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Jewish Journal

Jewish Philanthropy, From A to C

The General Assembly of Jewish federations produced a few surprises this year.

November 25, 1999 | 7:00 pm

There was a sort of informal poll conducted among the delegates who gathered in Atlanta last week for the annual assembly of America's Jewish welfare federations.

The agency that convened them, the newly-designated United Jewish Communities, had scheduled a series of discussions for the assembly's second day on the four "pillars" that sum up its mission: Jewish renaissance, social services, Israel and overseas needs, and fundraising. Delegates were free to pick their "pillar."

The results tell you everything you need to know about where Jewish philanthropy is headed in the next few years. The session on fundraising drew between 400 and 500 people, mainly professionals engaged in a businesslike discussion of new trends. The session on Israel and overseas needs drew about the same number, including some of American Jewry's top activists, for an earnest -- and inconclusive -- exploration of how to bind American Jewry and Israel together in the years to come.

The session on social services, the worst attended, drew just over 300 people, for a dispirited discussion of how to keep American Jewry from dropping out of social activism altogether. "People in the room were generally pretty depressed from what I could tell," said a New Jersey delegate. The best attended session was the one on Jewish renaissance and identity.

It had over 800 delegates spilling out of the chairs and lining the walls . The mood in the room was one of eager expectation. But the reviews afterward were generally downbeat. The consensus seemed to be that delegates hadn't heard much they didn't know already. In part, that was because the answers are already familiar. "We already know exactly what we have to do," Boston federation president Barry Shrage told the delegates. "All we have to do is do it." What's needed, Shrage said, is more and better teachers, more communication among synagogues, more openness among Jews.

"The bottom line is, you can't do anything without money," said one delegate, Caryl Berzovsky of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., as she exited the session. The delegates had come to Atlanta with few expectations. They knew the organization that convened them had been reorganized and renamed. Just what that would mean for their local work, out in the community, wasn't clear to anyone. But they were about to find out. After five years of mind-numbing quibbling, the fabled United Jewish Appeal had been transformed into the little-known United Jewish Communities. This assembly was the new agency 's inaugural rollout.

The opening session had featured Vice President Al Gore, in a 45-minute speech that could only be called astoundingly adequate. He was smooth, sometimes funny, at times almost uplifting. He talked about things his listeners cared about. By any standard it was a credible performance. For Gore, given his robot-like reputation, it was a masterpiece. "I was looking for a reason to like him, and he gave one," said one satisfied listener. By the time delegates headed home two days later, that was pretty much the verdict on the operation as a whole. For five years the national institutions of Jewish philanthropy had been paralyzed, unable to discuss anything but their own structure. In Atlanta, finally, they got back to t he business of Jewish philanthropy. "There's a sense of optimism that some o f the institutional baggage has been cleared up," said delegate Francine Immerman of Cleveland. The shift hadn't come a moment too soon. Delegates spoke repeatedly, many in urgent tones, of the need to shake up the Jewish community's institutions and move them into a new era. The existing institutions of Jewish philanthropy had been created a century ago, to face emergencies that have long since ended. Local Jewish federations were set up to provide social services for millions of penniless Jewish refugees pouring into America's urban ghettoes. The United Jewish Appeal arose a half-century later to rescue Jews from the devastation of Nazi Europe and build a new state of Israel.

Today's emergency isn't in the ghettoes or battlefields, but in the heart s of young Jews. The issue is no longer how Jews can survive in a hostile world. The issue is why stay Jewish in a world that's ever more welcoming . The question facing the Jewish federations is whether the awesome resources they command -- annual donations of $1.5 billion, a vast network of institutions from coast to coast -- can be harnessed to that new mission.

Up to now the system has been slow to shift direction, in large part because the old structure kept vested interests in command. The old Unite d Jewish Appeal, run by donors who'd spent a lifetime fighting for Israel, was a stubborn advocate for keeping things unchanged. Local initiatives -- new forms of Jewish outreach, voices of Jewish spirituality, women's groups -- had little voice. According to some critics, that was a key reason the new emergency hasn't yet gotten the full-bore response American Jewry is capable of. "Right now, the leadership and vision are being provided further down the food chain," says Shrage. Heads of the new United Jewish Communities say they're moving as fast as they can. "None of our pillars is up and running," says UJC president Stephen Solender. "We don't have permanent committees working yet. This is just the beginning. Up to now people really couldn't see what we were trying to do. People here are seeing it come together." But there's another question facing the federations, and it's not so simple to answer. You can't discuss a renaissance of Jewish identity without discussing what Judaism is about. That will leave Jews feeling empty and frustrated, as assembly delegates learned.

Pursuing a genuine agenda of Jewish renaissance means not just focusing inward and teaching more Torah. It also means adapting -- and expanding -- the old programs. It means reaching out to Israel, not forgetting about it now that it can take care of itself. It means adapting, not ending, Jewish social services and social activism, so that Judaism doesn't become the only religion in America with nothing to say. The initial moves by the UJC are encouraging. What's needed is much more leadership and vision, to keep Jews engaged with each other and the world.

Otherwise, as one UJA ex-board member griped, "it's all just rearranging furniture." "In the end, this is the place where people come together to set the agenda for the Jewish community," said Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Congregation B'nai Tzedek in Potomac, Md. "The question now is how this whole configuration is going to trickle down, whether changing an A to a C is going to have an impact on people's lives."


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

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