Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Federation Campaigns

For many years now I have been very unhappy with the way UJC( United Jewish Communities) /Federations are organized and the way they distribute the money they collect. My difficulties are both procedural and substantive. First, the procedural. The local Federation puts up a slate of candidates each year, which have been hand-picked by the existing board and the professional staff. If somebody wants to run a competitive slate because they disagree with whatever, it is almost impossible to win. If you get enough signatures, I imagine you can have the alternative slate included in the mailing, but there’s almost no way for an alternative slate to get the message out to the community without spending mega bucks on general newspaper and television ads. The upshot of this is that there is no competition for seats on the board of directors. When there’s no competition, it’s all very cozy. There aren’t too many disagreements, but then again, there aren’t too many new ideas. It’s steady as you go.

There’s an additional difficulty in challenging the status quo. There’s no guarantee that the old guard, who are major contributors, will not pick up their marbles and go home. No responsible person wants to destroy this magnificent fundraising mechanism that has been built up over so many years. Yet, there’s something really undemocratic when the organization is run by very rich people and their friends. JUF could be a primary vehicle for Jews to participate actively in their own communities. If there was competition with different ideas and approaches, and if voting meant something, people would be involved emotionally and intellectually. The process would stimulate debates and discussions. There would be a genuine election with all the excitement and interest that such an election generally stimulates. Instead, what we have is a yawn, if that.

My substantive disagreement is this…the way the system seems to work is there are all these organizations receiving a certain amount of money. All the directors decide is how to make slight changes at the margin depending on the money raised and other special conditions. So, if the Bureau of Helping Jews Who Have Trouble Making Their Condo Payments gets $200,000 every year, they will get $200,000 next year, plus or minus $20,000, depending on how they make their pitch, etc. When a new organization comes along with a good cause, they get added to the rolls and they, too, get a few dollars. The money is dissipated amongst many different organizations each with their own bureaucracy, each doing a little bit of good, each with a friend in high places. Very few of these organizations have any chance of making a big impact because their funding is limited. At the same time, they always get enough to keep on going, so they never fold. I believe it is preferable to fund a few organizations in a robust way than to subsidize many organizations in a marginal way.

I also object to giving 40-50% of the money raised to Israel. The danger to Jewish life in America right now is much greater than in Israel. We have an intermarriage of 50%, and liberal Jewry will effectively disappear way before the next century rolls around. It’s a triage situation. There isn’t enough money left over for America, once you give 40-50% to Israel. At present, the amount of money allocated to Jewish education, and what is euphemistically called The Jewish Future, will not have a sufficient impact to change the general direction of American Jewish life. The money spent on Israel can be used more effectively in America. Israel has a GNP of $157 billion as of 2005. A few hundred million is not going to make a big difference. The same money can make an enormous difference for Jewish education and in reducing the intermarriage rate. The only reason you wouldn’t choose America, where the danger of Jewish extinction is clearly greater, is that you have given up and written off the American Jewish community. I’m sure many Israelis feel that way. They feel they should try to get as much money from the American Jewish community while the going is good, but there is no long-term hope for any liberal Jewish community outside of Israel.

In America, in the last decade, 500,000+ Jews left Jewish life and began going to church. It is not inconceivable that two-three million Jews, even going forward, will leave Jewish life. From a people point of view, valuing each Jew equally, there’s a greater, and more certain, danger in America for the extinction of Jewish people than in Israel. In many a G.A. meeting there was the near total absence of anything having to do with the American Jewish life. Entire conferences were built around Israel. Israel in trouble is an established winning fundraising theme. Telling these same machers that their own friends and family are in trouble because of the danger of intermarriage is apparently a sure-fire way to reduce donations.

In the future I hope this will change. I feel the core theological and political focus ought to be the Jewish people, which would place the entire Jewish people at the center, rather than the State of Israel. The new emphasis would provide a basis for greater investments in local Jewish education, welfare and community development.

To be continued


At 4:06 PM, Blogger SephardiLady said...

Another excellent post. You really have a great ability to present different issues in a unique way.

At 4:33 PM, Blogger LitaLives said...

Dear EJ,
Although I agree that there is a very strong argument in what you say and it would most probably be healthier for both Israelis and Diaspora Jewry to end the "gvir-schnorrer" relationship, you forget some relevant points.

Firstly, a good percentage of the monies given to "Israeli" institutions are recycled to the Diaspora by way of funding educational programs for Diaspora youth, funding for Hebrew and other teachers around the world, Israeli contributions to such programs as Birthright & many other such programs (I don't mention the not inconsiderable cost of all the Orthodox youngsters who come to live off the land for various periods of time , since this doesn't directly impact the Liberal Jewish problem)

Secondly, you omit the fact that not a small portion of funds raised for Israel go towards the support of Jews arriving from various countries of distress (ie. former USSR, Ethiopia, Latin America, Eastern Europe,.....) One can argue that American Jewry has just as much responsibility toward these people as do the Israelis.

At 6:32 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

sephardilady...much thanks

litalives...your second convincing and I did not think of it at the time I wrote my post. Otoh these Jews when integrated become part of the human capital of Israel and help the Israeli economy.I am less taken with your first pt.Each program is different, but many are sold to the American synagogues. The net expenditure cannot be so great. You must add back in the endless employment opportunities America provides for Israeli teachers.

At 3:59 AM, Blogger Ben Bayit said...

within normative Jewish tradition there is a concept called "kahal yisrael". it is when the majority of the nation (the "am") lives in eretz yisrael. there are certain halachic ramifications to this as well. The fact is that we have reached the point whereby very shortly the majority of the Jewish people will be living in eretz Yisrael. Certainly by now the majority of maminei ikarei emunah and the majority of shomrei hadas all live in E"Y. Therefore the focal point of the "nation' has to turn towards E"Y. Sure some people and communities will stay in the diaspora. But the focal point is changing. correctly so IMHO

At 12:33 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

We Jews were focused on eretz y. though not on Israel when virtually all Jews lived in the Diaspora. I sense we do have a disagreement, but it is difficult to draw the issue sharpy around the idea of a focal point. Dividing the moneys is not like a tipping point-winner take all concept. There is the idea of the poor of your city have precedence as well as the common sense notion that we must tend our own garden before we pay attention to others.
Maybe we can have this discussion again when I post on Satmar and Co.

At 11:31 AM, Blogger Ben Bayit said...

By their very nature, Federations often give money outside the immediate community. IIRC, aniyei eretz yisrael always take precedence over the next town's poor - irrespective of one's views of the state of Israel the poor there are still considered aniyei eretz yisrael. Thus while you can reasonably make a good case for advoacting giving ones money to the local tomchei shabbos, scholarships in the local cheder, or even to the local kollel, once you start invovlving larger organizations such as the Federation there is no reason they shouldn't give to causes in Israel. They may even be halachically mandated to do so.

BTW, your satmar friends in the Edah Charedis may also be beneficiaries of this money. Lots of "zionist" money finds its way into even the Edah Charedis - even if its indirect

At 2:50 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

ben I understand it each Federation has control over its own funds. Chicago doesn't give money to NY,etc. but to Chicago or Israel and for a time to Russian Jewry.The funds are not pooled.

I said I would post on Satmar; I didn't exactly call them my friends, though you are right in a way. My attitudes in this post share some similarities to the anti-Zionist position, though as you must realize there is a long way from me to Satmar, almost as long as from me to your 'focal point of the nation' views.


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