Merger of Communal Groups Yields Disappointment

By Nathaniel Popper

Published September 17, 2004, issue of September 17, 2004.
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The merger that created the United Jewish Communities in 1999 has been a disappointment to almost everyone involved, according to the authors of the first detailed study of the process, which is set to appear in the coming months.

The report, which is being compiled by two professors at Hebrew Union College, looks at what the study’s authors say is the largest-ever merger in the not-for-profit sector.

A final copy of the report, titled “From Chaos to Chaos? How Jewish Leaders Reinvented Their National Communal System,” will not be available until January 2005, but in a discussion with the Forward, the two authors said the overall conclusions are clear. The merger left a trail of poor planning, misguided efforts and ultimately, a lot of organizational chaos.

“Nobody felt the outcome was good or proper,” said Gerald Bubis, former director of the School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. He co-authored the report with the school’s current director, Steven Windmueller.

The conclusion comes from eight months of interviews with almost every high-level Jewish communal official involved with the merger. Of nearly 100 officials approached by Bubis and Windmueller during 2003, 85 gave interviews and many shared memos and minutes relating to the tortuous merger.

The researchers are formulating their conclusions and recommendations just as a new president takes over at UJC. Howard Rieger, who was previously the president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Pittsburgh, assumed the reins at UJC from Stephen Hoffman on September 1.

Bubis and Windmueller say they have avoided naming names in their report. However, even before he was chosen as the new president, Rieger was one of two people whom the authors singled out for his past skill in working with the UJC.

“Howard is an appropriate place for the leadership to have turned to,” Bubis said. “He has probity, integrity and a fine head on him.”

The other individual singled out for praise is Martin Kraar, who headed up the Council of Jewish Federations until the merger. UJC was formed in 1999 in a merger between Kraar’s council, the national United Jewish Appeal and the smaller United Israel Appeal. There had been persistent talks of a merger between the organizations since Israel’s founding in 1948, the current study found, but only in the late 1990s did enough momentum build. The resulting organization, which coordinates a national network of local charities with combined annual revenues of close to $2 billion, has been roundly criticized from all sides ever since.

The researchers declined to discuss many of their specific recommendations and findings, but they did say the rough course that the UJC has followed was set from the beginning. The communal leaders interviewed agreed that no one involved in the merger looked to the existing literature on navigating mergers.

In compiling their own research, Bubis and Windmueller referred to the vast body of writings about corporate mergers and acquisitions, as well as to the writings of the late Israeli-American political scientist Daniel Elazar, who wrote about the historical successes and failures of Jewish organizations.

“Nobody looked at either of them or even thought of them,” Bubis said.

With all the unhappiness that has dominated the discussion since the merger, Bubis and Windmueller were surprised to find that malice and ill will played little part in the proceedings behind closed doors.

“One might have predicted that there were grudges held, or somebody went out to try to get a person,” Bubis said. “None of that at all. These were serious-minded people who were dedicated to making this work.”

But there were important differences in the responses. The researchers found that the most significant divisions among participants were based not on the affiliation of the interviewee, but instead on his or her larger approach to the merger. These broke down roughly into four categories: the localists, the internationalists, the visionaries and those who were happy with the status quo.

It was the visionaries who faced the gravest disappointment — but Bubis said: “We had equal opportunity disappointment here.”

The final report will be written as a narrative, without the charts and graphs that frequently fill such analyses.

In raising funds for their study, Bubis and Windmueller were careful not to accept support from the UJC and instead drew from private donors including their own university and the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

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