Monday, May 18, 2020


Our agencies -- international, national and local -- are in the midst of the greatest threat to their financial survival as a consequence of the global pandemic. (I know, "thanks, Captain Obvious.") This has required almost all of them, along with their major funders, to tighten their belts and their foci; this should have been all of them.

Like many of you, I received an evite to a Jewish Council for Public Affairs Webinar that caught my attention (but not my interest) the topic of which surprised and saddened me. It is a Webinar that is part of a series: Jewish Advocacy During the Coronavirus. That would be a good thing, a positive contribution because, after all, we need Jewish Advocacy during these terrible times,. now more than ever. Then consider this Webinar topic: Front End Justice: Exploring Why Pretrial Reform is Needed. 

Friends, JCPA has clearly lost its way. Here are a selection of JCPA-sponsored Webinars in this "Series":

  • Building Bridges: Israeli and Palestinian Health Care Cooperation
  • Over 6 Million Americans are on Community Supervision: Reforming Pre-Trial, Parole and Probation
  • Coronavirus in Prisons, Jails: An Emergency We Need to Confront NOW
This commentary isn't to suggest that these topics aren't important, just asking where these "topics" fit within the priorities of the JCPA or the priroties of the communities which support local community relations councils. Just a guess -- nowhere. Maybe, somewhere, there is an important pilpul that would explain the connection; probably not.

The JCPA used to be an organization that focused on matters directly connecting communities to its agenda. And, that was at a time when funding was not under the kind of pressures being faced today and into the future. I sat on the JCPA Board and Executive than and, while I admit to real frustration with some of the Plenary debates back then, the subject matter was directly relevant to the Jewish community's social justice agenda.

Now? I have no more a clue than JCPA's leaders apparently have. And, worse, two factors:

  1. As the communities which support JCPA have moved, at the least, to the center if not center-right, JCPA has made some determination that it will find its support further to the left; and
  2. As the pandemic has rapidly eroded communal resources, JCPA's "message" and its "priorities" appear to have less and less relevance. Thus, on it merry way, JCPA devotes time, effort and resources to, e.g., Palestinian Health Care Cooperation and Reforming Pre-Trial, Parole and Probation...
Most organizations have strived under the horrific conditions of today to focus, to make themselves more relevant -- e.g., JCCA and its JCCs, the federations themselves. To fail to do so is an unconscionable expression of unearned organizational arrogance...

Leading inevitably to irrelevance.


Tuesday, May 5, 2020


Way, way back, 20 years ago, actually, in the course of the Merger that would produce what is now JFNA, the federations created a set of Task Forces to address the structure and issues that would propel the new organization post-Merger. One on Total FRD, another on Dues and Revenue and a third on Federation-Israel Relations. It is that last Task Force that is at the heart of this discussion.

Chaired by the inestimable Marvin Lender, one of the great United Jewish Appeal National Campaign Chairs (later in the process to be succeeded by Pittsburgh's Karen Shapira, z'l, another of the great leaders with whom I had the privilege to work) and "staffed" by Bob Aronson, then the Detroit Federation CEO. It was Bob's genius to propose a structure for the federations' Israel Office in a manner that would be cost-effective, influential in Israel's civil society and wholly responsive to federations' needs. 

And, of course, the reforms necessary to create this new model were never adopted. And that inaction took place at a time, at the turn of the century, when we as a continental polity could have, should have embraced change. What was proposed: among other matters:

  • Relocating the venue for JFNA Israel-Overseas to the New York HQ
  • Engaging a strong professional with a federation-centric approach as the Director: Israel & Overseas
  • Assuring that the organization's Israel-based Director General of the quality of Menachem Revivi and  Nachman Shai -- leaders with great access within the Government of Israel who would report to the NY-based Director of Israel & Overseas
  • Mobilizing the federation Israel representatives in aid of JFNA-Israel
  • Expanding the work of United Israel Appeal's Israel professionals within JFNA-Israel
And...none of these steps were implemented...not then and not now. Instead, for at least the last decade, as one of you wrote last week, JFNA-Israel has been "...outrageously inflated, unneeded and wasteful." Its lay leaders have been an echo chamber for the vast overstatement of "achievement" (the Negev Now Coalition), the creation and maintenance of a bloated staff (continuing) and the accretion of powers (the UIA fiasco).

No one has articulated a single reason...not continue to support JFNA-Israel as currently structured or led. There has been no return on the federations' investment, not in 2020, just as there was none in 2010. Under the Silverman "administration," there was an inexplicable willingness to ignore this constant failure year-after-year. Ignorance must have been bliss.

In a year in which available financial resources be drastically reduced, the federations can no longer support failure, if they ever could.


Friday, May 1, 2020


It was a rare moment in the Chicago Jewish community. In 2007 the new, architecturally significant Spertus Institute Building opened within its magnificent glass facade on South Michigan Avenue -- housing classrooms, faculty offices, conference and Museum facilities. It was going to be the seminal achievement for the then Spertus Board and its former CEO who had driven the project.  And, then it wasn't.

Neither that Board nor that CEO had raised sufficient funds for the construction of the Institute's new home nor had they raised any endowment funds to cover income shortfalls, maintenance and the like; instead, they borrowed heavily. And they did all of this over the strong objections of the Jewish Federation which advised Spertus's leaders that Spertus leadership, having raised inadequate funds to support it: (1)  the project was not financially feasible and (2) the Federation should not, in the future, be expected to underwrite it or rescue it.

Spertus's leaders ignored the warnings and proceeded. The reviews of the building were ecstatic; nonetheless, the project soon went into default. Spertus's lender, asserting a multi-million dollar default, threatened foreclosure; and was tragically unwilling to negotiate. The CEO who spearheaded the development and who urged the Spertus Board on in the face of the Federation's warnings, was soon replaced as were a significant membership of the Board. The new leadership, with a dynamic duo in the persons of its new Board Chair and CEO, approached Federation which listened sympathetically to the successor leaders, commited as they were to rescue this visible communal/national institution. (I was asked to be Federation's liaison to the new Spertus Board working with the Spertus team.) During my time, candidly, little progress was made in meeting the lender's ever more Draconian demands. Portions of the building were put up for rent while Spertus sensed that it was staring down the barrell of a loaded gun.

And, then, Steve Nasatir identified a major donor who anonymously stepped forward with the funds necessary for a financial rescue, and further. funds tp support an endowment that would help to assure that the Institute could proceed without further financial threats to its existence were made available. 

That was a real rescue.

And, then, there is this...

The tragedy that is the National Museum of American Jewish History.

If Spertus Institute is the micro; this Museum is the macro. It's financial failure is the realization in real time of Santayana's warning -- you know the one about not learning from the mistakes of the past being doomed to repeat them. You know the one. 

The Museum's founders commited all of those errors that Chicago's Spertus leaders had fumbled only to the tune of 10s of millions more in debt -- and there was no Chicago federation to which to turn to be saved. These Museum Founders must have believed that "God will provide." Their edifice complex produced an architecturally significant White Elephant with a $150 million mortgage in default and no ability to pay it. Annual operating deficits compounded the debt. And, today, in the midst of the pandemic with attendant closures, there are no visitors, no revenue. As Robin Pogrebin, writing in The New York Times of the travails of the Tenement Museum and other cultural institutions, observed:
"They do not have large endowments or deep-pocketed donors, and have...depended on admission fees to keep the lights on...lW]ithout more suppoprt for rent, payroll, utilities, insurance and other's likely that many will be unable to reopen even once the worst is over." 
To his great credit, Dr. Misha Galperin -- who appears to enjoy the challenges of lost causes (after all Misha had served as CEO of JAID, the Jewish Agency International Development) -- agreed to step in as a CEO on a rescue mission -- he did so when only the Trump Administration had been told that the World was about to be devastated by the coronavirus. The Museum filed for bankruptcy on March 2 and, with no natural constituency, its attendance choked off by quarantine and a dismal total failed initial fund raising effort at a time of the stock markets in dramatic increase, there is every likelihood that this failure will be a national embarrassment on the National Independence Mall, Misha's cheerleading and FRD prowess notwithstanding.

Books will no doubt be written about this terrible failure. If the NMAJH leaders attempt to point to the virus as the proximate cause of this collapse, the record will show that that would be wrong...very wrong. In point of fact, the Museum's bankruptcy was baked into the reality that the fund-raising to support this project failed from Day One and those who "birthed" this Museum failed to act when the first indicia of failure were staring them in the face. 

And that is the real shame. I fear that in the face of the worldwide economic collapse, the Museum's failure will be but a footnote among many.