When Howard Rieger becomes president of United Jewish Communities on September 1, he will take the reins of an organization confronting defining questions about its role as the coordinating body for 155 North American Jewish federations.
After three years in which giving to the federation’s annual campaign has declined, UJC has struggled with its budgetary priorities on both domestic and international issues.
Many questions that Rieger faces linger from the creation of UJC in 1999, after a merger of three national Jewish charities. In the debates since then about budgetary priorities and organization details, some observers say that the organization has lost sight of the larger issues the UJC was formed to confront — most prominently, the declining affiliation of young Jews.
“The big question is what the organization exists for in the long term,” said Barry Schrage, the president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston. “Thus far we have ended up spending too much time on smaller issues that aren’t resolvable.”
Rieger has been in the thick of these discussions. He was a central facilitator in the merger that created UJC from the United Israel Appeal, the United Jewish Appeal and the Council of Jewish Federations. This work stemmed from Rieger’s position as the president of Pittsburgh’s United Jewish Federation, at which, during the past 25 years, he gained a reputation as a skilled consensus builder.
For the past three years, UJC has been led by Stephen Hoffman, who is credited with taking the organization from a state of crisis to relatively stable ground. During his tenure, he shrunk the annual operating costs of UJC to $39.5 million from $43 million.
One success of UJC during Hoffman’s term has been its work in lobbying the federal government to provide funding for projects of interest to local Jewish communities, especially those for the elderly and infirm.
One such program for which UJC has been a leading lobbyist might ease Rieger’s entrance. Just before the Senate went on recess in July, the governmental affairs committee passed a bill that would provide $100 million for security enhancements at not-for-profit institutions that face terrorist threats, such as Jewish synagogues and community centers.
Even if the full Senate does not pass the bill, several senators have promised to tack on to a larger homeland security appropriations bill an amendment that would provide $50 million for security enhancement at not-for-profit institutions. Legislative observers say this bill stands a good chance of passing before the pre-election recess.
The bill has been criticized by some national Jewish organizations for blurring the line between church and state. But many local Jewish communal leaders have praised the legislation as an example of the local concerns that UJC can help address from its national perch.
UJC has struggled to define its role in the annual fund-raising campaign of the federations, which raised $825 million last year, down from $851 million in 2001.
One contentious part of UJC’s work has been the positions it has staked out on giving to international Jewish organizations. UJC’s Overseas Needs Assessment and Distribution Committee, or ONAD, came under fire most recently when it decided last winter to continue giving 75% of its overseas funds to the Jewish Agency for Israel and 25% to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee after hearing numerous calls demanding that the percentages be equalized.
UJC was formed in part to centralize the mechanisms for overseas funding and to create a collective decision-making process that would increase communal fund raising. The disputes over ONAD, however, have led many local Jewish federations to shift their overseas funding away from UJC to individual grants of their own choosing. Since 2001, the amount channeled through ONAD has gone from $270.2 million annually to $262 million.
“Right now, the relationship between the overseas organizations and UJC is dysfunctional,” said Steven Klinghoffer, who was the chairman of ONAD until last winter. “There are still a lot of issues shaking out from the merger.”
Rieger will confront the issue immediately upon taking office, when a review of ONAD’s first five years will begin. If his past work is any example, he will seek to strengthen UJC’s overseas commitments. Reiger led the Pittsburgh federation to give proportionately more funding to ONAD than the national average. He also was known for cultivating new philanthropic channels for donors who did not feel comfortable sending money overseas through ONAD. In addition to the $3.3 million that Pittsburgh gave through the ONAD pool, Rieger led the community to give another $2 million in targeted donations.
“He always found ways to engage new donors,” said Sharon Stern, director of planning and allocations at the Pittsburgh federation.