Fiscal Challenges Face Federations

By Nathan Guttman

Published November 04, 2009, issue of November 13, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The umbrella organization for Jewish community federations seems to have the stars aligned for a fresh start: a new name, a bright logo and an A-list lineup of speakers, including President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at its annual General Assembly, which will take place in Washington from November 8-10.

Fresh Start: Jerry Silverman is the new leader of the umbrella organization, now entering its 10th year.
Fresh Start: Jerry Silverman is the new leader of the umbrella organization, now entering its 10th year.

But the Jewish Federations of North America (formerly known as United Jewish Communities) is also entering its 10th year of existence with a deep fiscal shortfall. With funds dwindling due to the economic downturn, the umbrella group is struggling to make ends meet. It is also fighting off voices in the Jewish community that still question the group’s necessity.

Established in 1999, UJC combined three existing organizations: the Council of Jewish Federations, United Jewish Appeal and United Israel Appeal. It now represents 157 Jewish federations and 400 independent communities in the United States and Canada.

The idea behind UJC was to increase the Jewish community’s ability to raise funds nationally by combining all these groups’ fundraising drives in a joint appeal. The umbrella organization also provides national services that are usually beyond the reach of a single federation, such as a Washington advocacy office, professional training for staffers and emergency fundraising drives when needed.

This year’s drop in income, while similar to the problems plaguing other nonprofit organizations today, is severe. American Jewish federations brought in 11% less over the first nine months of 2009 than they did during the same time period the previous year. In absolute terms, this represents a decline from $809 million to $721 million.

The Jewish Federations of North America (those responsible for the new brand name refused to establish an acronym in order to distinguish the group in the Jewish organizational alphabet soup), which is funded by dues proportionate to the federations’ campaign revenues, underwent another year of budget cuts. The umbrella group’s operating budget is down to $30.3 million, from $37 million last year. Operations are carried out by a staff of 177, down from 208 in the previous year and from more than 300 10 years ago.

It is against this backdrop that the group’s newly installed leaders are trying to make a change. The selections of Jerry Silverman as CEO and Kathy Manning as chair were greeted with high expectations among federation leaders. Silverman has roots in the corporate world and made his mark on Jewish life at the Foundation for Jewish Camp, which he molded into a serious communal force. Silverman started off his tenure at UJC with a listening tour to learn more about communal needs.

Even federations known for their tense relations with the umbrella organization are impressed. Scott Kaufman, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit is singing Silverman’s praises. “I know there was some rancor in the past in our relations with the UJC, but he reached out to us and we are excited about it,” Kaufman said.

The Detroit federation was among a handful of communities that were in a dispute with UJC leadership over the dues they were required to pay to fund the group’s activities. The issue has yet to be resolved. Joe Berkofsky, communications director for the Jewish Federations, said the organization “continues to examine the formula for calculating the dues.”

Several other federations that had paid their dues in full chose to provide their overseas allocations directly without going though the UJC system. Major overseas partners — the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee — have been facing a constant decline in funding from federations and have increased their efforts to solicit donations directly from Jewish communities.

While most federations favor slimming down operations of the umbrella organization, some believe that tough times call for an increase in budget and expansion of services. “When you cut the budget year after year, it becomes difficult to run a national organization,” argued Misha Galperin, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.

The $800,000 re-branding program being implemented by the Jewish Federations of North America is not intended to solve the short-term financial shortfall the Jewish communal world is experiencing. It is, however, aimed at increasing the identification of American Jews with the broader federation system and possibly, down the road, influencing their willingness to donate for causes beyond their immediate community. A study conducted by the organization found that while some 50% of American Jews are aware of their local federation, few knew about the umbrella group.

Contact Nathan Guttman at

Find us on Facebook!
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.