Local leaders blast Jewish philanthropy revolution

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A plan to merge major U.S. Jewish fund-raising organs has bogged down after a stormy gathering here of nationwide federation leaders.

A proposal to merge the United Jewish Appeal and the Council of Jewish Federations was temporarily shelved amid disagreements over whether fund-raising should lean toward domestic or foreign needs.

Bay Area federation leaders, who support the merger, were nonetheless relieved to see a delay amid the conflicts.

"If you bring together organizations…where the new board is constituted of people who are bearing deep grudges or resentments, the new entity will be fraught with difficulties," said executive vice president of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation Wayne Feinstein, who attended the meeting.

Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay executive director Ami Nahshon also welcomed the delay, calling the proposal "sketchy and incomplete."

"The process needed to be slowed down, rethought, incrementally implemented," Nahshon said from his Oakland office.

The controversy surfaced May 20 during an open "town meeting" at the quarterly meeting of the CJF, where speakers opposed what would amount to a structural revolution in Jewish philanthropy.

The plan called for consolidation of the CJF and the UJA. The CJF is the umbrella association of local Jewish federations, which raise funds in concert with the UJA to meet Jewish needs. The federations decide how much money to keep at home for local services and give their overseas allocations to the UJA.

The UJA distributes overseas funds to the Joint Distribution Committee, which provides humanitarian relief to Jewish communities worldwide and to the United Israel Appeal. The UIA in turn funnels funds to the Jewish Agency for humanitarian programs in Israel.

The UIA would remain as it is for three years, and then join the new merged entity. The JDC would continue getting funds from the system and would participate in its governance while remaining independent.

Several people close to the process said they wished they had been kept better informed about the work of a committee that has spent some two years formulating the plan.

Amid such opposition, the committee held a closed meeting Tuesday of last week and decided to revamp its strategy.

"Instead of doing it in a big rush and under awesome pressure," the committee decided to "phase in the entity over a period of time, using the same vision," said Joel Tauber, honorary national chairman of the United Jewish Appeal and co-chairman of the restructuring panel.

"We'll phase things in, see what occurs and develop the details everyone is asking for," Tauber said. As a result, building a new entity "will take longer than anticipated."

Yet Tauber felt the change of course was neither a "defeat" nor a poor reflection on the planning process.

Still, dissatisfaction with the committee's work was evident at the town meeting.

National CJF president Maynard Wishner, who opened the session, said there are many "anxieties" about the plan. And Michael Rukin, chairman of the board of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, said the plan has "gone astray in a number of areas."

The biggest jolt came when Ambassador Milton Wolf, president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, one of the four key parties to the plan, staunchly opposed it.

Though Wolf vowed not to obstruct the plan, his assessment shattered any sense of interorganizational consensus.

The planners argued that the new entity would more effectively raise money and meet needs, and would also be more accountable and responsive to federations.

But the plan was opposed by many who felt the merger would weaken support for overseas needs — notably in Israel.

All along, planners struggled to ensure that enough money would go overseas without violating local federations' sacrosanct autonomy.

The federations, which have suffered declining campaigns, federal budget cuts and increased local needs, did not want to be locked into overseas allocation commitments for more than a year at a time. But leaders of the overseas interests, represented by the UJA, the UIA and the JDC, called such commitments a "linchpin" of the plan.

The plan sought "assurances" rather than "guarantees" from federations that collectively they would provide at least $310 million a year for overseas needs, for three years, to ease the transition for entities now responsible for overseas interests.

But virtually everyone agreed that such assurances were unenforceable, and the issue remains a grave concern.

Despite this latest setback, many believe the UJA-CJF merger idea is not dead. Yet Tauber doubted any new fund-raising entity would be launched for at least one year.