Monday, March 01, 1999

UJA Merger

The pending union of the Council of Jewish Federations and United Jewish Appeal seems like a good idea, in view of the urgent need to downsize an elephantine American Jewish bureaucracy that has elevated organizational redundancy, waste and irrelevance into major virtues. But like most appearances, this one may be deceiving. What is already being marketed to a gullible Jewish public as an historic achievement may turn out to be transparent and little more than the old arrangement in new wrapping.

At the local level in communities across the continent, Federations and the UJA have long had a close relationship, without waiting for their parent organizations to tie the knot. Because the institutional framework is essentially controlled by the Federations, they have been the dominant partner, so that in many places the UJA is virtually extinct. It once had an identity that evoked the establishment of Israel and the struggle to provide for the security of the Jewish State, but it did not have troops or an organizational infrastructure and changing times in Jewish life have not been kind to it.

It is hard to gauge the implications of this development. When we recall the successful 1969 and 1973 UJA campaigns that were mounted when Israel was at war, we can appreciate what American Jewry was able to do in crisis periods. Hopefully, similar needs will not arise, but we cannot know for sure. Who or what will be available to do the work that UJA once did?

More fundamentally, the merger is likely to result in a further reduction of financial support for Israel. Over the years, the formula for dividing the Federation-UJA pie has been altered in many communities, with American-based activities receiving an ever-increasing share of allocations. It’s been said that this is the consequence of secular Jewish dissatisfaction over the role of the Orthodox in Israel. But this view puts a bogus ideological gloss on decisions that long proceeded the recent debate.

The primary explanation as to why our Federations are giving less to Israel is that since their fundraising outcomes are essentially flat, this is a convenient way to free up money for local priorities.

Because Israel’s economy is strong and there are expanding pockets of affluence, the case for philanthropic support for Israel that once could easily be made is now something of a stretch. Israel is far from poverty-stricken and it should not continue to don beggar’s garb as it seeks American Jewish alms. A reduction in what had been UJA support may not, in any case, turn out to be too significant in view of the many other channels for American Jewish philanthropy that remain open and receptive to Israeli causes.

What is of concern – or should be – is something more ephemeral than financial support and yet something that is far more powerful. Israel needs the loyalty – the caring and emotional nurturing – of diaspora Jews and this has been slipping as advanced assimilation takes an expanding toll. A decline in concern about Israel is an inevitable outcome of the abandonment of any sense of Jewish identity. Millions of Jews who scarcely regard themselves as Jewish cannot be expected to listen to the radio in the morning in order to learn whether there is news about Israel.

What is especially troubling is how many people in the Federation ambit are detached from Israel. Late in 1997, Earl Raab and Larry Sternberg of Brandeis University surveyed the attitudes of over 6,800 randomly selected Federation donors in fourteen communities and more than 600 leaders of Jewish Community Relations Councils in twelve communities. Their published findings have not received much attention, though the data should give pause to any who are certain that the CJF-UJA merger is a Jewish marriage made in heaven.

Sixty percent of the respondents said that they were distant from the Israeli government. While an unfavorable view of Prime Minister Netanyahu doubtlessly contributed handsomely to this statistic, what was being expressed by many respondents is a sense of distance that transcends the particular policy or leadership of the Israeli government. As evidence, twenty-four percent of the surveyed participants expressed themselves as distant from Israelis. They weren’t talking about the 6,000 miles that separate the two countries.

This is a remarkably high figure but it is not entirely surprising when we keep in mind how assimilation has eroded the identity of American Jews, including those who remain involved, in one fashion or another, in our communal life. There are more problematic statistics, including the revelation that thirty-one percent of the Federation and community relations people had never been to Israel and that an equal percentage had visited but once. Perhaps Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman ought to expand their Birthright Israel Project to include adults whose feelings for the Jewish State need to be awakened.

When the avalanche of hype hits us, touting the merger as an epic achievement befitting the arrival of the millennium, we might want to keep in mind that somehow in the equation there is a little place called Israel that must remain large in the hearts and minds of American Jews.

What must not remain large is our organizational bloat. If the new entity is only about a new name and institutional setup, we will continue to have an emperor without clothing. What is needed is the vision and courage to radically transform our organizational life. Else, we will be left with an exercise that amounts to rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic.

Even as they lend their names to organizations and arrangements that should be discarded, our superrich put their money elsewhere, mostly into their own foundations which are better run and which incorporate their view of philanthropy. This is unlikely to change, even if the unexpected happens and our communal leaders decide that while the twentieth century was an extended period for organizational excess, the twenty-first century requires that we discard wasteful practices. What fuels the instinct for private Jewish philanthropy is ego, not any deepfelt concern about the errant ways of our establishment.

Still, there is reason for modest optimism. While Charles Bronfman, shortly to be the annointed head of the CJF-UJA merged entity, will not fold his family philanthropy into the new organization, he is a man of accomplishment and influence. He knows what is wrong with the arrangement that has been in place for far too long. We can hope that major reform will be at the top of his agenda and that he will succeed.