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Jewish Journal

Body Building

November 19, 1998 | 7:00 pm

Some 3,000 delegates from Jewish welfare federations across North America convened in Jerusalem on Nov. 16 for the yearly General Assembly of their roof body, the Council of Jewish Federations. It's the first assembly held in Israel in the council's 66-year history.

It couldn't have come at a better time. The Council of Jewish Federations, or CJF, is in the final stages of a long-awaited merger with its squabbling twin sister, the United Jewish Appeal. The two are supposed to combine by next March to form a new body, still unnamed. With annual revenues of $1.5 billion and branches in every local community, the new body will instantly become the most powerful institution in organized Jewish life. Yet nobody's sure how it will be governed, who will run it or just what its mission will be.

The delegates in Jerusalem haven't been discussing any of that, though, not officially. They've been spending their week touring the countryside and listening to speeches on the meaning of Jewish life. The future shape of American Jewry's most important institution is being worked out by a committee.

This would normally be the place for a joke about guys in smoke-filled rooms. But the truth is, local community leaders seem happy leaving things to a committee. "A lot of the people who go to the General Assembly don't get into the nuts and bolts of who's running the national organizations," says delegate Paula Steinberg of Hartford, Conn. "They just want to know how to raise money to help support the old folks in the local Jewish home. The other stuff doesn't interest them much."

In fact, after four years of stop-start merger talks, the top negotiators aren't much interested anymore, either. Despite numerous secluded conclaves and in-depth studies by expensive consultants, they haven't settled some of the most basic questions about the new body. Many are just fed up.

Unfortunately, this stuff matters. The new body will have a huge impact on how Jews live in the next century. Will it have the power to launch national crusades -- for day schools or senior care, for example -- or merely coordinate local efforts? Will local federations be required to send a share of revenues for overseas relief programs, as Israeli leaders demand? Or is overseas aid nearly obsolete, as some locals insist? Will synagogues and other groups come in as partners in the new federated philanthropy? Or will the ball remain in the hands of big donors?

Even more unfortunately, these questions have been so divisive that, by last summer, the talks were at a virtual standstill. UJA and CJF leaders were snarling at each other. Volunteers were fed up with professionals, and vice versa. Some of the biggest givers, billionaire "megadonors" such as the Bronfman brothers and Ohio clothier Leslie Wexner, were losing interest in the whole notion of federated philanthropy.

Fortunately, relief appeared in September, in the form of Jeffrey Solomon, respected former deputy director of the New York federation, who now heads a Bronfman family foundation. At the pleading of several big-city federation executives, the Bronfmans agreed to lend Solomon on a part-time basis as coordinator -- "midwife," he says -- of the merger.

Since then, says one federation chief, "it's finally coming together. What the field was experiencing was a lack of leadership. The top staff positions at both UJA and CJF are being filled by caretakers. The volunteer leaders aren't necessarily of the first rank, not with the power and influence that the earlier generations had. Things have been drifting for a long time. But it's all been unlocked in the last two months."

Solomon's biggest contribution, besides boosting morale, seems to be getting negotiators talking again. Details are being cleared up by compromises on all sides. Whether to require overseas funding will be put off for two years; federations have agreed to freeze their payments at current levels until then.

The most ingenious compromise is on the awkward question of just what the point is. Defenders of overseas aid, Jewish education and local social services have been at each others' throats for years, each insisting their cause was number one. Now, a committee is drafting a "mission statement" that ties all three causes together in one vision. The result sounds suspiciously like -- well, Judaism.

The other big change is a turnaround in megadonor attitudes. Led by Charles Bronfman, Solomon's boss, the group is showing renewed interest in federated philanthropies. There's even talk that a few will be recruited to lead the new organization: Bronfman as founding chair, Wexner as his fund-raising deputy. New York superbroker Michael Steinhardt would head a new division for Jewish "renaissance," the insiders' term for education, culture and religion.

If people of such influence come aboard as leaders, they could add a tone of authority and glamour too long missing. But it's a double-edged sword. If they become the entire leadership, other Jews could feel left out. It might help if a few schoolteachers or cabdrivers were named co-chairs.

The problem is leadership. Nobody's sure what it means in Jewish life. That's doubly apparent in the search for a chief executive. The hunt has been delegated to a 24-member search committee, which has appointed a screening committee and hired a headhunter. Some two dozen possible candidates have been approached.

What they haven't done yet is define what they're looking for. "We're looking for the best person we can find," says committee co-chair Dan Shapiro, a New York attorney. "Nobody is out of bounds."

That's for sure. Federation executives want to hire a federation executive, someone who understands the complex system and knows the players. Lay leaders want a public personality -- politician, college president -- who can unite the community and put the new body on the map.

Right now, the searchers are talking to everyone, hoping that someone surfaces with all the conflicting qualities. Odds are slim, though. Sooner or later, they'll have to make some tough choices. Choices that will affect all of us for years.

At that point, maybe they'll talk, somehow, to the rest of us.


J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.

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