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Pittsburgh may have been roundly beaten in a season-ending game of college basketball last week, but in the more hidebound world of Jewish organizational life, the city scored a stunning victory.

Howard Rieger, 61, a longtime Jewish charity leader and top professional at the United Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, has been nominated to succeed Stephen Hoffman as the next president of United Jewish Communities.

The announcement surprised several leaders of UJC, the roof body for local Jewish charitable federations, who expected the presidency to go to Robert Aronson, the executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. According to sources close to UJC, Aronson was passed over because he held the view that UJC’s $38.5 million annual budget should be slashed significantly. That explanation was dismissed by the head of the search committee and chairman of UJC’s board, Robert Goldberg, who denied that Aronson was ever a front-runner in the race. Aronson did not return calls seeking comment.

Many federation leaders praised Rieger’s 30-plus years of experience in the Jewish charitable system and spoke warmly of his quiet but thorough leadership style. But some voiced frustration that the top position was being handed once again to the head of one of the 19 big-city charities, a group critics accuse of having a disproportionate amount of power in the national system, which is made up of nearly 200 communities in North America.

“People resent that all leaders come from large cities,” said one UJC lay leader.

The announcement followed a lengthy search hobbled by rebuffs from many dynamic federation leaders tapped to fill the position. The job is widely viewed as almost un-doable as the agency struggles for an identity.

If elected, Rieger will be faced with numerous challenges that have been plaguing UJC since its formation in 2000 through a merger of several national charitable bodies. Chief among them is the disagreement over whether UJC should lead the federations in their funding and political decisions or whether it should merely function as a convener. A particularly contentious debate is taking place over UJC’s role in advocating on behalf of the federation system’s main international partners, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, even as a massive UJC-backed fundraising campaign for causes overseas has begun at 40 federations. The process for distributing overseas aid has also come under fire after a review of the formula for allocating money to the JDC and the Jewish Agency concluded with uncertainty.

During his time at the Pittsburgh federation, Rieger helped lead a slew of local efforts, including an annual fundraising campaign that tops $25 million, a $15 million campaign to resettle Jews from the former Soviet Union, a $60 million campaign to renovate local agencies and an effort to restructure services for the community’s elderly.

Rieger also has served in national roles, working to help orchestrate the merger that produced UJC and chairing the publications advisory committee of the organization’s National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01.

“He’s very bright, very well-spoken, seems to have an even temperament and is very well-respected by his lay leadership in Pittsburgh,” said Steven Klinghoffer of the MetroWest New Jersey federation, who has been critical of the way federation professionals treat their lay leaders.

A native of Chicago, Rieger spent 11 years at the Cleveland federation, from which both Hoffman and Goldberg emerged, leading some to call him, affectionately, a member of the “Cleveland mafia.” Rieger earned a doctorate in government from Southern Illinois University. He joined the federation system after a two-year stint as an assistant professor at the State University of New York.

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