UJC Exec Rebuffs Critical Study as Work of ‘Naysayers’

By Nathaniel Popper

Published February 18, 2005, issue of February 18, 2005.
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An ambitious study of the United Jewish Communities by two top academics, exploring the charitable giant’s initial stumbles and recommending course corrections, has won a dismissive response from the organization’s chief executive.

The study, released February 4, is the product of nearly 90 interviews with founders and participants in the famously troubled organization, which was formed five years ago through a merger of three other bodies, including the United Jewish Appeal. The study was conducted by two senior scholars in the field of Jewish organizational work, Gerald Bubis and Steven Windmueller, who are respectively the founding director and the current director of the School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.

The question of why the merged body, with combined annual donations of some $2 billion, failed to become a dominant force within the broader Jewish community has vexed community leaders for years.

But the president and CEO of United Jewish Communities, Howard Rieger, dismissed the study as “so-called findings” in his weekly e-mail message of February 11, sent to UJC leaders nationwide.

“Let the naysayers live in the reality they create,” Rieger wrote.

Rieger’s e-mail comes just as Bubis and Windmueller are planning to distribute their report to 1,200 Jewish communal professionals across the country. Rieger’s rebuff is particularly pointed because one of the study’s main findings is that UJC has not welcomed input from Jewish community members, such as academics, rabbis and artists, who are outside the organization’s leadership core of major donors and federation professionals.

“Open discourse is ironically suspended within the context of Jewish communal life,” Bubis and Windmueller wrote.

Rieger himself took the helm of UJC this past September, after the study’s interviews were conducted. Since then, he has won respect for working rapidly to define the organization’s future. Richard Wexler, a federation leader from Chicago known for his outspoken criticisms of UJC, said of Rieger, “Of all the professional leaders of UJC, Howard has been the most open to discussion.”

A UJC spokesman said that Rieger had no further comment on the report.

In his e-mail, Rieger’s most sweeping critique was that the negative findings in the study might be merely a product of the time at which the interviews were conducted. “At best these findings are but a snapshot in time,” he wrote.

Bubis said, however, said that when he presented the report to a meeting of community officials two weeks ago, many of those present “were still echoing the feeling that this UJC was not yet on the right track, and that it had not done what they expected it to do.”

UJC was formed through a 1999 merger of the former Council of Jewish Federations, a service body uniting the nation’s 160 local Jewish charity federations, and the United Jewish Appeal and United Israel Appeal, which guided the federations’ fund raising and channeled contributions to Israel and to other overseas causes. The formation of a single organization was meant to streamline the philanthropies’ work and sharpen their focus, but critics say that the merger increased squabbling and failed to re-create the sense of mission embodied in the old UJA.

Much of Bubis’s and Windmueller’s report explores ways in which UJC has failed to engage its donors and supporters at the local level. Many of those interviewed, the authors write, complained that “minority voices were often muted,” particularly when it came to the most controversial issues facing the community, such as policy toward Israel. The study notes that many of the biggest donors are moving away from UJC to launch their own projects, in part because of a perceived lack of interest in innovation within UJC.

During the past year, responding to complaints that UJC had failed to become a center of innovation and big ideas, some leaders have pushed for the organization to focus on serving local federations as a “trade association.” Bubis and Windmueller argue the opposite: that UJC should be a forum in which difficult issues are discussed. Toward this end, they advocate more funding of Jewish think tanks, and even the creation of a second, parallel UJC governing board, in which controversial ideas can be hashed out. For those issues that UJC does not want to take on, they recommend “outsourcing” or “deputizing” existing organizations to speak in UJC’s name.

Rieger did not deal with any of these specific proposals directly. However, he wrote that the organization should not shy away from scrutiny: “If we are concerned about challenges, then we are either too thin skinned or afraid of differences of opinion.”

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