Just 10 weeks into Larry Zicklin’s tenure as president of the board of UJA-Federation of New York in 2001, came the attacks of 9-11. Much of the next three years was spent responding to the enormous social and economic after-effects of that trauma, as well as the ongoing terror in Israel and the financial crisis faced by the Jewish community of Argentina.
Through it all, Zicklin and his chairman, Morris Offit, helped the world’s largest local philanthropy increase its annual campaign (raising a total of more than $200 million last year) and balance its commitment to emergency needs and future goals.
Offit, who succeeds Zicklin next week as president of UJA-Federation, says that while he does not want to sound “apocalyptic,” he worries that much of the coming three-year term may be focused on responding to more terrorism at home.
He and Susan Stern, who follows Offit as chair of the board, are hopeful that despite the increasingly dire and complex crises facing America, Israel and the New York Jewish community, UJA-Federation will become even more successful — because it has to, they say, especially in light of the severe cutbacks in government aid to social services.
In an interview with The Jewish Week last Thursday, the heads of the new lay leadership team spoke about the challenges they face and their strategy in seeking to raise funds and awareness of the UJA-Federation’s work, through the more than 100 social service agencies it supports and the $120 million in grants it distributes.
“By building the Jewish community here, we’re fortifying community” around the world, said Offit, a Baltimore native who is CEO of Offit Hall Capital Management, a wealth management advisory firm. He said his business background meshes well with his philanthropic work.
“Life is all about relationships,” he said. “No matter what you do in business, at the end of the day, we’re all in one business: the people business.”
Stern, a lay leader at UJA for more than 20 years, most recently as general campaign chair, agreed that one-to-one contacts were the philanthropy’s strong suit, despite the size of the operation.
“I travel the world to see what this organization does in feeding, housing and caring for people, and those who have seen it at work as I have know that the impact is real and powerful.”
John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of UJA-Federation, said the agency’s efforts from New York to Jerusalem to Kiev to Buenos Aires to Addis Ababa underscore the commitment to “collective responsibility.”
But Stern acknowledged the frustration in the gap between those who know what UJA-Federation does and those — even contributors — who do not.
“We need to do a better job of telling our story,” she said. “Sometimes I’m shocked at how little people know about what we do.”
Offit noted the “tremendous amount of undergiving” in the community, which he attributed in part to its size. “We’re always looking for new ways to touch bases and meet new people,” he said.
Among the new initiatives UJA-Federation is undertaking in the New York area is a program to find volunteers to visit some 26,000 isolated, elderly Jews in New York, who have no relative within 100 miles; build the first free-standing Jewish residential hospice; and bolster the commitment to congregational Hebrew schools, serving about 60,000 youngsters.
Israel remains a primary focus of UJA-Federation, and Offit said he is deeply concerned that as the violence in the region continues, some Israelis are leaving, a sign of lost confidence in the future of the Jewish state. “We need to do all we can to enrich that society,” he said.
Offit and Stern noted that Jewish leadership today requires more nuanced approaches to complicated issues, including the increase in anti-Semitism and terrorism in many parts of the world.
“Jewish life could be threatened in the future,” Offit said, “and we as a community need to find common ground.”
What is required, he and Stern agreed, are responses to the challenge of living in an open society that requires more security, and as a result more resolve, as well as the warmth to engage new seekers. Those skills call for flexibility and openness to fresh ideas.
“The key job in leadership is to attract very good people,” said Offit, “and we are constantly seeking to broaden and strengthen our base.”
“I feel that UJA is truly making the world a better place,” said Stern. “It’s giving life to people, and our job is to get the message out there.”