You’ve probably already read quite a few stories here about how the Madoff scandal and the economic collapse is changing the organized Jewish community. Last week in the New York Jewish Week, Norman Liss, who has served on his share of Jewish nonprofit boards, said that it’s “time to close ranks, and some organizations.”
An early victim of the current recession is CAJE, an agency devoted to, and apparently succeeding at, improving Jewish education. Yet other agencies, whose current function and purpose in Jewish life is far from clear continue to function largely as shells, draining funds from more useful counterparts. They seem to exist primarily to allow their volunteer heads to continue to claim a seat at the table of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Other organizations, founded over a century ago to deal with an immigrant Jewish population, continue to exist under a Jewish umbrella, even though social circumstances have changed dramatically in the interim, such that they serve few, if any, Jews. Some of those agencies control large pots of money that could be put to more pressing Jewish uses. Inertia and nostalgia preserve structures and communal assignments that no longer make sense.
The problems alluded to have existed for many years. But now the need for change is of crisis proportion. Unfortunately, although some organizations are much needed and highly productive with dedicated leaders and membership, many in the leadership of the Jewish community are there for reasons other than the collective interests of the Jewish people, some for self-aggrandizement, and some to network for business. Many have simply been too myopic to recognize that their organizations, which have historically contributed much to the growth and health of Jews in America and to the cause of Israel, either no longer do so or are overlapping with the work of other organizations.
Sound familiar to anyone in Los Angeles?
Stanley Gold, chairman of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, has been saying this for 18 months now. Change thus far has been painful for some members of the community, while others think it hasn’t occurred fast enough.
“Everybody benefited from the status quo — except for the community,” Jay Sanderson, CEO of JTN Productions and a former Federation board member, told me back in January. “Most Jewish organizations in this community are completely overstaffed. They are enormous for what they do. There are tired organizations that don’t have a lot of vision and are spending a tremendous amount of money doing the same old, same old. I like what Stanley Gold’s intention is. It just hasn’t gone far enough in The Federation yet, and hasn’t gone far enough in the community. That isn’t because of Stanley. The pushback is just ridiculous. Many institutions are functioning like they did in the ’50s. There is not a lot of vision in the community, and most of these organizations spend more money on staff and raising money then they do on what their mission is.”