Two National Organizations See Departures at the Top

By Nathaniel Popper

Published February 04, 2005, issue of February 04, 2005.
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As the battle over President Bush’s second term agenda heats up, two of the most important Jewish organizations dealing with domestic policy are losing top staff members who would have been responsible for formulating a response to the administration’s expected cuts in federal spending on social welfare programs.

United Jewish Communities, the national roof body of local Jewish charitable federations, fired the head of its Washington office, Chuck Konigsberg, on January 28. The move, which did not appear to be connected to partisan politics, provoked an angry letter from Konigsberg to the UJC leadership, in which he said his firing “could not have been handled in a more insensitive, unethical, and indecent manner.”

In a more congenial parting the same day, Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, announced she would be leaving in March to become executive director of the Chicago Foundation for Women. Rosenthal, who frequently pushed for a more aggressive approach to the Bush administration, was generally praised across the political spectrum for her work at the JCPA, a coalition of 13 national agencies and 123 local community councils.

Both departures come at the beginning of a congressional session in which many communal leaders say there is an unusually significant threat to government programs that help fund local Jewish agencies or, like Social Security, help keep Jews out of poverty. In explaining why he thought his firing was so problematic, Konigsberg spelled out in his letter a number of the upcominng legislative battles, including “impending Medicaid cuts that would be devastating to our agencies.” A crucial vote on cuts to Medicaid — the single largest source of government funding for Jewish federations — is expected in March.

Washington representatives from other Jewish organizations said the crucial lobbying work that lies ahead will not be made easier by concurrent searches for new staff members.

“It’s an additional challenge at what’s already a challenging time,” said Richard Foltin, legislative affairs director of the American Jewish Committee.

The replacements that the UJC and JCPA find for Konigsberg and Rosenthal, respectively, could have a decisive effect on the organized Jewish community’s response to the policy initiatives put forward during Bush’s second term. There is no indication that either organization is planning to make a radical shift in policy, but recently many Washington-based organizations have spoken of pressure from GOP leaders to tap Republican, rather than Democratic, lobbyists.

Rosenthal was one of the most outspoken advocates for a left-leaning, social justice agenda for the Jewish community. The search committee formed to find her successor has not met yet, but already one of the names being mentioned as a potential successor for Rosenthal is William Daroff, the second in charge at the Republican Jewish Coalition. Another name mentioned is Mark Pelavin, who is currently at the liberal Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Pelavin recently angered three of JCPA’s most influential members — the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League — with an open letter in the New York newspaper The Jewish Week calling on the three organizations to join the fight to derail President Bush’s most conservative judicial nominees.

Konigsberg was known for steering clear of the harshest partisan debate that recently has defined Washington. Before starting at UJC in November 2003, he logged time in the offices of both Democratic and Republican senators, as well as in both the Clinton and Bush administrations. Konigsberg and his office had been criticized occasionally for not taking a forceful enough stance against some of Bush’s policies, including the massive tax cuts. Instead he focused on less-contentious efforts to secure funding for federations. He was said to be central in the effort to win $25 million in homeland security funding for nonprofit organizations, including local Jewish institutions — an effort opposed by some Jewish groups on church-state grounds. In the end, people close to the situation said that Konigsberg’s firing had little to do with politics and was a result instead of personality clashes.

In his letter, Konigsberg said his final disagreement was with the UJC’s senior vice president for research and development, Bob Hyfler, who “arrogantly refused to provide any factual basis for his action.” Konigsberg came to work for UJC in November 2003. At that point, he wrote, Hyfler convinced him there was no reason “to be concerned about job security at UJC.”

Konigsberg asked UJC’s Compensation Committee to revoke his firing until an “impartial management consultant” could be brought in.

One of the members of the Compensation Committee, UJC President Robert Goldberg, said that the decision to terminate Konigsberg’s position was a “management decision, and we’re abiding by that.” Goldberg declined to comment on any other aspect of the situation.

The dispute arose just a few days before the release this week of an in-depth study describing disorder and dissension that has pervaded UJC’s management hierarchy since the organization was formed from a merger of three national Jewish organizations in 1999. Gerald Bubis and Steven Windmueller of the Los Angeles campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion authored the report, after 88 interviews with Jewish communal leaders involved in the merger of the Council of Jewish Federations, the United Jewish Agency and the United Israel Appeal. Bubis and Windmueller wrote that their study revealed a “tale of unclear expectations, unshared visions, mixed motivations and multilayered power games.”

While the difficulties with Konigsberg do not appear immediately connected to strife arising from the merger, UJC insiders describe lingering uncertainty about how the organization should define its role, particularly in Washington. Some of the fights arising from that uncertainty have played out in past disputes with Rosenthal’s JCPA, which is funded in large part by the UJC.

Some UJC leaders have argued that there is too much overlap between the Washington offices of UJC and JCPA, and that the JCPA does not follow closely enough the policy positions of UJC.

Some insiders say that UJC could opt for a different Washington structure in which two people replace Konigsberg — one person focusing on the lobbying, and another leading the staff at the Washington office.

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