Morris Offit, president of UJA-Federation, still seems upset about a public confrontation that took place last month at the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities.
During a session on federations and foundations working together, he offered an impassioned response to charges from the so-called mega-philanthropist camp that the federation system was too stodgy and out of step with the times.
“This tension with the mega-philanthropists is crazy,” Offit said during an interview here this week. “There is an arrogance to their approach.”
Offit, saying he views federations as one of the community’s greatest strengths, believes it is “counterproductive to denigrate” the movement.
“This should all be about partnership,” he said, asserting that federations provide the infrastructure essential to accomplishing programs and projects individual philanthropists may want to fund.“The philanthropists can do whatever they want, but we are process-driven because we’re responsible to the community,” he said.Offit, 68, co-chief executive of Offit Hall Capital Management, is being honored this week with the top award of the Wall Street Division of UJA-Federation at its annual dinner, which hopes to exceed last year’s total of more than $31 million from representatives of about 150 Wall Street firms. The dinner accounts for more than 20 percent of the charity’s annual campaign.
Alexandra Lebenthal, president of Lebenthal, is receiving the Wall Street Young Leadership Award.
Offit says there has never been a more difficult time than now to be a leader in the Jewish community.“We are used to responding to a crisis,” like Israel or Soviet Jewry, he said, and there are “fewer galvanizing issues today.”
Offit acknowledged that Operation Promise — the United Jewish Communities’ national campaign on behalf of the rescue and immigration of the Falash Mura of Ethiopia, and caring for the elderly in the former Soviet Union — does not have much “traction” with many potential donors.
Despite the lack of drama in fundraising issues, however, he believes “the needs are greater now,” primarily the importance of maintaining Jewish continuity in a society where assimilation is on the rise.Offit said a key challenge for UJA-Federation in this era of more personalized, hands-on giving is to give the institution — the largest local charity in the world — a more human face. To that end, he planned to announce to the estimated 1,200 attendees at the dinner his personal phone number and e-mail address and “dare them to contact me.”
His point, he said, is to “do my best to personalize this organization and let people know it is accessible and not just an amorphous institution.”While noting that “some describe us as ‘The Old Lady on 59th Street,’ ” he describes UJA-Federation as “a galvanizing force” that is entrepreneurial and energetic in supporting an array of creative projects in addition to the social-work agencies with which it is most identified.
Among the successful new programs UJA-Federation supports are Limmud NY, an annual transdenominational conference devoted to Jewish learning, and Sharsheret, an organization devoted to helping Jewish women with breast cancer.One grant that ended recently was to Heeb, a Jewish magazine seeking to appeal to unaffiliated young Jews that was considered in bad taste by UJA-Federation officials for its sexual and other content.“You have to take risks,” Offit shrugged.
Another key goal for the organization, he said, is to educate younger people about the difference between charity, which he characterized as selfless, and philanthropy, which he called “one of the worst words in the English language” because it is about “burnishing one’s image.”
Offit acknowledged that many younger donors, even those who give generously to UJA-Federation, are not interested in learning about the range of services the organization provides to the needy in New York, Israel and around the world.“Some of them just write a check,” he said, thinking of their gift as a kind of Jewish communal tax.UJA-Federation officials prefer that donors learn about the organization’s good works, so they will become more involved.Offit said giving charity should be something one wants to do from a sense of collective responsibility, built on the Jewish concept of Klal Yisrael, or Jewish peoplehood, rather than for self-aggrandizement.
“There should be a sense of psychic enrichment,” he said, adding that involvement in UJA-Federation also offers the most effective networking opportunities among professionals in the Jewish community.The key is educating a younger generation to the responsibilities Jews should have for each other, he said, and not attempting to manufacture a sense of crisis.Offit noted that the federation in Baltimore, where he is from, had a slogan, “Thy brother’s keeper,” which he said explains the mission: “We take care of our own.”