Thursday, November 25, 2004

It's Broken, But Can It Be Fixed?

Card players who have been dealt a bad hand can fold or they can bluff and play on. The sincere folks who lead United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization for more than 150 Federations, have a bad hand and they know it. However, they cannot fold their tent because Jewish organizations don't exist to go out of business. So they bluff a bit and play on.

How do we know that UJC is in trouble? For one thing, just about everyone -including its leaders - say it is. Attendance at the just-held General Assembly was way down. Nearly all who came were on one or another communal expense account. Ariel Sharon and Shimon Peres were expected but stayed home. There is much talk about a lack of focus, the absence of vision. It is said that UJC is attempting to do too much and that too much effort goes into the GA.

There's no thought of going out of business because, again, that's not the American Jewish way. If UJC were to close down, what might happen to thousands of other Jewish organizations that have been on life support for years? The subversive notion that the Biblical imperative "be fruitful and multiply" does not apply to organizations might take root and gain support. Before long, there may be a grassroots movement to properly inter all those brain-dead Jewish groups. For fifty years or since the eminent sociologist Robert MacIver wrote his famous report urging the consolidation of a number of Jewish groups, we have known that something was rotten in our organizational life. Our response then and now has been to create even more groups.

What ails UJC extends far beyond the confines of one organization. UJC has not suffered sudden vision loss. What it does not have now in focus and vision, it did not have when it was formed in the 1990's as the successor to the Council of Jewish Federations. It is a large, expensive bureaucracy whose member Federations are themselves bureaucracies. In the aggregate, an inordinate share of income is spent on in-house expenses, including fundraising and public relations.

The General Assembly is at its core a gathering of expense-account pseudo machers whose idea of vision is to be together with other pseudo machers. It is not a place for ideas or boldness and that is why our best and most creative people stay away.

Whatever the UJC's limitations, it's short-sighted to think that what is wrong or even dysfunctional emanates from the top of our organizational heap. The UJC is nothing more than an extension of the Federation system, an arrangement that may have made sense in the early years of the last century when our community was caught up in the imperative that a central agency was needed in every locality to coordinate the work of Jewish social service providers. Although some coordination was achieved, constituent agencies essentially continued to determine their own affairs, a process that has accelerated because of the dominance of public funding and the minimal funding received from Federation.

It is time to rethink the Federation network which gobbles up enormous resources with little payoff except in newer places of American Jewish settlement where the local Federations are generally vibrant. It's also time to reconsider the merger that resulted in the Federations swallowing up the United Jewish Appeal. The savings that resulted from this key policy shift have been offset by fundraising downturns. Most importantly, the virtual obliteration of the UJA brand name was a mistake because it reduced the capacity of American Jews to identity more directly with Israel. There was something distinctive about contributing to UJA and that has been lost.

The UJC/Federation issue transcends questions of structure or purpose. Our organizations have a life of their own, operating oblivious to the vast changes that have occurred among American Jews. We feed our organizations without paying heed to what is transpiring in the world outside of organizations. Simply put, there is a disconnect. We can debate how many Jews there are or what to make of intermarriage and other demographic issues. What is beyond debate is that we have lost a ton of people and among those who remain, overwhelmingly they do not give a hoot about our army of organizations. It boggles the mind to think that in the face of massive and continuing losses, we have 155 Federations in North America. They are, incidentally, just specks on our vast organizational map.

Our communal life has calcified, which is to be expected in view of the inertial forces that inhere in organizations. What is exciting in philanthropy comes from outside of the Federation world. The super-rich have decided that an independent path offers the best prospect for creativity. Inside of our organizational world, there is little room for ideas or boldness and there is scant opportunity for those who challenge the status quo.

I acknowledge that our huge infrastructure has convinced many who are not Jewish that we are a super-powerful and vibrant people. I recognize, as well, that there are organizations that are doing good things and that some of the old-timers - the AJCongress and the AJCommittee come to mind - have changed and adjusted to new realities. Overall, though, the picture is dismal. It is also true that among groups that are doing good work, such as Hadassah, there is an expanding demographic problem as the membership is graying and declining in number.

The crisis in UJC is not that it hasn't adjusted. The greater difficulty is that there is no viable course to take, no solution to what besets it. I do not see light at the end of the tunnel. For sure, though, our army of organizations will plow on, raising loads of money and emitting loads of pr copy. Too many of us will continue to believe that the emperor is clothed.