A spiraling economic emergency has upset the traditional political calculations of Jewish groups and prompted several to become active in the national effort to avert an even deeper calamity.
This week the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) and the United Jewish Communities (UJC) were lobbying for versions of the massive economic stimulus bill now moving through Congress, a dramatic and revealing shift for organizations that have traditionally steered clear of positions on core economic issues like taxes and spending.
“We’re seeing a major change,” said Hadar Susskind, JCPA’s Washington director. “The perception has sunk in that this is not just a normal economic downturn.”
The change has been driven both by the mushrooming impact of the downturn on Jewish communities across the country —and by the fear that unless quick and effective action is taken, things will get much worse.
“If you’re living in a nice, suburban community and you’re seeing houses foreclosed on your own street, it becomes visceral,” Susskind said. “When we talk about poverty, it’s not just about other people, and it’s not just about building relations with other communities — it’s about Jews, as well.”
These days, former $1,000 donors to local federations are showing up at local food banks, he said. In another sign of the change — which breaks through longstanding opposition by major Jewish donors to lobbying on tax and spending legislation — UJC brought a group of 60 leaders to Capitol Hill for a round of lobbying on the stimulus package in the Senate.
The skyrocketing unemployment rate, the sickening plunge of the housing market and instability in the financial sector that has required record federal bailouts — changes that are imperiling Jewish giving — are also producing a shift in communal priorities away from Israel and other overseas commitments and in the direction of local needs.
“When everybody’s flush, giving millions to Israel is an easy choice,” said an official with a major Jewish federation. “When we’re seeing kosher food pantries in our own cities running out of food, foreclosures in Jewish neighborhoods and former mortgage bankers taking jobs as baristas, it’s inevitable there will be a shift in focus to our own communities, our own neighborhoods.”
That pressure is roiling UJC, where traditional battles over foreign versus domestic spending are becoming more acute. That, along with charges by some federations that UJC was slow to recognize the depth of the economic meltdown and provide guidance to local groups that were the first to feel the pinch, will surface at a long-planned UJC leadership meeting in Florida next week that some would like to turn into an emergency summit.
(So will Monday’s angry resignation of UJC’s national campaign chair David Fisher. According to a JTA report, Fisher wrote to UJC chair Joseph Kanfer and said “I have found trying to lead during your term, frustrating, ineffective, and unfulfilling and candidly, something I believe you were not interested in allowing.” In response, Kanfer said “perhaps (Fisher) did not share our view of the path to the future success of the federation system,” according to JTA.)
“I’ve seen stirrings that suggest a growing number of federations have reached the end of the road with this iteration of UJC; I think that the economic crisis has been the catalyst,” said Richard Wexler, a Chicago lawyer and former head of the United Jewish Appeal — the philanthropy that combined with the Council of Jewish Federations in 1999 to create UJC. Wexler, who has long been an outspoken critic of UJC operations, was the chairman during that merger.
UJC’s leaders, he said, were slow to recognize the depth of the economic crisis and its impact and slow to provide leadership to Jewish federations around the country that face a perfect storm of declining donations, the burgeoning demand for services and the threat of deep, disruptive cuts in government support.
“It’s been off-putting to federation leaders that while they were forced to take this seriously many months ago — reducing budgets, cutting staffs — UJC seems to be of the belief that this was something that would pass quickly, requiring only some belt tightening,” Wexler said.
He added that some local federations, including the UJA-Federation of New York and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, and groups like the Jewish Funders Network reacted early and creatively to the unfolding crisis.
The economic maelstrom is also intensifying longstanding grievances over UJA dues. Wexler said that the Los Angeles Jewish Federation has decided to cut its UJA dues by over 50 percent in June. Calls to the Los Angeles federation were not returned.
“There have been a lot of conference calls among city-size federation execs in which federation leaders have said: ‘Our budgets are being cut because of the economic realities we face; we expect UJC’s budget to be cut, as well, and we expect this to be a matter of discussion at the meetings next week,” Wexler said.
The UJC Federation Leadership Institute in Palm Beach next week will also consider proposals to break UJC’s exclusive relationship with the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and allow local groups to make their own decisions about overseas allocations.
But even some critics say UJC is awakening to the depth of the current crisis and the likelihood it will get much worse before it starts getting better. One measure of that shift, they say, is the decision by UJA to lobby actively for the economic stimulus bill now before Congress.
“I don’t think you can put all the blame on UJC,” said an official with a major Jewish federation. “Many in our own community were slow to react; this is something totally outside our experience. The last thing we expected was something so deep that even many of our community’s wealthiest and most generous members have been devastated. This is all uncharted territory for us.”
Outgoing UJC chief Howard Rieger defended the group against charges it responded slowly and ineffectively to the economic crisis.
“You can’t plan for something like this,” he told the Jewish Week. “Nobody could see this coming with the speed and depth with which it’s come.”
He said the national leadership is in “constant contact” with local Federations on issues relating to the economic downturn.”We’ve been very responsive,” he said. “We have set up a Web site here; I get feedback every day from Federation executives around the country.”
In a way, the Bernard Madoff scandal — which hit numerous Jewish donors, badly damaged organizations like Hadassah and the American Jewish Congress and forced a handful of Jewish foundations to close — may have had a silver lining.
“After the Madoff tsunami, people started looking at the economic situation differently,” said Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties, a community that has yet to feel the full brunt of the economic collapse. “It’s changed the complacency, it’s sparked a lot of interest in the broader issues facing all of us.”
A year ago, Jewish groups like JCPA that were pushing poverty as a top issue faced an uphill struggle against a communal establishment that did not always see this as a “Jewish” issue. Today, with the kosher food pantries depleted and some of the biggest names in Jewish philanthropy adding up their huge losses, that mindset is quickly changing.
In Washington, the Obama administration is talking about economic recovery, but the real priority in its first weeks is simply slowing the economic skid, stabilizing critical banking and finance sectors and finding ways to curb the accelerating surge in unemployment.
Last week the House passed an administration-backed $819 million stimulus package that emphasized spending for job creation, but that also included elements that are priorities for Jewish groups, such as an increase in “FMAP” — the Federal Medical Assistance Percentages, the formula used to determine federal reimbursements to states for health and social service programs.
UJC’s Washington office has lobbied for the whole measure in recent days, not just specific spending items, abandoning a longstanding policy of not taking positions on sweeping and controversial economic measures.
Why the shift?
“This economic recession, and its impact on the federation system and on the vulnerable populations we serve, has been unprecedented,” said William Daroff, UJC’s vice president for public policy. “Frankly, dramatic action was necessary.”
While UJC had a special interest in elements of the package that directly affect the Jewish agencies it serves, Daroff said there is a growing recognition that the group cannot afford to ignore policies addressing the nation’s worsening economic affliction.
“We’re supportive of the government doing what it can to lessen the impact on those affected, but also to shorten the time frame and severity of the recession,” he said. “We believe Congress and the administration taking dramatic action is a necessary ingredient.”
Other national groups are coming to the same conclusion.
JCPA is also actively backing the stimulus plan despite its longstanding aversion to taking positions on broad-brush economic policies. At the same time, the crisis has spurred a “tremendous amount of activity at the local level,” said JCPA’s Washington Director Hadar Susskind. “CRCs, federations and synagogues are having sessions on the crisis.”
In fact, some of the most creative responses to the intensifying crisis are coming from local groups. Detroit has been among the nation’s hardest hit cities, and its large Jewish community — primarily in the northwest suburbs — is hardly immune. In response, and with the assistance of an anonymous donor, local groups created the Jewish Housing Association of Metro Detroit, which is providing direct assistance to Jewish homeowners facing foreclosure.
With almost no publicity, the group has already helped some 212 clients, said Perry Ohren, chief program officer of Jewish Family Services of Metropolitan Detroit.
He described a typical client: a successful businessman who, in the span of a year, faced the collapse of his business, personal bankruptcy and the illness of his wife.
“This is someone who is accustomed to a six-figure income,” Ohren said. “He’s now four months behind in his mortgage, and there’s no prospect for him to make the kind of money he was making. This crisis is people who look like you and me. And from our vantage point, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.”