Atlanta — To David Altshuler, the first official event of the newly formed United Jewish Communities — the four-day General Assembly held here this past week — was like a brit milah, or circumcision.
“Everybody is a little uncertain and the birthing process left everybody queasy,” said Altshuler, head of the UJC’s yet-to-be named foundation. “But this child has unprecedented lineage — three organizations [the merger of the United Jewish Appeal, the Council of Jewish Federations and the United Israel Appeal] that represent 100 years of history. This is the most important philanthropic enterprise on earth.”
But as Shoshana Cardin sees it, the UJC has yet to be born.
“There are still issues that need to be resolved,” said Cardin, a former lay chair of both CJF and the UIA. “It will take time to fill the staff, move in the right direction and to test expectations and ideologies with the federations. This is a logical entity, but I would not say it is completely born yet.”
More than 5,000 Jews from the United States, Canada and Israel gathered here to begin discussing the future of this new entity and how it relates to the 189 Jewish federations in North America who “own” UJC but may feel confused about its vision and strategic plan.
UJC leaders acknowledged that the creation of the organization, some five years in the making, was difficult, and that there are still key issues to be resolved, but they said progress is being made.
During a press conference, Charles Bronfman, president of the UJC’s board of trustees, was the first to admit that “we don’t have all the answers… Rome was not built in a day, but we are going to build Rome.”
Altshuler added that it was to be “expected that everybody is nervous and anxious and queasy. That is part of our strength, not weakness. We are going to work things out and it is going to take time.”
The GA, as the assembly is known, was highlighted by sessions and workshops devoted to the four “pillars” of the organization’s programming: campaign and fund raising; human services and social policy; Israel and overseas needs; and Jewish renaissance and renewal, which drew the biggest audience.
A significant number of college students were in attendance, and there was much talk about Birthright Israel, the plan to provide free trips to Israel to all interested 15- to 26-year-olds in the diaspora. The program, whose $210 million, five-year budget is conceived to be shared equally by a group of leading American Jewish philanthropists, the State of Israel and American Jewish federations, will be sending 6,000 college students to Israel in the next six weeks.
But most federations have not committed to the program yet.
Some leaders are resentful of how Birthright has been designed, without their input, and others say they need to hear more details about how it will work. The UJA-Federation of New York has agreed to join the effort a year from now, according to executive vice president John Ruskay.
Another area of tension between UJC leaders and the federations is the issue of funding for Israel and overseas needs.
In recent years, the federations have raised $760 million, with about $200 million going toward overseas projects. Some leaders would like to see more go overseas, while others prefer the current ratio.
UJC has established an Overseas Needs Assessment and Distribution Committee (ONAD), comprised of 18 federation representatives who plans to travel to Israel and the former Soviet Union to assess needs and programs overseas and to help determine funding.
Joel Tauber, chairman of the UJC’s executive board, said the committee’s assessment “becomes an educational process. We think that allocations have gone down [for overseas needs] because people didn’t understand what was being done with the money. But once people understand where the money is going, there will be a more equitable distribution between overseas and local” expenditures.
The ONAD committee, said Tauber, would serve to “validate” overseas needs and the newly created foundation could “leverage more money for overseas needs than we have ever seen before.”
While the key to UJC’s structure is its “ownership” by the local federations, leaders of the federations say they are still unclear on what UJC’s primary mission is, and what ownership entails, in terms of involvement and financial commitment.
A report commissioned by UJC and done by McKinsey & Company, a New York-based management consulting firm, found that “clearly articulated priorities and a vision of what UJC will be and accomplish, have not been embraced by the system.”
As one interviewee, quoted in the report, put it, “You can’t start using a road map if you haven’t decided where you are going.”
To help resolve these issues, Tauber said representatives of all 189 federations would gather at a retreat at the end of March or early April “to determine what ownership means and to then put it in the bylaws so that we are governed by a set of rules. … Without them, we’d have chaos.”
By July 1, the UJC must come up with an integrated budget, UJC president Stephen Solender pointed out. He said that a 50-member committee would tackle that job, including determining the organization’s financing and each federation’s “fair share” contributions.
For most delegates, though, the GA is less about governance issues and more of a showcase to hear from celebrity speakers, from American and Israeli government officials to entertainers. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was a last-minute no-show, stranded in England by a problem with his plane, but Likud leader Ariel Sharon was there, calling for an agreement between the government and his party on key “red-line” security areas and issues in upcoming final-status talks with the Palestinians.
Vice President Al Gore decided just three days before the event that he could attend after at first declining. He told a packed auditorium at the Atlanta Civic Center that America “will always stand with Israel whenever she takes risks and will always be a strong supporter.”
Practicing a kind of forced casual style, he sprinkled his remarks with Hebrew words and phrases, recovering nicely after mispronouncing chesed, the Hebrew word for kindness, by getting it right and adding, “this is such a forgiving group.”
Not to be outdone, his opponent for the Democratic nomination for president, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, rented a room in the civic center and served latkes to about 250 delegates while they awaited his arrival, which was publicized through leaflets. He told them that he had a “perfect record” on Israel during his 18 years in the Senate.
Bradley later told reporters that he believed the “peace process is very important and I sense that Mr. [Ehud] Barak knows what he is doing. I don’t think we should intervene, that we should push it one way or the other.” Asked if the U.S. was doing that, he said he had “no evidence” of it.
Among the entertainers at the convention was Mandy Patinkin, who performed the one-man Yiddish musical show he brought to Broadway earlier this year, “Mamaloshen.”