Nashville, Tenn. — The desired tone for this year’s conclave of local Jewish federations was set during the appearance of University of Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl.
Pointing to his own experience as a team builder, Pearl told a cheering crowd: “We know who we are. We know our identity. We understand our challenges. We are one people.”
“One People” was the official slogan of this year’s annual conference of United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization of local Jewish communities. The only problem with this was that nearly all recent evidence has suggested that Jews are becoming ever less centralized and unified. Studies this year show that young Jews are increasingly alienated from Israel, while wealthy donors have increasingly been taking their funds to causes of their own choosing rather than directing them to centralized funds like Jewish federations. The tension between the dream and the reality ended up being an animating force at the weekend meeting.
“In many ways, we haven’t come up with the answers,” said Robert Aronson, who is CEO of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit and an adviser to a few major donors. “There’s an awareness that things aren’t working as they should.”
The four-day General Assembly, which took place at Nashville’s Opryland Resort Hotel and Convention Center, came back repeatedly to discussions of efforts to draw in the two primary groups that have shown signs of alienation: donors and young people.
The difficulties appeared at a breakfast for young federation leaders with UJC chairman Joe Kanfer. One woman, who is being put through graduate school at federation expense, said, “We’re trying so hard to pull [young people] in, but what, exactly, are we pulling them into?”
UJC was formed in 1999 by the merger of the United Jewish Appeal, the United Israel Appeal and the Council of Jewish Federations and was intended to become the central powerhouse of the Jewish philanthropic and communal world. Since its founding, however, UJC has struggled to define itself. The annual fundraising campaign, long the centerpiece of the federation system, has stagnated, and the donor base has been shrinking.
The G.A., which predates UJC, is an annual gathering of federation heads, donors and communal leaders who meet to hear speeches, workshop and network. This year’s G.A. drew about 3,500 attendees, down from 5,000 last year.
One clear indication of what UJC does not stand for came during the speech of Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean. He ostentatiously pocketed his speaking text and lashed out at the Republican Party for surrendering America’s “moral authority” and attempting to turn the country into “a theocracy.” The crowd buzzed uncomfortably, and Dean received a tepid ovation.
Some members of UJC’s leadership declared themselves open to accepting the splintering nature of the Jewish community. At a press conference, Kanfer spoke about the need for a more open, inclusive UJC that could accommodate a variety of ideas — what he described as a “both-and” approach, in which UJC could throw its weight behind ideas that might come from elsewhere.
“I don’t think any of us think that we don’t have ample resources within the Jewish community,” he told the Forward.
One morning’s plenary focused on young Jews involved in social programs. Here, the praise was tempered by criticisms of UJC and the Jewish establishment in general for failing to reach out to younger Jews on their own terms.
Daniel Sieradski, founder of the blog Jewschool, chided the Jewish establishment for clamoring for the “the next big thing” and then failing to recognize or nurture it. “The next big Jewish idea, in fact, has probably already come and gone, and been shot down by no less than a dozen Jewish grant-making organizations,” Sieradski said.
Another point of tension has been the migration of big donors away from federations toward projects they can control. At panel events such as “Donor Stewardship,” federation officials argued that it was time for a more donor-centered approach to giving.
“The notion of ‘the annual campaign above all and nothing else matters’ is a notion that is no longer going to stand up,” Aronson told the Forward.
But not everyone was so willing to bend on the old federation notion of a centralized charitable campaign. UJC’s President and Chief Executive Officer, Howard Rieger, reasserted that the annual campaign is the “keystone” of the system, and he brushed aside the notion that UJC was losing trust, instead taking a slap at the assertiveness of big donors.
“I think it reflects a sense of ego,” he told the Forward. Rieger suggested that the attitude of donors was: “‘It’s about me, it’s not about them.’ It’s about recognition.”