Perfect? No. But UJC Is a Success Story

By James Tisch

Published January 31, 2003, issue of January 31, 2003.
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I’m baffled and left wondering what motivates those who trade in misinformation and are selective in memory and gathering of facts.

On this page last week, United Jewish Communities and the continental Jewish federation system were erroneously portrayed as lacking in purpose and in tangible results (“Ill UJC Needs Second Opinion,” by Shoshana Cardin).

This three-year-old organization, born from the historic 1999 merger of United Jewish Appeal, United Israel Appeal and the Council of Jewish Federations, is spending its infancy during one of the most challenging periods faced by North American Jewry. Critical domestic and overseas needs demanding our attentions and passions have been thrust to the forefront of our collective agenda.

UJC and its member federations, I submit, are meeting the challenge as a unified, strong and integrated system, the most effective fundraising vehicle for North American Jewry and its most potent collective voice.

The tenor of our times — economic stagnation at home, the arrival of terrorism on our shores, rising tensions around the world, and threats to the vitality of the Jewish homeland — has forced UJC and the federation system to mature quickly, and examination of the record leaves no doubt that they have done so.

News of the day focuses my mind first on our brothers and sisters in Israel, living under continuing threats to their lives and livelihoods. I think about the young mother who was left widowed by a Palestinian homicide-bombing terrorist who blew up a commuter bus carrying her husband, leaving her as the sole supporter of two young children. Through her tears of grief and gratitude, she thanked us for the emergency funds given to her by UJC and the federations.

North American Jewry has looked to UJC and the federations as the central address to help Israelis during this crisis and Argentinean Jews during their country’s economic decline, and since the fall of 2001 has committed more than $330 million in emergency funds. The special campaign, historic in its nature and evocative of community mobilizations during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, has so far made it possible for 300,000 Israeli children to attend safe summer camps, 1,600 guards to be posted at schools, 2,500 Israeli victims of terrorism and their families to receive aid, and 6,000 Argentinean Jews to immigrate to Israel.

This has occurred parallel to the success of our member federations’ annual appeal, which in 2001 raised a record $850 million for community, national and overseas needs of Jewry.

But our success is and must be gauged by more than the dollars we raise to ensure Jewish survival and continuity.

When UJC was formed, the objectives of its three founding organizations were manifold: to leverage economies of scale to strengthen communities, to lead the way to collective responsibility, to develop innovative programs that enhance Jewish life, to connect federations to each other, and to reduce the cost of providing effective national leadership and service.

By any measure, these objectives are being reached by UJC, evidenced in part by such highly public endeavors as our national solidarity mission program, which has brought thousands of North American Jews to Israel, a key organizing and mobilization role that brought more than 100,000 supporters of Israel to a Capitol Hill rally last year, the appropriation of millions of dollars in federal grants by the UJC Washington Action Office for naturally occurring retirement communities and their elderly Jewish residents, face-to-face meetings for UJC and federation leadership with President Bush and top congressional officials to relay our community’s positions to our nation’s leaders, and the UJC September 11 Fund, which raised and delivered millions of dollars for those affected by the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania.

Only for reasons of space do I stop there.

This is playing out, I mustn’t fail to note, as UJC has realized $5.3 million in savings compared to the pre-merger aggregate budgets of its three founding organizations.

As Jewish children, we’re all familiar with how hard our parents pushed and exhorted us to do and be our best. This organization has thousands of fathers and mothers, all of varying minds on how to best rear the child.

For UJC, this fact sometimes constricts the organization and at other times expands and enriches its agenda and mission.

Certainly, a range of opinions within a communal environment as large and diverse as the federation system is expected and welcome. Indeed, it is one of our organizational strengths, just as it is for the larger democracy in which we live.

Have UJC and the federation system reached perfection? Of course not. We have a steady fix on what needs to be improved, and we invite debate toward this end.

Unwelcome, however, are unfettered, error-filled attacks without acknowledgement of the quite significant and historic successes of UJC and the federation system during its so-far brief existence. The result of such irresponsibility is to mislead members of our community into believing that the screed printed on this page last week is an accurate and fair assessment of UJC, when it clearly is not.

But you know what they say about wrapping fish.

James Tisch is chairman of United Jewish Communities.

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