Stephen Solender, who oversaw the successful 1986 merger of the United Jewish Appeal and Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York, is being asked to do the same thing on a national scale.
Solender, the executive vice president of UJA-Federation, was tapped this week to assume the professional helm of the new national entity for the Jewish community’s central fund-raising organization, the United Jewish Communities. But it is to be for no longer than six months while the search for a president continues, and while Solender maintains his current post as well.
Solender was selected for the interim position after lay leaders worried that their opening session in Washington Monday would be marred by the lack of a complete leadership team. Joel Tauber, a Detroit Jewish leader, already had been chosen to serve as head of the executive committee and Charles Bronfman was named chairman.
The presidency had been offered to at least two prominent Jewish federation executives, Steven Nassiter of Chicago and Robert Aronson of Detroit, but they turned it down, sources in the group said.
"If a chief did not come forward quickly," said Solender, "I felt our potential would be seriously jeopardized."
The new organization is the result of some six years of discussion and controversy, and was born from the merger of the Council of Jewish Federations, the United Jewish Appeal and the United Israel Appeal. As the chief funding and planning organization for the Jewish community, it will seek to increase the annual campaign, which last year collectively raised $760 million for domestic and overseas needs.
The United Jewish Communities will concentrate on four areas: Jewish renaissance and renewal; Israel and overseas needs; health and social policy; and financial resource and development.
Leaders were concerned that the organization could not begin its work in earnest without a professional at the helm. The president of UJA-Federation of New York, James Tisch, said he was contacted by professional and senior lay leaders last week about the possibility of appointing Solender acting president.
"I feel strongly that we have a terrific bench in the form of John Ruskay and Misha Galperin, and a senior staff below them," said Tisch, referring to UJA-Federation’s two chief operating officers. "If we did not have such good, seasoned execs like them (and the next level down) there is no way we would have consented to it."
Tisch said UJA-Federation’s executive committee held a telephone conference call on Sunday to approve the move, under which Solender will spend two-thirds of his time at the United Jewish Communities on 14th Street and the rest at UJA-Federation headquarters on 59th Street.
"We felt we have to support this new national entity," Tisch added. "I think Steve is the right choice to be the professional to organize these organizations and give them the proper form."
Galperin noted that 20 percent of the national organization’s money will come from New York and that under the merger, the federations will control the national entity. He said because Solender is in on the ground floor, he will ensure that "donors’ money is spent in the most efficient way."
Solender said he was looking forward to the task.
"There is tremendous support among the federations and the predecessor organizations, and a high degree of enthusiasm and commitment to make this work," he said.
He observed that many of the same principles that applied in effectuating the New York merger would apply here.
"We need to begin to get some of our programs going in the areas of Jewish renaissance and financial resource development, and to get parts of our organization integrated to make it more cost effective," he said. "We can do this soon and give people assurances that we are on the right track.
"Between now and the General Assembly in Atlanta in early November, we will be putting together the governance of the organization after having agreed on the structure."
Asked how the United Jewish Communities would affect UJA-Federation of New York, Solender said a solid national group is necessary for New York to "work effectively with the Jewish Agency, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Israeli government."
"We need a strong national organization to coordinate our work with that of other federations around North America if we are going to continue to engage in the resettlement of former Soviet Jews. We have relied on the national system to establish collective responsibility for them, as well as to care for the Hillels on college campuses across the country."
In addition, Solender said the national organization would help local federations obtain the highest quality of service for their clients by helping them compare the different services offered throughout the country.
"We learn from other communities," he said.
The national organization, Solender added, is also going to help local federations raise more money for local services, plan a national recruiting and training program to staff local federations, and attract and train "the best and brightest volunteer leaders. Some of that is done now; we want to do more of it."
The time Solender spends at UJA-Federation of New York will be devoted to fund raising and working with the lay leadership of the organization, he said.
Although the new entity’s name and acting president were decided in Washington this week, even supporters concede that it will take several years to sort out the huge new organization with an operating budget of $37 million.
In an interview, Tauber agreed the process of integrating the well-established groups will be an arduous one.
"It’s a change, and change causes concerns and fears," he said. "People donít know exactly what is required of them. The purpose[s] of this week’s sessions are to begin providing that information, and begin the process of change in the entities that have a history of differences. It’s not going to happen quickly."
Tauber said his experience as a corporate merger and acquisitions specialist makes him qualified to begin that process.
"In my business, it’s easier because it’s myself and a few associates calling all the shots," he said. "With this, you have to really change a lot of views; you have a lot of prejudices going in. But you also have a tremendous amount of goodwill going in."
Several insiders expressed reservations about whether traditional rivalries between groups involved in the new entity will be easily put aside. Already representatives of the religious movements and Zionist organizations have complained that they have been effectively shut out of the decision-making process.
"The structure is fine; it makes good sense," said a top official with one of the groups. "We all have good intentions. But these are very different organizational subcultures, and the rivalries between the groups go back decades. It remains to be seen if we can rise above those differences, but I think we have at least a chance."