November 12, 2004

Where are the Jews?

Have Jewish federations hijacked the voice of American Jewry, and what are they saying, anyway?


Regular readers of Jewish newspapers in America could be forgiven for thinking that the most pressing issues facing Jews in the United States are how much money the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group should send overseas, whether or not the chairman of the World Jewish Congress has a secret slush fund in Switzerland, and what groups like the Anti-Defamation League, the Union for Reform Judaism and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations have to say about the Gaza Strip withdrawal plan.

Though these are the sorts of issues that fill the front pages of many Jewish newspapers around the country, the vast majority of American Jews care little about them-if they're even aware of them at all.

Yet despite their apparent irrelevance to the average American Jew, whether by design or by default the funds these national Jewish organizations command, the historical role many of them have played, and the communal functions they have assigned to themselves give them a prominent role in American Jewish life. They influence everything from U.S. foreign policy to programming at local Jewish community centers to what rabbis choose to talk about in their synagogue sermons.

Next week, these groups will take center stage in Cleveland, Ohio, at the largest annual gathering of Jewish federations and community organizations in North America, UJC's General Assembly. Organizational officials likely will talk about their past successes and some of their plans for the coming year-with more than a little handshaking and back-room schmoozing.

But some people from inside and outside the Jewish organizational world say this year's G.A., which coincides with the 350th anniversary of Jewish life in America, will be a waste of time if it does not address the principle problem of the American Jewish organizational establishment: that there is no master plan for the future of American Jewry.

At best, national Jewish organizations are failing to focus on the ultimate goals of their spending and programming. UJC's president, Howard Rieger, acknowledged as much in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. At worst, critics inside and outside the Jewish organizational world say, the national Jewish organizations' lack of vision, misplaced priorities, duplicative work and general myopia are failing American Jews.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the G.A. appears to be headed for its poorest showing in at least six years, with only about 2,000 attendees expected.

"The most critical thing from my vantage point is there is no forum to ask the bigger questions of what our role should be, what are the challenges facing us," said Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network, a consulting outfit for Jewish charities.

"What are the real needs of the Jewish community now? What will they be in five to 10 years from now? How are we planning toward that?" he asked. "My fear is that the American Jewish community is not taking a thoughtful look at these critical issues. Instead, we bemoan our reduced influence and we bemoan our reduced numbers and we bemoan the reduced amounts that Jews are giving to Jewish philanthropic causes."

There is little disagreement over the dominant trends in American Jewish life, thanks in large part to the once-a-decade National Jewish Population Survey, a UJC-sponsored study. The latest study, called the NJPS 2000-01 and published belatedly in September 2003, showed that American Jews are dwindling, aging and growing less observant of Jewish tradition; that decreasing numbers of American Jews identify with Israel, and that intermarriage is rising. Those trends were apparent despite an upsurge in spending on Jewish education and renewal following the publication of the previous survey, in 1990, whose report of a 52% percent assimilation rate among American Jews greatly alarmed Jewish communal officials.

Now, many observers say, in a country mostly free of the dangers of anti-Semitism, where Jewish political, social and economic power is relatively secure, many say Jewish organizations have failed to answer the fundamental challenge of the era: Why be Jewish?

"Until we can publicly wrestle with that question with intelligence, we will only see little improvements in different areas," said Yosef Abramowitz, CEO of Jewish Family & Life!, a non-profit Jewish educational and media company. "We've spent $1 billion since 1990 and we have virtually no difference to show for it. Most of the negative trends continued. The question is: What are we going to do in the next 10 years with $1 billion or $2 billion to turn that around?"

The criticisms routinely leveled at Jewish groups cover nearly every aspect of their operation. Some say the work they do is duplicative, that they waste money on unimportant issues and keep their bank accounts full by stoking the fears of American Jews. They misrepresent American Jewish interests and operate without the consent of those for whom they purport to speak. They make decisions about allocating Jewish communal dollars without consensus or the consent of American Jews. They spend too much on overhead and on executive salaries. They're insufficiently democratic or transparent. They're ineffective. Many detractors identify specific groups they think should be eliminated entirely.

Yet as often as not, these critiques come from people with their own axes to grind: disgruntled former officials, leaders of competing upstart organizations, institutions that have been denied funding from some of these selfsame national Jewish groups. Moreover, many Jewish communal officials have won accolades for their activity on behalf of American Jewry, and even the most hardened cynics admit that federations and national Jewish organizations deserve praise for much of their work. Organizations with overlapping agenda say the duplicative nature of their work is complimentary and that competition in pursuit of the same goals encourages excellence and is good for American Jewish life.

"The argument that there are too many Jewish organizations just doesn't make sense," said Neil Goldstein, executive director of the American Jewish Congress. "That's not how community organizing works. Competition doesn't hurt organizations."

Notably, there also is an absence of criticism from regular Jews-though one wonders how one would find them-many of whom have not stopped sending donations to the major Jewish organizations when they get their fund-raising letters in the mail.

What seems like affirmation, however, reflects only ignorance, critics maintain. Jewish laymen continue sending money to these groups-albeit at a reduced rate, since American Jews today are contributing fewer of their dollars to Jewish causes than in the past-because they are uninformed or misinformed. Your average American Jew thinks that sending money to his or her local federation or an organization with a grand-sounding name-like World Jewish Congress, American Jewish Committee or American Jewish Congress-means supporting the Jewish people and the State of Israel.

"The organizations have become one big blur," said Elan Steinberg, the former executive vice president of the WJC. Steinberg was forced from his position at the WJC in September amid an apparent power struggle at the group's helm that involved charges of blackmail, corruption and financial irregularities among the group's senior leadership.

"Community centers, synagogues, welfare organizations perform a very valuable function and indeed are relevant, but clearly many of the broad-based institutions in Jewish institutional life are less relevant or completely meaningless," he said. "If you went to the average proud, self-identifying Jew, I would hazard to guess very few of them could name the leadership or identify the organizational structure of any of the many national Jewish institutions that we currently have."

Steinberg said there is a dual identity crisis in Jewish organizational life. "On the one hand, many Jewish organizations simply don't know what they want to be or what they want to do," he said. "On the other hand, there is an overlap and redundancy among American Jewish organizations in that some of their identifiable problems are addressed by all of them-such as the problem of anti-Semitism."

Historically, Jewish organizations have played a key role in American Jewish life. In the eras of history when American Jews were denied full access to American political, social and professional life, Jewish organizations like B'nai B'rith, the ADL, the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress advocated for Jewish rights in the halls of government, built alliances with like-minded minority groups and helped establish inroads into the American social, cultural and professional establishments.

In the 1920s, they helped ensure that anti-Semitism, which was on the rise elsewhere in the world, went on the wane in America. In the 1930s, they arranged boycotts of Nazi goods. In the 1940s, they helped build support for the establishment of Israel.

As American Jews grew more comfortable and more American, however, these groups become less indispensable to communal life, and many of them struggled to define their new mission in a changed world. This struggle is not over. It has grown particularly acute as the generations of Jews for whom anti-Semitism and Israel's survival were the twin concerns of Jewish life are replaced by younger Jews who feel neither threatened by anti-Semitism nor are very interested in Jewish life.

"I definitely think that the Jewish community has a problem, which is that the missions that sustained it in the 20th century are not exciting young people in quite the same way," said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. Jewish groups "have had a hard time coming up with an appropriate agenda."

It hasn't helped that some of the major Jewish organizations have been wracked by scandal in recent years-often due to personal disputes. The WJC brouhaha involving Steinberg, for example, grew out of an internal squabble between President Edgar Bronfman and chairman of the governing board Israel Singer on one side, and senior vice president Isi Leibler on the other. Leibler accused Singer of trying to hide a $1.5 million bank account for his pension in Switzerland, and Singer and Bronfman charged that Leibler was raising the specter of financial malfeasance at the congress in a bid to wrest control of the organization. Steinberg was caught somewhere in the middle.

In other cases, federations and other Jewish groups have come under fire for questionable spending priorities and sloppy accounting practices. In the mid-1990s, Jewish Family & Life's Abramowitz, then a freelance journalist, discovered that the Jewish National Fund was spending only a small fraction of its funds on Israel-somewhere in the neighborhood of 4% to 20%. An internal probe and organizational reform followed, though the JNF still saw fit in 2001 to spend $400,000 on three speeches by former President Bill Clinton.

In the mid-1990s, the Forward newspaper caused a stir by publishing the salaries of a handful of top Jewish organizational officials. Some Jews were outraged at the Forward's chutzpah; others were scandalized by the actual numbers. This year, the salaries of some of the highest-paid Jewish officials actually declined compared with 2003. One notable exception was Stephen Hoffman, former president of UJC, who returned in September to his old post as president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland at an annual salary of $567,238 plus $113,655 in benefits, making him what is believed to be the highest-paid non-profit Jewish organizational official in America.

Perhaps more importantly, the system that allocates Jewish communal dollars to Jewish causes has become the subject of rancor. Many of the people trusted with allocating Jewish funds have ties to the organizations they are funding, and as a result, a surprisingly small group of people and organizations hold inordinate sway in how Jewish money is spent.

For example, Singer, the WJC leader, also is chairman of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany (Claims Conference)-which controls the distribution of billions of dollars and of which WJC is a member-and he's chairman of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, which deals with Holocaust restitution outside Germany and Austria. Gideon Taylor, the executive vice president of the Claims Conference, is a former high-ranking official of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which gets millions of dollars in grants every year from the Claims Conference. The JDC also is a member of the WJRO.

The connections are enough to make one's head spin.

"We firmly believe that there are no checks and balances in this system of the organized Jewish community," said Jerome Lippman, editor and publisher of the weekly Long Island Jewish World. "It's called pay to play."

To compound matters, many of the large national Jewish groups raise money for the same things. The ADL, American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, Simon Wiesenthal Center and World Jewish Congress all solicit funds on the basis of being at the forefront of the battle against anti-Semitism. They also sell themselves as key advocates for Israel in America and worldwide.

Alon Pinkas, the former consul general of Israel in New York and the CEO designee of the American Jewish Congress-pending Israeli government approval-says that sort of strategy bankrupts the future of American Jews.

"Rather than play foreign minister and go to the world's capitals and deal exclusively with anti-Semitism," Pinkas said, these groups should be focusing their energies on educating Jews at home in the United States on why it is important that they stay Jewish.

The future of American Jews, Pinkas said, "would be much better served by American Jews going to Omaha, Neb., to Austin, Texas, to Tallahassee, Fla. and Columbus, Ohio than another photo-op with the Israeli chief of staff or another meeting with the Belgian foreign minister."

"The problem is we're coming to them with a negative agenda," Pinkas said. "We keep on shouting anti-Semitism."

At the American Jewish Congress-which frequently is mentioned in private by Jewish organizational officials as the prime model of an institution that has outlived its usefulness-Goldstein says talking about anti-Semitism is still important.

"Unless people understand the dangers" and "that the single-most important thing Jews can do is to fight in the public arena," he said, "we are going to be back where we were before 1945, where we were a powerless minority in America."

That's why, Goldstein said, "building Holocaust museums in fact is crucial to the future of American Jewry."

It may help raise money, but it's for the wrong cause, others argue.

"I think it's unbelievable how knee-jerk American Jewry is in terms of its defense agencies and the amount of money they raise," Abramowitz said. "We raise a tremendous amount of money on the old scare-tactic model. If that money was used for positive education and identity building, it would provide more defense and meaning for the American Jewish people. Instead, it is standing in the way of American Jews' making the mental shift necessary to go from fear to hope."

With a communal infrastructure valued at about $40 billion, Abramowitz said, Jewish organizations should be reaching the vast majority of American Jews; if they're not, it's time to look in a different direction.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, says a model already exists to reach the vast majority of American Jews: the synagogue.

"Where are the Jews? To the extent that they're anywhere institutionally, they're in the synagogue," he said. The other side of the story is that only 45% of Jews are affiliated with synagogues. "The great challenge is to reach those Jews outside the synagogue world," Yoffie said. "Our greatest failure is people who walk into the synagogue and then leave, or those who stay only till after their bar mitzvah."

The critics are divided about how to revitalize American Jewish life, but they're sure of one thing: innovation is unlikely to come from inside the major Jewish organizations.

"I think there's incredible dynamism in some organizations, especially the smaller not-for-profits," said Charendoff, of the Jewish Funders Network. "I think where you see a lack of dynamism, or where you see stasis, one has to ask the question: Are we creating a system that rewards risk taking? I don't believe we are."

Historically, innovation in American Jewish life has come from groups outside the establishment, Sarna said, which are better able to take risks than the larger, more established ones. He cited as examples the movement to free Soviet Jewry, the day school movement and the Jewish feminist movement. This year, he said, the celebrations surrounding the 350th anniversary of Jewish life in America serve as a case in point.

"The G.A. is hardly doing anything on the 350th. I certainly was disappointed," Sarna said. "In a way it is a symptom of the fact that the UJC as currently constituted is not very much in tune with its constituents, its interests, its needs."

Rieger, UJC's new president, denied that his organization is out of touch, but he acknowledged that the UJC has not been sufficiently focused on long-term solutions to American Jewry's long-term problems.

"I think it would be a classic expression of chutzpah to think that somehow or other the UJC has the answer to the future of North American Jewry." At the same time, he said, "I don't think we've spent sufficient time thinking about outcomes."

For Rieger, the solution is in partnership-essentially, the reason the UJC was created five years ago from a merger of the Council of Jewish Federations, the United Jewish Appeal and the United Israel Appeal. "I think the greatest unleashed power in the Jewish world is a greater sense of collaboration within organizations and among organizations," Rieger said.

If the critics had their way, however, the focus would shift to many of the groups currently on the fringe of the Jewish organizational establishment, and some of those at the center would be eliminated.

"Many of these established national organizations have become ossified and inflexible, and that's what we mean by irrelevant," Steinberg said. "The ones at the grass-roots level spring up because in fact many of the established groups or institutions are not providing the answers or the solutions that the people want."

Charendoff said, "We're much better at giving birth to organizations than we are at putting them out of business."

Sidebar: Making sense of US Jewish organizations