Change Does Not Always Mean Progress: Looking at JFNA Today

I am concerned that the Federation system has been and is being weakened by an approach that seeks to protect vested interests instead of initiating and developing ways for Federations, individual and collectively, to meet the challenges of the local and international Jewish community in the 21st century.

by Stephen G. Donshik

Over the last few years I have written a number of postings about the status and needs of the North American Jewish Federation system and the umbrella organization of the local Federations, now called the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA). Although at times I have been critical both of the Federation system and the JFNA, I am a staunch supporter of them and their central role in strengthening the Jewish community as a whole and in meeting the needs of individual local Jewish communities.

Having said this, I do think the system has lost direction and is not working in the most efficient and effective way. I believe that the reorganization of the Council of Jewish Federations of North America (CJF), the national United Jewish Appeal (UJA) and the United Israel Appeal (UIA) into the Jewish Federations of North America has led to more confusion and greater ineffectiveness, not less. The reorganization process in the early 1990s followed years of discussions and deliberations. At first the merged entity was called Newco, until a name could be selected. It was then named the United Jewish Communities (UJC). To restore the main branding word “Federation,” UJC was later renamed the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) to clearly identify that the national organization was related to local Federations and the activities and programs of the Federation system.

Many perceived the reorganization to be much needed, and in fact some considered it long overdue. The mantra that was heard over and over again during the process of reorganization was “efficiency, efficiency, efficiency – the new structure will enable our system to work more efficiently and do away with duplication.” Yet never answered were these questions: What were the purposes and functions of the system prior to the reorganization, and what would be the purposes and functions of the new structure that was created by the change?

If I can wax nostalgic for a moment, there were clear differences in the purposes and functions of the Council of Jewish Federations and the UJA. The CJF was a “professional trade association” of the Federation movement devoted to the strengthening of local Federations and the national system. Its mission was to provide services to local Federations in a whole host of areas, including campaign, planning, leadership and board development, personnel services, and convening the system for regular meetings, as well as planning and implementing the annual meeting of the movement, the General Assembly (GA). By providing the Federations with these services, CJF enabled them to fulfill their role in the local community more effectively and more efficiently. At the same time, it represented the system on the national level by having a presence in Washington, D.C., and maintaining relationships with the U.S. government and elected officials.

However, the CJF was not an advocate for either local needs or overseas needs. The organization focused on strengthening local Federations’ ability to serve their local communities and to raise and allocate funds for the UJA for overseas needs. The United Jewish Appeal – which was created in 1939 in response to Kristallnacht by the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) – was responsible for advocating for overseas needs and maintaining contacts with the local Federations. To enhance local Federations’ ability to raise funds for overseas needs, UJA services to those Federations included producing written materials, designing and implementing overseas missions, and representing the emerging needs of Israel and Jewish communities around the world. Its two major recipients were JAFI and JDC, which benefited from the local Federations’ allocations to UJA.

The merging of these two purposes and functions – providing services to local Federations and advocating for overseas needs – placed the national organization in the middle of a conflict of interest. How could the organization hope to enhance the operations of local Federations to become more effective and efficient and at the same time advocate for overseas needs as the representative of the two major recipient agencies? Before the merger there was a system of checks and balances; the local Federations were represented on the boards of the overseas agencies and they were able to advocate for their own interests. Today this is not the case, and JFNA is trying to be an honest broker for the Federations and advocate for overseas needs at the same time. It does not work!

How do we know it does not work? First, even though JFNA is a solely owned entity of the Federation system, it appears to be more interested in promoting itself and demonstrating its worth to the Federations than to helping them. It seems to forget that its first priority should be meeting the needs of the local Federations by providing services to them. There is no way the JFNA can provide services to strengthen an independent planning and allocations process of a local Federation and fly the overseas flag at the same time. Once JFNA has an interest in increasing the amount of funds spent overseas, it enters the Federation system with its own agenda. This was fine for a separate independent organization like UJA, but it does not work for an organization that says it represents the needs and interests of the Federations.

In addition to the allocations issue, there is also a conflict between the JFNA’s ability to represent the Federation system and its advocacy of changes in either JAFI or JDC. It hands are tied because it has agreed to advocate for JAFI and JDC in the allocations process; how can it then take a critical look at either overseas organization? Again, where is the commitment to the interests of the Federations themselves?

The GA is a perfect venue for Federations to participate in an open discussion of the purposes, programs, and accomplishments of its overseas partners. It could provide an opportunity for professional and lay leadership to air their concerns and to enter into an open dialogue. For example, some individual Federations have decided to participate in the directly funding voluntary agencies in Israel and to decrease their allocations to JAFI and/or JDC. There could be discussions at the GA on changing the way Federation funds are allocated in Israel and in other Jewish communities around the world.

JFNA has an interest in protecting the overseas partners that it has been ”mandated” to represent to the Federation system.

This interest may not be spelled out formally, but it is certainly evident in its programs and policies. Some of us see the JFNA’s Global Planning Table as providing an institutional way of maintaining the Federations’ commitment to JAFI and JDC, instead of opening up the system and providing resources to new, innovative, creative organizations that are responding to Jewish needs around the world.

Please do not read this as an indictment of the Federation system. I am concerned that the Federation system has been and is being weakened by an approach that seeks to protect vested interests instead of initiating and developing ways for Federations, individual and collectively, to meet the challenges of the local and international Jewish community in the 21st century. JFNA and local Federations need to take a serious look at themselves and their system and confront the fact that the merger created more than 20 years ago may not have been for the best.

We have all read the recent studies that question both the workings of Jewish organizations and the demographic changes in the Jewish community. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves whether the changes made in the Federation structure are really serving its purposes or were made just for the sake of change. The Federation system works best when the independent local Federations are united under an umbrella organization that is dedicated to meeting their needs and assisting them in achieving their purposes more effectively and efficiently, and does not have a built-in conflict of interest.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program. Stephen was Director of the Israel office of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), 1986-94, and Director of the Israel office of UJA Federation of New York, 1994-2008.