It was hard to escape the feeling that things were a little backward when the Jewish Federations of North America, the national network of local Jewish federated charities, convened in Washington on November 8 for its annual General Assembly.
The organization was emerging from a painful, months-long crisis after being caught in the crossfire of American-Israeli feuding over the Iranian nuclear deal. In town after town, community leaders, donors and activists had been at each other’s throats, pitting conservatives against liberals, and Likud stalwarts against Democratic loyalists. The three-day assembly was intended to foster healing.
Much of the program consisted of how-to workshops on fundraising, leadership development and social-service delivery. But the highlights were four elaborate plenary sessions focusing on the crisis and getting beyond it. Each plenary featured a parade of celebrity speakers, orchestrated to move the 3,000 delegates through a reconciliation process.
Curiously, the plenary programs didn’t move from defining the problem to presenting solutions. Instead, as some delegates complained afterward, the plenaries began on an inspirational note of personal journeys to Judaism, moved to innovative ideas for community organizing and culminated in a barrage of confessions and analyses — “wallowing,” one delegate said — over the disunity crisis. The assembly’s official theme was “Thinking Forward,” but it moved backward, from solution to problem.
The program ended with speeches by two principals in the recent war of words, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. Both fell over themselves declaring that the hatchet was buried, that the previous day’s Netanyahu-Obama meeting was excellent and that U.S.-Israel ties were back on track. But the speakers’ very presence was a reminder that the divisions are on hold, not healed.
Positioning the Iran crisis at the assembly’s climax put an exclamation point on the distress, bordering on trauma, that Jewish philanthropy leaders felt this year when the two governments came to blows. The damage was twofold. First, traditional Jewish philanthropy thrives on consensus and pride. Donors are encouraged to feel that helping Israel helps America. When forced to take sides, some back off.
More practically, it’s difficult for local organizations to function when boards are mired in name-calling of the sort that accompanied the Iran crisis, when Democratic loyalists were accused of betraying Israel.
The network leaders’ distress was palpable in nearly every speech they gave. The organization’s president and CEO, Jerry Silverman, devoted much of his keynote speech to a plea for tolerance of diverse opinions and for “unity, not unanimity.” The outgoing lay board chair, Cleveland steel executive Michael Siegal, insisted just before introducing Netanyahu that “federations must always be a safe place for a diversity of opinions.”
The incoming chair, Los Angeles attorney Richard Sandler, told a late-night dessert reception that fostering diversity was his “main priority” in Jewish community life.
But getting past Iran is the least of the federations’ problems. They’re slowly emerging from a much larger crisis that began a generation ago.
The simplest way to describe it is in numbers. The 151 local Jewish federations across the United States and Canada raised a combined total of just a little more than $900 million in their annual fundraising campaigns this year. That’s barely up from the $790 they raised 20 years ago, in 1995. But that 1995 figure was the equivalent of $1.2 billion in today’s dollars. Two decades before that, at their peak, in 1974, they raised $686 million, the equivalent of $3.3 billion in today’s dollars. By standing still, they’re falling back.
Of the 1974 total, fully two-thirds was sent to Israel. Of this year’s sum, about $150 million, or one-sixth, is sent to Israel and other overseas causes.
Israel is still a rallying cry for many donors. But growing numbers give despite Israel, not because of it. Besides, federation dollars are a drop in the bucket next to Israel’s $85 billion government budget, or even compared with the $3 billion in annual U.S. aid. By contrast, local Jewish communities feel intense pressure to care for a growing senior population and to fund better Jewish education.
Local Jewish social services, once thought to be an immigrant-era museum piece, became urgent in the early 1990s. The reasons? Twin crises of the 1991–92 recession, which hit the Jewish middle class hard, and the needs of Russian immigrants.
One result was an effort begun in 1992 to restructure the national network, then called the Council of Jewish Federations, to give it clout to deal with national crises. Talks were begun to merge it with a separate body, the legendary United Jewish Appeal, which recruited top local donors into a national cadre lobbying the federations for Israel’s needs.
The merger effort proved devastating. Talks dragged on for years, sapping the energy of the national leaders. By the time the merger was concluded in 1999, local federations had learned to live without a central body. Since then it’s floundered, gone through a series of chief executives, even changed its name twice. Worse, nothing replaced the elan and national branding of the old UJA.
One sign of decline was the assembly itself. In its heyday it was the central yearly gathering on the American Jewish calendar, attracting anyone who had money to give and anyone who wanted some. Dozens of outside organizations rented rooms, ran side sessions and set up booths.
In the 1990s the council tried to reclaim the assembly as a federation trade convention. Outside organizations were pushed aside. The assembly went flat. Energy and attention shifted to the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on one hand and the biennial convention of Reform Judaism on the other. The national Jewish scene had big events on the right and the left, and the center was gone.
If this year’s assembly is any indication, Silverman’s arrival in 2009 may have begun an upswing. He’s taken a number of canny steps, including hiring away the impresario of the AIPAC conferences, Renee Rothstein, to revive the assembly. Outside groups are back, from J Street to Interfaith Family to Chabad, injecting new energy. For all their flaws, the flash of the plenaries was eye-popping.
The capper may have been the agreement by the White House and the Prime Minister’s Office to have the federations host dueling webcast Iran speeches by Obama and Netanyahu last spring. It showed that there’s room and need for someone to hold the center.
However tensely, that’s what this year’s assembly has tried to do.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at email@example.com
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).