It is “The Worst of Times”

By Richard Wexler

I am with those who share the belief that if we didn’t have a JFNA we would have to recreate one; but I also believe that recent events have highlighted the reality that today we don’t have the strong continental organization that can lead us, collaborate with us and offer us excellence. Events of the last two months offer all of us the worst of examples of how this iteration of JFNA has failed us, the federations and the the Jewish People.

First there is the lack of any coherent approach to the decisions of Prime Minister Netanyahu and the GOI Cabinet to breach the agreement to create an egalitarian prayer space adjacent to the Western Wall and to support legislation in the Knesset that would vest all power to conduct and approve conversions in the hands of the Ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. As we’ve written, on the Sunday these actions were taken by the Prime Minister and his Cabinet, JFNA’s leaders happened to be in Jerusalem and piggybacked themselves on to a Jewish Agency meeting with the PM; seemingly approved of JAFI’s decision to cancel a Knesset Dinner Gala that Sunday evening; saw UIA JAFI Board members deploy to lobby in the Knesset and were open to interviews. It appears that as Bibi ordered that consideration of the Conversion legislation be “suspended” for 6 months, and that construction of the prayer space would continue (but under the aegis of a governance controlled by the Ultra-Orthodox). JFNA determined that it would sit by (oh, wait, JFNA-Israel pros are intensively visiting the Knesset, maybe daily) and await outcomes. Because it has done nothing further the Diaspora Jewish laity doesn’t know what the position of JFNA is let alone strategy and tactics.

Let’s face it: these GOI actions impact upon the Jewish Diaspora; they are at the same level, if not worse, than the challenges to World Jewry embodied in the “Who Is A Jew?” challenges in the 1980s and 1990s. The difference: in response to those challenges, the system was represented by UJA and CJF which mounted a planned, constant pressure on the then Government of Israel and members of the Knesset – and Diaspora Jewry prevailed. Today – nothing. Example: on two Missions to Israel less than one month after the Cabinet actions, no apparent thought was given to educate and then send those lay and professional leaders to buttonhole Knesset members and/or meet with the PM and emphasize the necessity of reconsideration of these actions which threaten the vital relationship between Diaspora Jewry and Israel. And there appear to be no plans to send North American Jewish leaders to Israel weekly to do the same; or to do anything else.

Then, there is this. On July 20, JTA reported: Uganda’s Jews are down to one meal a day because of East Africa’s famine. As reported by Ben Sales, 2,000 Ugandan Jews are at immediate risk of starvation (two have already died) as confirmed by the United Nations. There has been to date a “trickle of dollars” from the organized Jewish community – from synagogues , a coalition organized by the JDC, American Jewish World Service. And what has been JFNA’s response: has it even opened a Mailbox, JFNA’s “regular” response to emergencies? Has it done a damned thing? No: it has been silent. Not even a mailbox.

And two other things that I found astonishing:

  1. JFNA could not rouse itself to send a delegation to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Reunification of Jerusalem; and
  2. Worse, not even a small delegation of JFNA lay leaders were convened by JFNA in Charlottesville after the terrorists anti-semitic attacks there to express our collective solidarity with the Charlottesville Jewish community.

I have no doubt that in the era of UJA and CJF these 2 omissions – omissions which disgrace JFNA and our federations even further – would not have occurred for these expressions of Jewish Peoplehood were responses that were baked-into the n’shama of both organizations. Not any more. JFNA’s tagline – Touching More Jewish Lives Than Any Organization in the World – blares in huge font on the sad JFNA home page, might be true if JFNA were doing its job with excellence anywhere in the World. It isn’t … anywhere.

It is the worst of times – leadership’s willing indifference to all that is so wrong at 25 Broadway is more than unacceptable. What is amazing is that these events that so transparently prove the ultimate collapse of JFNA into embarrassment is that it has taken place in the full view of everyone – and continues to be.


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.”