Rabbi calls for Reform Jews to alter giving patterns

The top professional of the Reform movement's rabbinic arm has urged Reform Jews to "reconsider our giving patterns" by not increasing gifts to federations.

Rabbi Paul Menitoff, in a strongly worded column in the Central Conference of American Rabbis' newsletter circulated two weeks ago, said Jews should direct new donations to organizations that actively support religious pluralism in Israel.

The call came as the Jewish federations' central fund-raising system is seeking to increase funding for overseas needs.

Stephen Solender, the chief executive officer of the United Jewish Communities, the national umbrella of federations, called Menitoff's statement "shocking."

He said that such a strategy would be a "wrong move, and the wrong people will get hurt — people who need to be rescued around the world."

Menitoff wrote that the UJC has "all but excluded the religious movements" from its governance structure and has "shown little interest in issues of pluralism."

"Synagogue Jews constitute the majority of donors to federations," he wrote, adding that "we need to make certain that they put the word 'pluralism' in the UJC vocabulary."

Rabbi Stephen Pearce, the senior rabbi at Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, said it would be inaccurate to apply Menitoff's words to the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

"I understand what he's saying, that there are communities where it's just not possible to get the federation to be responsive like ours is beginning to be," Pearce said last week. "It's like hitting your head up against the wall."

But the makeup of the JCF, he said, has been "dominated by liberal Jews" for many years.

Rabbi Michael Barenbaum of Reform Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael is a former JCF board member who currently serves on its Israel and overseas committee.

"I raised my pledge this year, but I also think there's something very valid in the way [Menitoff] raises the issue," he said.

"Reform and liberal Jews are the vast majority of American Jews; we are the funders…and a lot of our money still goes to United Jewish [Communities] and the Jewish Agency…We have to have a say in what UJC funds."

Wayne Feinstein, who steps down today after nine years as the executive director of the JCF, said he understood where Menitoff was coming from, but he labeled the column "a knee-jerk response that I see again and again, one that is motivated by frustration."

He said many federations, including his and the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, are doing their best to support pluralism overseas, but the Israeli government isn't making it easy.

"Since we can't change the mind of the coalition government in Israel, then let's not buy Israel Bonds, let's not contribute to federation — that's a preposterous argument," Feinstein said.

Menitoff's column did not say that Reform Jews should stop supporting their local federation.

But "instead of automatically increasing annual federation gifts, we… should channel those dollar increases, and additional funds" to Reform institutions and philanthropies that "disseminate funds to causes in Israel that most of us support."

UJC believes it is addressing those concerns by launching a new overseas needs assessment and distribution committee, known as ONAD. One of ONAD's tenets is that federations can choose where 10 percent of their overseas funding goes.

Critics, however, say the ONAD is a moderate step at best, noting that the choice is limited to projects run by the system's longtime partners, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Moreover, many Reform rabbis have been disappointed for months about their lack of representation in the newly formed UJC.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement's synagogue arm, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said he is "sympathetic" with Menitoff's concern and is disappointed that the UJC is not giving the movements a greater voice.

"I'd hoped to create a true bridge between the religious movements and federation world that took us a step beyond, but that did not happen," he said. "It's an opportunity missed."

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.