One hundred years ago, the federation movement was in full bloom in American Jewish life. Communal leaders believed that it wasn’t sufficient for Jewish-sponsored hospitals, social service agencies and educational institutions to go it alone. It was necessary to have centralized planning, coordination of services and one main address for philanthropy. Federations were established throughout the land and, as American Jewry dispersed, the number grew, so that there are now far in excess of 100 federations in the U.S.
New York was a laggard in this development, doubtlessly because of its immense Jewish population and the difficulty of bringing a great many service agencies into a cooperative arrangement. Eventually, New York joined the federation parade
Inevitably, federation fever led to the corollary impulse to create a super-agency to coordinate the work of the local coordinators. We were blessed with what in its latest incarnation is known as the United Jewish Federation. In a way, this intensive organizational activity proved that we were good Americans, for in the 1830’s the great Tocqueville noted that Americans were a nation of joiners.
As the federation movement gained momentum, few questioned the efficacy of our communal handiwork, the assumption being that we were reaping substantial benefits and saving money. In fact, our pride was shared by outsiders who admired the range and quality of services provided by Jewish agencies and our fundraising success.
When the federation world made its move to incorporate the United Jewish Appeal into its ambit, the naysayers were relatively few and they were easily subdued. We were in a state of euphoria and each year the celebratory tone was highlighted by a multi-million dollar extravaganza known as the General Assembly, it being a gathering of 3,000 pseudo machers, functionaries and assorted hangers-on in the federation world.
The federation world was being undermined by powerful forces that it could not counteract. Governmental programs, especially those launched by the Great Society, provided funding opportunities that dwarfed federation subventions. These opportunities were usually accompanied by regulations mandating services irrespective of religious affiliation, this at a time when a new sense of ethnicity in Jewish life was pressuring federations to go in the opposite direction. Then came the extraordinary expansion of private Jewish wealth which has resulted in an impressive roster of well-endowed family philanthropies that are committed to Jewish causes but which go it alone.
Functionally, federations were de-federating. Hospitals recognized that they could do far better on their own and while they did not disaffiliate, their relationship with federations is without substance or meaning. Much the same is true, to one extent or another, of many Jewish social service agencies. In reality, federations have little left to coordinate. The concept that led to their creation has dissipated, but the expensive organizational shell that was formed to house the concept remains in business.
Far more than the cost or waste, federations – and especially UJF – are tired organizations. Instead of encouraging creativity they stifle it. The emphasis is on the bureaucratic, on endless rounds of meetings, task forces and commissions, reports that few people read and have zero impact, press releases that exalt and exaggerate the mundane and conferences and conventions, which provide federationniks the opportunity to run into familiar faces. I guess that maintaining these trivial pursuits passes for Jewish continuity within the Jewish establishment.
In New York, the situation is worse than it is elsewhere. For all of the public relations claims, the federation network has little to do any longer with providing for needy Jews. There is, instead, an Orthodox-sponsored voluntary network of service agencies that deal directly on a daily basis with thousands of Jews who are in need.
There are communities where federations still have vitality, where they play a useful role. Sadly, even they are entrapped in the federation world’s bureaucratic imperative and their resources and energy are sapped.
One especially damaging feature of the current arrangement is the inadvertent barrier established between American Jews and Israel. We are asked to make our gifts to a joint campaign, which is to say that after the substantial expenses of running the federations are taken off and local and U.S. allocations are made, a declining share goes to UJA and Israel.
The problem is less financial than psychological. Israel is endangered, perhaps more seriously than in 1967 and 1973. During these earlier crises, there was an outputting of financial and emotional support for Israel, largely through UJA. There is nothing of the sort today and I believe that to an extent this is because UJA is no longer a meaningful entity to us, no longer in our frame of Jewish reference. Instead of an emotional outpouring about Israel, we get a stream of press releases and xeroxed statement about what we should write to our representatives in Washington.
There are powerful reasons why the federation world should be dismantled. This is unlikely to happen anytime soon because of inertia and apathy and because too many functionaries have a stake in maintaining the dysfunctional status quo. But the system cannot endure as it is.