CLEVELAND — There was a “Prime Minister’s Dinner” Sunday night, but no prime minister. There was a “Breakfast With the Legend” scheduled for Monday, but the legend — Israel’s Shimon Peres — didn’t show up. It was a four-day gathering of the American Jewish community’s top organizers and fund raisers, but the iconic moment might have come when the keynote speaker, management guru Jim Collins, told delegates: “You all have a to-do list. How many of you have a ‘stop doing’ list?”
The event was the 72nd annual General Assembly of United Jewish Communities, the newly restructured roof body of North America’s 155 local federations of Jewish charities, long regarded as the central engines of money and clout within the Jewish community. Yet, at a moment when the community’s influence is considered to be at a pinnacle, and when the issues on its agenda — Israel, religious identity and social welfare policy — are on front pages everywhere, the assembly’s attendance was the lowest in years: barely 2,800, down from 6,000 last year and 4,000 the year before. The main topics of discussion were not Israel or social welfare, but how to run a tighter agency.
Paradoxically, that downsized vision seems to be precisely what UJC has in mind under its new CEO, Howard Rieger, who took over in September. UJC has been under intense criticism since its launch five years ago for failing to bring a larger vision to the world of federated Jewish charities. The Cleveland assembly gave the first signs that Rieger’s UJC will largely dispense with such big ideas, focusing instead on the nuts and bolts of helping local communities in their day-to-day work.
“At times we’ve done more than we’re capable of doing as well as we should,” Rieger told the Forward in an interview. “When the day is done, we’ve raised our money in the communities to help support human services. The service orientation is where we will get evaluated — that should drive a large part of what we’re doing.”
UJC was formed in 1999 through a merger of three agencies that had served the nation’s Jewish federations for much of the last century. The new body was expected to bring a unified vision and greater reach to the federations, which bring in more than $2 billion in revenue each year and operate a worldwide network of service agencies. Instead UJC was caught up in internal squabbling that all but neutralized its effectiveness. This year’s assembly served notice that UJC under Rieger is giving up its ambition of being everything for everyone in the community. “UJC has been suffering from seriously inflated expectations,” said John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of UJC’s largest member, UJA-Federation of Greater New York. “There seems to be a sense now that the UJC is foremost a very effective trade association for the federations.”
True to that vision, the assembly’s main themes were leadership and management, abstracted from any Jewish context. Smaller workshops offered ideological discussions about the Jewish future, but most sessions focused on fund-raising strategies and service delivery. Tuesday was given over to workshops with skill-building titles like “Top Ten Ways to Engage Your Volunteers.” This focus on the business of federations was worrisome for some of those who look to UJC to play a larger role. “Becoming a superb trade association is the immediate challenge of the UJC,” said Barry Shrage, president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston. “But in order to be able to generate excitement, some sense of vision has to return.”
The leaders of the largest federations, including Boston and New York, have traditionally held much of the influence within UJC and its main predecessors, the United Jewish Appeal and the Council of Jewish Federations. But the bulk of UJC’s constituency is its dozens of smaller federations, and many leaders from these communities expressed satisfaction with the new approach.
“There is a real focus this year that I haven’t seen before,” said Leah Ronen, executive director of the Augusta Jewish Federation in Georgia. “All we’re looking for is to come and find something useful to take home with us. I think we’ve found that.”
Given its timing, the assembly did not lack for weighty issues to ponder. The death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, days earlier, left grave uncertainty about Israel’s future direction. In America, the recent elections left Jewish community leaders uncertain about the future funding of their social service agencies under the second-term Bush administration.
The sharpest framing of the larger challenges came from Shoshana Cardin, a onetime president of the Council of Jewish Federations and a former chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. Cardin heaped criticism on the Bush administration, but her 10-minute speech stood in stark relief to the apolitical nature of the rest of the conference.
Cardin said the focus of the conference was a marked change from her days as a top volunteer in the Jewish organizational world. “It’s not a headline-grabbing convention,” she told the Forward. “Not anymore. It’s now serious work, with fewer egos.”
For many in the federation system, though, the everyday services will not have any chance of surviving if there is no long-range thinking, particularly on the issue of Jewish continuity. Many communal observers warn that rising rates of intermarriage and declining synagogue participation could spell doom for the Jewish community. The topics appeared only briefly on the assembly program, however.
For Paul Rosen, a young leader from Florida who works on issues of Jewish continuity, UJC’s new emphasis is not unexpected. “It’s not the same skill set to raise the most philanthropic dollars, and to build the Jewish people,” Rosen said.
Left unanswered is the question of who will become the central address for such issues if UJC is not. Rieger made clear that he is not giving up UJC’s option to act on such long-term issues at home and abroad. The situation in Israel held a particularly central place in this year’s discussion, even though Prime Minister Sharon did not show up as planned. Israeli sources said the prime minister would not come to the United States without an invitation to visit the White House. Israel’s foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, appeared in his place.
But on the large-scale political and social issues facing American Jewry, Rieger made clear that UJC would be only one of many groups working on the ground. He insisted the multiplicity was a plus, saying the diversity of views in the Jewish community is one of its great strengths. On the issue of Jewish continuity, Rieger said: “We’d better all deal with that. Nobody’s going to have a single answer on what is going to improve our situation from a demographic standpoint, from an interest standpoint.”
Rieger’s modesty emerged clearly in the course of the four days. He is a quiet, diminutive man, who was barely noticeable when he slipped in and out of rooms. At a small session on the question “Who Speaks for the Jews?” Rieger seemed to give voice not only to his own views, but also to that of his newly developing organization, when he said, “The question of who speaks for the Jews implies a certain arrogance.”
“I don’t know what the right or wrong is on many of these issues,” Rieger said. “It’s all about dialogue.”