New head of Jewish super-agency knows the system

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NEW YORK — The man chosen as the top professional for the Jewish community's primary fund-raiser has spent his entire career working for Jewish agencies.

In selecting Stephen Solender as the first president of the newly formed United Jewish Communities, the search committee opted for a man with extensive experience and intimate knowledge of federations.

"We were looking for people who understood the system," Charles Bronfman, UJC's board chairman, said Tuesday when the appointment was announced.

In recent months, 61-year-old Solender has balanced two of the most demanding jobs in communal Jewish life: serving as acting president of the UJC — the product of the merger of the United Jewish Appeal, the Council of Jewish Federations and the United Israel Appeal — while continuing his 13-year post as executive vice president of UJA-Federation of New York.

When he accepted the temporary UJC post in April, Solender said he was not interested in taking the helm of the UJC on a long-term basis.

However, in the months that followed, Solender — who describes himself as a workaholic — decided to go for it after all.

"What's been most rewarding is the impact we've had on so many people's lives," he said. "We've helped so many people in the U.S., Israel and around the world."

Solender is part of a three-generation dynasty of communal machers: His father, Sanford, was executive vice president of what was then the New York UJA-Federation Joint Campaign. His grandfather directed a JCC in Manhattan.

In 1962, Solender's found first job out of graduate school — the Columbia University School of Social Work — was working with teens for the Jewish Community Centers of Chicago. Within seven years, he had become program director and then branch director of that institution.

He later worked for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and then became the executive vice president of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

In New York, he oversaw the 1986 merger of the New York Federation of Jewish Philanthropies with the United Jewish Appeal of Greater New York to form one of the country's largest private philanthropies. He also helped craft a strategic development plan and almost triple the fund-raising revenues of the UJA-Federation of New York.

Solender has been known to hammer out e-mail messages at 4 a.m. and goes jogging every day at 5 a.m. "no matter where I am in the world."

James Tisch, president of the UJA-Federation of New York, praised Solender for his dedication and savvy.

"Steve has a phrase he loves to say sometimes in an exasperated way: 'Well, just another day of service to the Jewish people,'" Tisch said.

"The thing is, he really means it. He is totally devoted to what he does, is totally devoted to serving the Jewish people and does a phenomenal job of doing it."

Solender said his insider status will not be an obstacle to effecting change in the world of Jewish philanthropy.

He noted that the new members of his management team — Louise Frankel Stoll, who has been named executive vice president and chief operating officer, and David Altshuler, who will head UJC's newly created independent foundation — bring experience from outside the federation system.