Jewish Journal

As Jewish communities unite, disconnects persist

by Tom Tugend

Posted on Apr. 3, 2008 at 6:00 pm

Howard Rieger, speaking at Washington 15, the UJC National Young Leadership conference in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy United Jewish Communities

Howard Rieger, speaking at Washington 15, the UJC National Young Leadership conference in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy United Jewish Communities

Howard Rieger, the top professional of organized American Jewry as president and chief executive officer of the national organization United Jewish Communities (UJC), figures that criticism comes with the territory.

"Any time you make changes, some people will admire you and some will not," he said in a phone interview. "If you can't keep that in perspective, you become immobilized and don't belong in this position."

That's a fortunate attitude, for Rieger and UJC have been on the receiving end of a volley of brickbats remarkable even for the contentious Jewish community.

UJC was formed in 1999 through a merger of three North American umbrella organizations, the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), United Jewish Appeal (UJA) and United Israel Appeal (UIA), which together oversaw nearly a billion dollars annually in fundraising proceeds for domestic and overseas programs.

Fueling the historic merger, following seven years of discussions and negotiations, were demands by UJA for a more efficient fundraising system, and by the federations for more control over the proportion and use of funds going to Israel.

According to a number of Jewish leaders, many of whom played key roles in the merger discussions, their expectations for UJC have remained largely unfulfilled, to put it diplomatically.

Part of the fault, the critics say, is structural, and some are missteps, such as the elimination of the popular UJA brand name.

But most of the criticism focuses on the performance of the UJC leadership, which is faulted for operating in a vacuum, avoiding vigorous discussions before implementing decisions, lack of passion and energy, and terrible staff relations, marked by the departure of five key senior staffers during the past year.

One frequently heard charge is that UJC is "owned" by the executives of big metropolitan federations, at the expense of smaller communities and overseas needs.

If so, Los Angeles, with the nation's second largest Jewish community, appears largely absent from the decision-making table.

One highly knowledgeable source in another part of the country observed that there had been a "disconnect" between the Los Angeles Federation and UJC for years, but he hoped that once Stanley Gold, the new Federation chair, focused on the problem, things would change.

Gold acknowledged that relations between Los Angeles and UJC headquarters in New York had been "stop and start" for many years. He said that both the national and local organizations must adapt to changes, and at a faster pace, to put the long-term relationship back on track.

Veteran community and Federation leader Frank Maas, recently appointed by Gold as the local representative on the UJC executive committee, said that the "disconnect" in Jewish organized life between the West Coast and the New York-Boston-Chicago-centered leadership was one of long standing.

"It's largely a matter of geography," Maas said, with West Coast leaders losing one day in travel to attend an East Coast meeting, and one day coming back.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles currently contributes $2.1 million annually toward the UJC overhead, for such expenses as resource development and campaign assistance, which yield relatively few benefits for Los Angeles, with a well-developed structure of its own.

Nevertheless, "We are committed to a strong collective and collaborative effort with UJC for the benefit of the national and international Jewish communities, and we want to see UJC as a strong and viable entity," Maas said.

Another veteran Federation leader, who asked that his name be withheld, put the long-term gap between the left and right coasts more bluntly.

"It's just a different ballgame out here," he said. "We're a different community in Los Angeles than in Cleveland, Baltimore or Atlanta. But New York thinks that if we only followed its directions, everything would work out."

Los Angeles Federation president John Fishel declined requests for comment.

The lives of UJC top executives have been made even more unpleasant lately by an unidentified blogger (www.disunitedujc.blogspot.com), who seems to have a direct pipeline into UJC's inner workings, although Rieger said the blogger was not a UJC employee.

The blogger devoted a recent column to a three-year-old piece of unfinished business that refuses to go away.

In early 2005, Gerald (Jerry) Bubis and Steven Windmueller, respectively founding director of the School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles and its dean, came out with a 165-page paperback titled "From Predictability to Chaos? How Jewish Leaders Reinvented Their National Community System."

Based on interviews with 88 men and women, most of who participated in the 1999 merger talks, the study concluded that these "stake holders" were largely frustrated and disappointed by the outcome of their labors.

Despite everybody's good intentions, the merger reveals "a tale of unclear expectations, unshared visions, mixed motivations and multi-layered power games," the authors wrote.

Just before publication of their report, Bubis and Windmueller met in New York with a cross-section of national lay leaders and professionals for a daylong dialogue on their study.

There was vigorous discussion, with both critics and supporters having their say. Among the former was Stephen Hoffman of Cleveland, who preceded Rieger as UJC's top professional, and who said in an interview that the study went "180 degrees in the wrong direction" and propounded "academic theory that had no relationship to reality."

Rieger saw some good and some bad in the report, but was mainly offended by an incident during the dialogue, which he recounted with some emotion: "In the waning moments of the meeting, Jerry [Bubis] made a statement to the effect that the majority of American Jews don't like the Jewish federations. I thought that statement was outrageous."

Bubis agreed that he made the statement, and that he believes it was unfortunately true.

"You can see it in the decrease of givers to federations all across the country, with very few exceptions," he said.

By virtue of his lifelong personal and professional dedication to Jewish communal work, his writings and his academic research, Bubis is one of the senior figures in the field, and even his critics generally avow their respect for the man.Despite this stature, Bubis maintains that the UJC leadership has consistently tried to suppress the book and limit its circulation, in the process violating the professional norms of open discussion.

For instance, when Bubis tried to market the book at the UJC General Assembly in Toronto in November 2005, he was refused permission to do so, Bubis said.

Even more stunning to Bubis was the failure of the respected Journal of Jewish Communal Service to review "From Predictability to Chaos?" The Journal is published by the Jewish Communal Service Association of North America, which Bubis had previously served as president and whose present executive director is Brenda Gevertz.

As is the norm in peer-reviewed professional publications, a review of the book was submitted by former Dallas federation executive Morris Stein, but then the process ground to a halt.

Bubis said he received a letter from Gevertz regretting that the review could not be published, noting, for one, that she could not find two other professional members to comment on Stein's review, and, for another, that "sometimes one has to adjust to political realities."

Such back-and-forth about a book review may strike the layman as a tempest in a teapot, but to members of professional organizations the absolute independence of their journals, allowing full expression of all views, is sacred.

One member incensed by the review brouhaha was Melvyn Bloom, now executive vice president of the American Technion Society and a former top executive of the UJA.

Bloom said he wrote Gevertz, offered to review Stein's review and to find a second reviewer, but was told by Gevertz that her leadership had raised objections.

Angered at what he saw as political pressure, Bloom notified Gevertz that he would withhold all professional dues to her organization.

Speaking from her office in New York, Gevertz flatly contradicted the Bubis and Bloom versions of events.

She said that following normal procedure, she sent Stein's review of her book to three members for comment. One responded that the Stein article should not run, a second refused to review it, and a third never responded at all.

Gevertz said she then consulted the board of her association, which decided against running any review of the Bubis book.

"The UJC leadership was never consulted in this matter and had no part in the final decision," Gevertz declared.

Windmueller, the book's co-author, has been less involved in the controversy, but said he "shared Jerry's frustration and found the matter very disheartening."

Rieger, the UJC president, denied that he had any role in the alleged suppression of the book and described the controversy as "a red herring."

Describing himself as a longtime colleague and friend of Bubis, Rieger said that while the book may have represented "a snapshot in time," it did not reflect UJC's substantial changes in recent years.

Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, who also participated in the merger talks, judged the Bubis book as "not very sophisticated," but said he saw no reason to suppress it.

While the arguments surrounding the book may be symptomatic of the waves roiling UJC's waters, the current criticism of the organization runs broader and deeper.

One leading and prominent critic is Richard L. Wexler, a Chicago attorney. His list of previous national offices include chair of UJA, Jewish Agency for Israel (North America), United Israel Appeal and the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.

Most germane to the present topic, Wexler was co-chairman of the committee that hammered out the establishment of UJC (with Rieger serving as the key professional) and he remains on UJC's board and executive committee.

In a phone interview, Wexler said that under the merger agreement, the country's federations were to be the "owners" of UJC and take responsibility for its effectiveness, but have failed to do so.

"There is a lack of focus, a lack of prioritization," Wexler said. "When all problems are considered equally important, then none is important."

Other shortcomings, he alleged, were "lack of passion and engagement" by lay and professional leaders, and "unprofessional and un-Jewish treatment of employees."

"Not even lawyers treat their staff so badly," Wexler interjected jokingly.

While the original proponents of the UJC merger projected increased assistance for small federations, as well for Israel and overseas needs, the opposite has happened, even while dues from federations to UJC keep going up, Wexler charged.

Asked for any positive UJC accomplishments, Wexler cited the "excellent job" in quickly getting aid to victims of Hurricane Katrina, and, more recently, to terror victims in Israel, particularly in Sderot.

Rieger, 65, the target of much of the criticism, became UJC's third president/CEO in late 2004, after 23 years working for the United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh, concluding the service as president.

In a phone call from Washington, where he was addressing his organization's young leadership, Rieger rebutted his critics in some detail.

He asserted that UJC is meeting Jewish needs at home and overseas faster and at a lower cost than would have been possible without the merger.

In the past three years, "We have saved the Jewish community tens of millions of dollars and lowered our budget, without giving up a heck of a lot in effectiveness," Rieger said.

"We have demonstrated our ability to respond to crises in Israel in a way that federations couldn't have done on an individual basis," he added, citing $800 million raised in two emergency appeals, and an additional $25 million sent recently to the people of Sderot and Ashkelon.

Rieger also pointed to UJC's aid, "from day one," to the Jewish community of Katrina-stricken New Orleans and vicinity, without which the local Jewish agencies would have collapsed.UJC is also allocating $40 million to a "forward-looking project" to establish independent living retirement communities in 45 cities across America, among other initiatives.

"There is plenty of life in the enterprise," Rieger said. "We can always do better, but the reality of Jewish life is that while we can coalesce when the chips are down, during business-as-usual times it's easy to criticize. We are skeptics, and while it is great to challenge, sometimes it's good to come to a conclusion, and that's always a stretch for the Jewish world."

He denied that UJC was dominated by a few large-city federations on the East Coast and in the Midwest, and cited the names of current UJC leaders from small communities.

"You could even make the charge that the big cities are underrepresented," he said.

Implicitly addressing his critics, Rieger said that there are some "who prefer to play Don Quixote, some voices that have been heard for too long. While they have every right to do so, they are not right to drown out everyone else."

He attributed much of the criticism to a reluctance by detractors to accept change.

Responding to charges of poor staff relations, Rieger described UJC as "a great place to work," infinitely better than in the past, but always with room for improvement.

On request, UJC's headquarters staff supplied a rundown on its revenues and expenses from fiscal years 2003-2007.

The chart showed that in 2003, UJC received $543.6 million, dropping to $414 million in 2005, but swinging back to $610.7 million in 2007. Revenues exceeded expenses, except in 2004 and 2005, when the balance ledger ran into the red.

Rieger attributed the numerous high-level staff resignations during the past year to a desire by senior staffers with long tenure to explore other options.

Asked how frequent attacks on his stewardship affected him personally, Rieger answered, in Jewish tradition, with a series of questions: "Do I wish people who criticize me would have a better opinion of me? Yes, I do. Do I think those people have genuine differences of opinion with me? Yes, I do. Do I think the anonymous blogger has a personal axe to grind? Yes. I do."

He concluded, "These problems are facts of life. I will let my record speak for itself."

Rieger has a strong, though not uncritical, ally in Stephen Hoffman, who preceded Rieger as UJC's president and CEO, and is now president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland.

Hoffman curtly dismissed the list of complaints against UJC's performance as "bull----," and countered that UJC was delivering services to the American Jewish community at 25 percent less cost than was possible before the merger.

Like others, Hoffman argued that under the merger agreement, the country's federations had assumed ownership of UJC, without taking the corresponding responsibility for its performance.

While Hoffman said he did not wish to judge the effectiveness of Rieger's administration, he added that the positives far outweigh the failures.

"The problem is that everybody had inflated expectations of what the creation of UJC, through the merger, would accomplish," Hoffman said. "UJC has delivered on some of these ambitions, but is still on its way to delivering on other goals."

Tracker Pixel for Entry


View our privacy policy and terms of service.