel badly when someone like this Anonymous writes without any knowledge whatsoever and is totally and consistently wrong. Let's help: at the time of the event about which I wrote, the so-called "split" was determined by a contract negotiated between and signed by the Joint and the Jewish Agency. At the time of the even of which I wrote, I and other concerned leaders would visit federations across the Continent weekly to appeal for greater allocations to JAFI and the cdc joined most often by Joint leaders. I assume that the Anonymous Commentator was, at one and the same time, doing...nothing.

Now you know where I was; quite clearly you still don't know where my heart is.

RWEX said...

If there are more federations that have followed or preceded the JFLGA allocations, please let us know.

paul jeser said...

Richard, I know that this may cut out most of the comments but I urge you to stop accepting anonymous comments. My making people publicaly responsible for what they say you will get rid of most of the narishkite. People who really believe in their positions - to be credible - must be public. The issues are too important to let people respond anonymously.

To this specific blog - There is another basis for the 'disappearing collective' that needs to be understood. I wrote this many years ago and still believe that this is a root cause of all of our problems today:

In the late 1970’s Project Renewal was proposed by the Jewish Agency and accepted by the Federation world. Many voiced reservations; not because the goal was not a wonderful one, but because they felt that once donors had the ability to so specifically designate their gifts (even with the parameters being agreed upon) doors would be opened that could never be closed.

There is a story about an incident that took place in the mid-70's during the discussion most Federations had about supporting Soviet Jewish Refuseniks who came to America (versus only funding those who went to Israel). An Orlando Federation major donor and board member, who felt strongly that all Soviet Jews should go to Israel and if they came to America should not be supported, seeing that he was in the very small minority, made the following statement: “I know that in a traditional democracy my position will be defeated, but let me redefine democracy for you: traditional democracy believes that one person has one vote; in my democracy, one dollar equals one vote.” Since his gift was more than all the rest of the Board members collectively, he felt that his position should prevail. Of course it didn't as it should not have. But the lesson was there – he did not want others to decide how to allocate his contribution! AND, from that point on he gave most his contributions directly to organizations he believed in.

Whether right or wrong, whether good for the community or bad, the fact is that most people, and certainly most – if not all - major donors do not want others to allocate their contributions and certainly do not want to spend time in organizational life.

Anonymous said...

By allowing anonymous comments you can get real debate. Sorry Paul, but we're not all as "focused" as you are.

RWEX said...

I will continue to post Comments from Anonymous commentators. As all of you know, most often these Comments are informed and contribute to real dialogue. Sometimes, of course, the Anonymous Comments are uninformed (as was the first one above) and, albeit rare, I just cannot published Comments that don't merit inclusion on these pages at all.

Anonymous said...

I feel for Mr. Jeser and how things were in the past. However, we are in the 21st Century where philanthropy is all about the donor. Gone are the days when UJA could strong-arm (o.k., coax) donors into giving at the level that UJA thought was appropriate for the individual.
In addition, I believe that Mr. Jeser is mistaken when he says that "most-if not all - major donors do not want others to allocate their contributions". A quick check of the Major Donor list of almost every federation will demonstrate that the vast majority of major donors continue to make large unrestricted gifts. The difference today is that they are also making large (and in many cases, larger than their unrestricted gift) gifts that are directed where their passions are most focused. The difference today is that we are enabling them to do so.......something that did not occur as an organization (Federations) until around a dozen or so years ago. As a result, more money is flowing to and through the federations than would have if that policy had not been adopted.
Are there pitfalls? Of course......but nobody ever said that it would be easy.

Anonymous said...

Richard if they move out the CEO who should replace him?

Anonymous said...

Almost anybody.

RWEX said...

While "almost anybody" would probably be an improvement -- how could he/she not be? -- I have suggested potential successors/replacements many times on these pages already.

paul jeser said...

The obvious choice - Richard Wexler!