By Richard Wexler
I have read and reread the set of Haaretz articles over investigative reporter Uri Blau’s byline. I know the literal fear among JFNA’s leaders when, almost one year ago, Uri’s questionnaires were already on federation leaders’ desk around the Continent – a fear exemplified in the bizarre Memorandum sent to the federations from 25 Broadway; a fear driven by the reality that no one at 25 Broadway understood Blau and his colleagues’ questions, so how might they offer any answers.
Luckily, federation lay and professional leaders took their jobs and the questions that Uri Blau framed more seriously. And that seriousness of purpose – both Blau’s and the federation leaders – is reflected in the articles. Yes, there are criticisms that should cause our communal leaders to engage in serious reflection, discussion and debate: some nepotism and self-dealing*, the appearance of excess compensation, federation grants in settlements across the “Green Line,” high risk investments, and apparent duplication and overlap. Some federations, including my own Chicago’s, invested hour after hour responding at length to the questions; just as Blau and his associates spent hour after hour examining in depth the 990’s of 100’s of federations.
I know that federation leaders wish that the investigation never took place – they really hate being “investigated” and the publicity, good or bad, that might result. Yet, most should feel gratified: (1) that the authors faithfully accompanied their findings and conclusions in most instances with federation leaders explanations; and (2) that the system was so often represented in the articles by such articulate lay and professional leaders – whether Chicago’s Board Chair, Michael Zaransky, Cleveland’s Director of Marketing and Communications, or Jay Sanderson, Los Angeles CEO, or others.
Not everyone, of course, was as forthcoming. While examples were rare, one sticks in the craw: a Miami senior professional asked about the propriety of a loan granted him by the federation, responded “So What?” Remarkable … and sad. So, too, the infrequent (apparently) claims of “confidentiality.”
Uri Blau and his colleagues faced the same challenge that anyone seeking information on federations’ financial activities does: having to penetrate Form 990s which are basically opaque and always … always … stale by the time they are filed – two years stale, in fact. But the questions Haaretz asked, though I can only deduce what they were from the articles, were not stale.
The larger the federation, the greater the complexity. That Uri Blau was able to produce a set of articles with cogent analysis of a number of important issues is to his credit. Even more so as JFNA in its directives to the federations – directives as I’ve noted the federations ignored – expressed the fear, among others, that Haaretz was “out to get us” (or words to that effect). I would hope that having read the articles and the source materials that our communal lay and professional leaders would conclude that the Blau articles were fair and balanced. To the federations credit is their willingness – reluctant as they may have been – to respond in a proactive way.
I don’t know how federation Boards and professional leaders will use the set of articles. My guess is that there will be a sense of relief and that they will deem this chapter closed. And that would be a shame, a real shame. There is much to be learned if we are willing to look at ourselves with a critical eye in a transparent manner.
I recall back in the mid-90’s visiting an Intermediate Federation. In meeting with the Federation CEO and Chair, it became evident that the lay leader had no idea that the federation had years of unpaid allocations. He was shocked. And we quickly negotiated the timetable for repayment. Perhaps in a different way, federation leaders reading the Blau articles and examining the data links to their own communities will become more aware of issues that should be discussed in an open and transparent way.
In this day and age I guess a finding of “nothing illegal here, just some questions” is a good thing. Could be better … but a good thing, all in all.
* In the interest of full disclosure, my wonderful and brilliant wife, a pre-school director in our community for a quarter-century before her retirement, was engaged by the Jewish Federation as the part-time Coordinator of what would become Chicago’s pioneering JUF-Right Start pre-school grant program; and I was retained by the JUF as its land use lawyer in a number of important JUF Facilities Corporation zoning matters. Both of these matters were identified in my annual Conflict of Interest filings and I recused myself from all relevant votes.
Richard Wexler is a Past Chair of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, the United Jewish Appeal and the United Israel Appeal and Co-Chaired the merger that created what is now JFNA. He is the author of the blog, “UJThee and Me.”