Jewish Journal

As Jewish communities unite, disconnects persist

by Tom Tugend

April 3, 2008 | 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.

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