United Jewish Communities Founder To Step Down

By Anthony Weiss

Published April 16, 2008, issue of April 25, 2008.

One of the architects of the national organization of Jewish federations is stepping down from his high-ranking volunteer post amid a bitter feud with the heads of the body he helped found.

In an April 3 letter, Richard Wexler blasted Joe Kanfer and Howard Rieger, chairman and president/CEO, respectively, of United Jewish Communities, the national federations’ umbrella organization whose creation Wexler helped engineer. Wexler announced in the letter that he was not seeking re-nomination to his post as chairman of the United Israel Appeal, a UJC subsidiary, out of concern that his ongoing conflict with the leadership would damage the organization.

“The UJC Board Chair and CEO have… been engaged together in a campaign of vilification and personal demonization toward me in a manner unbecoming the leadership positions they hold and, in particular, the Jewish leadership positions they hold,” Wexler wrote. “Under such circumstances, I cannot stand for a re-nomination.”

Wexler, a Chicago real estate lawyer who has been active for decades in local and national Jewish organizations, was one of the primary architects of the 1999 merger that created the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization for the 155 charitable foundations across North America that last year raised $900 million in their annual campaigns. Wexler’s decision to step down, and his feud with UJC’s current management, highlights the dissatisfaction with the results of the merger, even among those like Wexler, who helped shape it.

UJC was founded through the merger of the Council of Jewish Federations, the United Jewish Appeal and United Israel Appeal. Intended to become the premier national address for Jewish philanthropy, UJC has been plagued since its founding by internal conflicts, a stagnant annual campaign and unresolved questions about precisely how the organization ought to function. Recently, UJC has faced rebellion from several federations over dues and is facing potential budget cuts in the coming year at the behest of the largest federations.

Wexler has been a relatively outspoken critic of what he considers the failings of the national system he helped create.

As of late, Wexler has begun airing his concerns in a blog titled “UJ Thee and Me.” In an April 10 entry, he blasted a “go along to get along” culture that stifled frank criticism.

“Criticism is not merely ignored, it is not tolerated,” Wexler wrote.

In the letter, Wexler said that stepping down would allow him to speak his mind more freely. Both Rieger and Kanfer declined to comment through a spokesman.

Bruce Arbit, president of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation and a UIA board member, will likely replace Wexler in his post.

In the letter, Wexler hinted that perhaps the UJC system ought to be scrapped entirely.

“UJC must either succeed or, as others have begun to contemplate and discuss, another entity will have to find its place in UJC’s stead, as the central address of the Jewish Federations of North America,” he wrote.



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