UJC’s Future at Stake as Local Charities Call for Dramatic Cuts

By Anthony Weiss and Rebecca Spence

Published April 01, 2009, issue of April 10, 2009.
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United Jewish Communities, the national association of federated Jewish charities, is facing calls from a host of federation leaders for drastic cuts in next year’s budget.

A combination of tough economic times and widespread dissatisfaction with UJC has led to the calls for change. At least one proposal would strip the national organization down to what it was more than a decade ago.

At stake is the future of UJC, which was created in 1999 from a three-way merger of the Council of Jewish Federations, essentially a federation trade association, the United Jewish Appeal and the United Israel Appeal, which raised and allocated funds for overseas Jewish relief. The merged body has long faced criticism over its effectiveness, but not until now have such severe measures been floated. According to some federation system observers, the contemplated cuts could mark the beginning of the end for UJC.

“This could result in cutting UJC so badly that as it presently is constituted, it would not be able to continue,” said Gerald Bubis, founding director of the School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Bubis co-wrote a book on the making of UJC.

With offices in Jerusalem, New York, Los Angeles and Washington, UJC is an organizational behemoth. Until recent layoffs, it maintained a full-time staff of 208, and its budget for the 2008–2009 fiscal year was $37 million. Its funding comes directly from local federations, which pay dues relative to the size of their annual campaign. In practical terms, reducing the UJC budget by a certain percentage would spell a roughly equivalent reduction in annual dues.

Forced downsizing of local federations because of the financial crisis — the Cleveland federation, for example, slashed its budget by about 22% and fired 25 people — has focused federations’ attention on local community needs. Many are now looking to the national system for further savings.

UJC treasurer Michael Gelman, who chairs the budget and finance committee, said in a statement that UJC and federations had held “in-depth discussions” as part of the 2009–2010 budget process. “The committee is acutely aware of the needs and desires of federations, whose budget requests have ranged across the spectrum,” Gelman said. “Some insist that after years of downsizing, further cutbacks would impair UJC’s ability to function in critical areas, while others seek wider reductions.”

Gelman added that discussions would continue as part of the budget process and conclude with a final review by the UJC board of trustees later this spring.

While the merger that formed UJC was meant to streamline the national system and provide effective leadership for local federations’ domestic and overseas work, UJC has long been accused of bureaucratic inefficiency and lack of vision.

Some insiders say the pressures of the current financial crisis have merely pushed long-percolating problems to the fore. “The economic crash simply accelerated the issues and underlined them,” one big-city federation executive said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “If there had been a successful national organization that was meeting the needs of communities, there would still be a cut, but it would not have been as drastic as it is now.”

Several proposals have been put forth recently. One, representing at least four of the 19 big-city federations, including Detroit, Boston and Florida’s Palm Beach and South Palm Beach, calls on UJC to reduce its budget by at least one-third. In a draft letter to UJC leaders, obtained by the Forward, those federations cite the “extreme impact” of the economic situation on their communities, as well as the need to overhaul UJC. “We believe strongly that it is time for a major change and restructuring of the United Jewish Communities,” the draft letter states. “We also believe that (UJC) should be redesigned to become more like the original Council of Jewish Federations.”

Unlike UJC, which has an entire division devoted to fundraising, the CJF functioned more as a trade association, convening the federations’ General Assembly and helping with personnel issues.

Still, at least one big-city federation executive said that a return to the CJF structure would not doom the national organization. “I don’t think that reasserting the CJF model is the dissolution of the UJC,” said Barry Shrage, president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston.

According to federation insiders, a separate letter to UJC leaders from the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles calls for a 50% reduction in UJC’s budget. John Fishel, president of the L.A. federation, declined to comment.

Still another proposal on the table — floated, sources say, by UJC itself — envisions a 20% budget reduction, translating into a $7.5 million cut in the allocation to UJC’s overseas partners, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Israel. Federations would then be responsible for filling the funding gap on their own.

The chairman of the Jewish Agency board of governors, Richard Pearlstone, said UJC officials had called him in recent weeks to get his reaction to such a proposal. Pearlstone told the Forward that he would not comment on the proposal until he sees it in writing.

The JDC said it was not troubled by the prospect of cuts. “While any reduction of funding would be unfortunate, JDC is well-positioned in this environment to continue providing its critical services around the world,” said a JDC spokesman, Michael Geller.

Stephen Hoffman, president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, said he does not want to see any money taken away from the Jewish Agency or the JDC. He also said that even in the pre-merger days, when the CJF and the UJA were separate entities, the same questions over dues and the functioning of the agencies were always in play.

“The merger was supposed to help resolve some of them,” he said. “It hasn’t successfully yet, so we continue to have the challenge of what different federations from different parts of the country want a national organization to do. It’s always going to be a challenge serving these conflicting visions.”

Contact Anthony Weiss at weiss@forward.com and Rebecca Spence at spence@forward.com.






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