Toward Tomorrow

One of our prime goals at eJewish Philanthropy is “to create dialogue and advance the conversation.”

With this in mind, we welcome long time Chicago communal leader Richard Wexler to kick off a discussion, with a thought provoking op-ed, on moving the UJC forward under their new leadership team. We invite you to join the conversation.

“In an ad on the (Detroit) Lions’ website for streaming video of old games, fans of the team, which went 0-16 last year, were exhorted to RELIVE THE 2008 SEASON.” (Sports Illustrated, July 27, 2009)

UJC can’t afford to “relive” this last year – or any of the five that preceded it. It has moved over this half decade, like the NFL Detroit Lions, steadily backward and downward. Now, at a time of incredible crisis for the federations, UJC will be led going forward, by a new Board Chair, whose federation experience comes from her leadership of the Greensboro Federation and the UJC Small Cities Group, and, of course, her terms as Chair of UJC’s Executive, and a new CEO, whose federation experience is…well… almost nil. But, history teaches us that pre-judgments are dangerous. After all as FDR’s train traveled from Hyde Park, New York, to Washington for his first inaugural, many feared that his greatest strength would be his “charm.” And I certainly find both Kathy and Jerry to be possessed of immense charm. Their opportunity was best described by Rahm Emanuel: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” The death rattle crisis into which UJC has been thrown is the new leadership’s opportunity; they cannot allow it to go to waste.

The hope that you and I share the belief that, unlike the current leadership who have insisted that those with whom they surrounded themselves would be but echo chambers for their imposed policies, Kathy Manning, now in the post of Board Chair, and Jerry Silverman, who by reputation and representation, are leaders who welcome dissent and debate, will, as well, represent a new paradigm. G-d knows we need a new model – one that is, my word, federationcentric.

Our new leaders face a time of great uncertainty, one in which the professional leaders of too many federations are asking whether the “federation model” with which we grew up is now over. (For Jerry Silverman’s main informant on federation life, Barry Shrage, this has been a mantra – maybe for him a self-fulfilling prophesy – for at least a decade.) Thus, so many federations which have searched for successor professional leadership have turned away from those trained and experienced in federation life searching, instead, for something they term “outside the box” (which really means, in most of those instances, “know nothing about the box”).

Some articulate the belief that we will emerge from the economic crisis that impacts us, donors across the board, our agencies, our communities into a “post-federation world.” A world where the very construct of “collective responsibility” and collective action will be replaced by some form of voluntary collaboration that really means nothing more than “every man and woman for himself/herself.” “Community” with a capital “C” will be reduced to a “community of one,” a “community of me.” “Federation” would become a small-time “manager” of multiple campaigns, if that – a certain prescription for communal chaos leading to communal disintegration – kind of a perverse “back to the future.”

Gary Tobin, z’l, just months before his untimely death, observed, in his trenchant and candid fashion, in The Jewish Journal, that “…in all but a few cities, the old federation model is no longer effective.” He concluded that most Jewish communities have outgrown the geography that their federation was founded upon. Speaking of the largest federations of the West, Tobin said that they, with miles of connecting Freeways and transient culture “…can’t be served by a federation that uses, say, the same model as Baltimore, which is a centralized, dense and highly affiliated Jewish community.” While Jerry Silverman is visiting federations to “listen and learn,” he will surely find that there is no single answer to the questions of “what is the federation model of today and how can UJC best serve the system?” If UJC has any role, it is to learn how to maintain “federation qua federation” as the central address and central planing and fund raising entity in multiple community cultures and environments.

Thus, the questions: can leaders with no real experience in leading federations, no real experience in building community, lead us out of the economic ruins and away from the politically, morally and organizationally unsustainable present of UJC that was constructed (or deconstructed) by their predecessors? Can they lead us and the system to a brighter future for the federations and, thereby, for UJC; or will they be so beset with trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together as to be unable to look forward? Can they, first, restore trust and instill integrity in an organization that has (a) failed to build trust (while demanding it) and (b) shown no respect for the wishes let alone the needs of its owners? I know that UJC can succeed only with leaders who know both the words and the music – one without the other won’t succeed. Kathy Manning knows both; now she will have to transmit the words and music to all of us.

My suggestion: start by listening (something to which Silverman and Manning are clearly committed) and by “confessing error.” The past five years of UJC were not prologue; they were nothing. We will move forward looking backward at these past few years only as a guidepost of “what not to do.” UJC’s focus must be on developing a vision of what the federation of tomorrow will look like; of where federation focus must be from that will emerge a vision of what UJC must become.

But, we can’t wait for a year or two. Once again, I urge Kathy and Jerry, upon their succession, to convene a Federations of North America Retreat (ala the McDonald’s Oak Brook Retreat of 1999). Let’s have Papers presented in advance by, e.g., Steve Nasatir, Barry Shrage, Misha Galperin, John Ruskay, Steve Hoffman, Jeff Klein, Lee Wunsch, Doug Seserman, Mark Charendoff, Gary Rosenblatt, Yossi Abramowitz and Jeff Solomon; let’s hear from Natan Sharansky and Steve Schwager and from a panel of federation lay leaders offering different perspectives of the federation movement in 2010 – Stanley Gold, Steve Selig, Morris Offit, Lori Klinghoffer, John Shapiro, Arlene Kaufman, Rani Garfinkle, David Sherman and others (this is not meant to be an exhaustive list).

We desperately need an accountable, transparent UJC. Let’s decide what we want to be and what we believe UJC can be. And, then, let’s vote to commit ourselves to financially support that emerging model at a specific budget level for the next five years without qualification or condition.

Then, let’s go to work.

Richard Wexler, a long-time lay leader, is a Board Member of UJC, JUF Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, the Boards of JAFI and JAFI NA. Richard is also a member of his Federation’s Executive Committee.