Send in the Clowns:
A Commentary on JFNA-UIA

By Richard Wexler

“But where are the clowns?
Send in the clowns.
Don’t bother, they’re here”

We all have heard the haunting lyrics of Stephen Sondheim’s beautiful dirge. Sad to say, they are too appropriate in light of JFNA’s determination to effectively defenestrate its subsidiary, the United Israel Appeal, for no reason other than it exists. It’s also entirely possible that this decision, reflected in what can only be described as a “made as instructed” Report, now circulating in Draft Form to Federation leaders in the United States, may be modified in a positive manner. After all, miracles do happen

A very brief history is in order. The merger which resulted in what is now JFNA was the outcome of votes by the United Israel Appeal and the Joint Distribution Committee, the owners of the United Jewish Appeal and by the Jewish Federations, the owners of the Council of Jewish Federations. In that referendum, the UIA leadership acquiesced in surrendering the organization’s independence in what’s argued to be the “best interests of the system,” becoming instead a subsidiary of JFNA. UIA’s Board, led by the incredible leader, Shoshana Cardin, z’l, and her chief professional, Danny Allen, fought so hard because they saw, as I, who led these merger discussions did not, that the consolidation would ultimately fail the overseas partners and, specifically, the Jewish Agency, the agent of our system, reporting to UIA, the principal on our behalf. They were proved sadly prescient.

UIA leaders premised their joinder in the merger on Federations assuming “…the responsibility of making sure (JAFI and JDC) would continue to receive significant allocations.” In fact, the merger was designed to “create more dollars and more donors.” JFNA/the Federations have totally failed to meet any of these obligations. Curiously, the authors of the JFNA Report did not consult with any of the women and men who led the UIA merger negotiations to ascertain the facts.

Over the past 20 years, UIA has performed its assigned roles with excellence. In fact, it can be concluded that, other than JFNA’s Washington Office, it is the only area of Federations’ work through JFNA that has consistently performed at the highest level. UIA secured and has administered a multi-million dollar U.S. Refugee Grant – its work with that Grant has received accolades from the U..S. Department of State; it has authorized allocations to the Jewish Agency after review and UIA has carefully engaged in the operation and disposition of properties which it owns and/or operates, maximizing values. UIA (now JFNA-UIA) appointees to the Jewish Agency Board of Governors have been women and men, Federation leaders all, vetted by and with JFNA.

In November 2013, JFNA’s Board approved a Report of the UIA Futures Committee, “Report and Recommendations for UIA Mandate.” The Futures Committee, chaired by Washington Federation leader Norman Goldstein and  Nashville’s Fred Zimmerman, restated UIA’s historic roles for the system and set forth a series of “UIA Value Added Services” and “Structural Enhancements.” All of these were approved by the JFNA Board. (For future reference, please note: Harold Gernsbacher, the Chair of the current JFNA Task Forces – strangely, both of them – served on the UIA Futures Committee.)

So, ignoring the historical certainty as expressed in the mantra: “if ain’t broke, don’t ‘fix’ it,” JFNA organized two – not one … two – Global Operations Review Committees which, if one reads the Draft Recommendations, concluded that though “it ain’t broke,” we’ll “break” UIA. And these Draft Recommendations emerge as UIA embarked on an ambitious and creative advocacy program to attract new federation lay leaders to the cause of overseas needs. As one terrific UIA leader lamented to me:

in an environment where we are so desperately testing to attract and engage lay leaders why they see us a threat or in competition is just not understandable. JFNA should be encouraging and supporting our efforts where there is such demand and added value.”

The set of Draft Recommendations for delimiting UIA is preceded by a specious and misleading rendition of “history’ embodied in a published and widely distributed report titled “Jewish Federations’ Global Role Today and Tomorrow,” authored by the JFNA Global Operations Review Committee. If implemented, UIA would be, as its immediate past Executive Vice-Chair, Danny Allen, described it, “eviscerated;” its Board would be reduced to 7 (from 32 Federation leaders today, all of whose appointments were vetted through JFNA), and its roles relegated to certifying the tax deductibility of Federation/donor allocations and other oversight functions along with the U.S. Resettlement Grant.

And, the purported bases, the rationale, for this deconstruction of UIA? Here is some of it:

  1. “Complete the integration of UIA functions (into JFNA) as was historically intended.” This red herring defies scrutiny. The “historical intent” of the merger vis-a-vis UIA was expressed in the merger and has been fully accomplished. Period. Full stop.
  2. Eliminate 25 federation leaders from the UIA Board, reducing it to 7. It appears this would be done because by reducing and restricting UIA functions and services, what is there left for the Board to do? Inasmuch as this Draft Report was staff-driven in its totality, it reflects the JFNA professionals’ disrespect for the significant lay involvement embodied in UIA’s lay leaders’ service to their own communities and JAFI.
  3. JFNA’s Nominating Committee would supplant UIA’s own historic processes and ignores the fact that UIA leaders clear these names with JFNA in advance.
  4. UIA’s advocacy for overseas allocations (and, specifically, federation allocations to JAFI), approved by the JFNA Board in November 2013, would be formally eliminated even though, after 18 community visits in its first year, UIA agreed to curtail that advocacy subsuming that effort for JFNA’s “Ambassadors” advocacy – sending lay leaders into federations under the JFNA-Israel and Overseas Committee – which has failed from the outset.

There’s more – fully integrating UIA’s vetting and processing allocations into JFNA’s Finance Department, and, without reflection on the potential impact on the very Revenue Rulings even JFNA realizes it must support, “systematically reduce UIA’s role in ownership and management of IEF properties” – but the unstated purpose of the Draft Global Operations Review Committee Recommendations is to “reduce UIA costs to JFNA” (even though UIA’s cost to JFNA’s Budget is $1,250,000 – 1/2 of UIA’s budget, the other 1/2 being credited against the JAFI allocation) and, remarkably, given its continued failures, to enhance and ratify the work of JFNA-Israel, as if that silo had any capacity to accomplish even a delimited set of purposes let alone an expanded one.

Washington Federation and UIA leader, Norm Goldstein, registered his concern with the Draft in his typical incisive manner:

“As the co-author of the UIA Futures Report, I read the Gernsbacher report with great care. Since I have great respect for many of the persons who are signatories to the report and engaged members of UIA, with strong backgrounds in JFNA, I am somewhat reluctant to criticize it. However, stated simply, I do not see how this report answers the very serious problems facing JFNA in addressing the challenges of carrying out its role with respect to the Israel and Overseas agenda.”

“Specifically, while the report states it was initiated as part of the zero based budgeting process, I see no fiscal analysis whatsoever. I see well phrased verbiage giving a depressing history which demonstrates a striking decline in the resources provided through the system to our historic partners, and discussion about reasons for the possible decline based on changing attitudes of local Federations.”

“I see no clear strategic plan for addressing the identified issues, other than general statements about developing new relationships with Israeli NGOs, and enhancement of JFNA’s control in other areas.

I see nothing which reflects any serious consultation with our overseas partners, especially with the Jewish Agency which is the clear underlying focus of the paper.”

“The only concrete recommendation I see are reiterations of efforts to be undertaken by JFNA, where they have not succeeded in the past, and/or have not demonstrated the value of their current efforts on a cost effectiveness basis.”

“Basically, all that I see is the obviously predetermined result oriented goal of eviscerating the UIA, the one entity which retains lay leadership in active capacities to act on behalf of the Jewish Agency, and by implication the Overseas Agenda.”

“That will not answer the more serious questions facing the JFNA.”

Insiders have told me that JAFI leaders were promised an opportunity to discuss the Global Operations relationship with the Review Committees before the framing of Draft Recommendations; a promise unfulfilled even as the Draft Recommendations would significantly impact on the Jewish Agency and JDC. Perhaps, the fact that JAFI’s current and immediate past Budget and Finance Chairs and JAFI Board members served on the Review Committee was thought by the JFNA draftspersons to be sufficient. It wasn’t.

Suffice it to say: the JFNA Global Operations Review Committee wholly failed to offer a valid, comprehensive or comprehensible rationale for its Recommendations to place UIA in an even more reduced role than contemplated by the merger other than the obvious goal of accreting to JFNA itself, our organization that has failed both in the absolute and relative to UIA itself.

Somehow, those who support these changes believe that American communal support of the Jewish Agency/Israel will be enhanced by pushing those lay leaders who have enthusiastically and passionately advocated for Israel/JAFI to the sidelines if not completely from the stadium. All the interest of unquantified “cost savings.”

What UIA accomplishes, year-in and year-out, with dedicated lay leaders and an incredible small group of professionals in Israel puts the rest of JFNA-Israel to shame – a well-earned shame. For JFNA to be focused on UIA at this point in its history is, as a matter of principle and practice, so very wrong; an unnecessary distraction at a time that calls for transformational change.

It would be time to Send in the Clowns … but they’re already there.

Richard Wexler is a Past Chair of the United Israel Appeal, the United Jewish Appeal and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, among other leadership roles.