Heading into the home stretch of his three-year presidency of UJA-Federation of New York, James Tisch remains committed to increasing donors and dollars by simplifying the goal of the complex organization.“We help Jews in need — in New York, Israel and around the world,” he asserted during an interview at his office at the Loews Corp., where he is president and CEO. He has tried to keep the charity focused, rejecting proposals that it make a priority of religious or political initiatives such as revitalizing synagogues or supporting tuition vouchers for day schools. Good causes, he points out, “but my test is whether the issue relates directly to our mission because we should not dilute our focus.”
Though the federation includes a network of some 130 social-service agencies, Tisch said it is important to keep that focus on the overarching commonality of helping people, noting that strides have been made “in getting our message out in multiple ways,” including newsletters, a new Web site (www.ujafedny.org) and major billboard advertising campaign, with the slogan, “The Other 911.”While some might argue that federation’s association with emergencies has diminished in recent years — having helped in the rescue of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union and played a role in Israel’s emergence as a more stable presence in the Mideast — Tisch suggests that “emergency” be interpreted more narrowly and personally.“Yes, we have improved the lot of millions of Jews, but many still deal with crises every day,” from hunger among the elderly in the former Soviet Union to New Yorkers in need of social services.
It is this ongoing assistance that makes up the core of federation’s work, he said.One of the difficult aspects of UJA-Federation’s job, Tisch added, is “compassion fatigue,” which he described as keeping fresh in the public’s mind the ongoing good works the organization carries out. “We are helping so many people every day, but the public can grow weary of hearing about it. It’s our job, though,” to find new ways to communicate the message and find ways to inspire potential donors.During his tenure, Tisch feels he has helped make donors feel more appreciated, and championed the idea that support of federation is not a voluntary tax but a valued gift.Another important internal change, he added, was moving the organization from a division of labor and funding along the domestic and overseas divide to a more integrated system addressing issues like Jewish continuity and human services, regardless of the geographic location of those served.Tisch said that in terms of Israel-diaspora relations, “some gaps have widened and some have narrowed” during his watch, which ends next spring when chairman of the board and president-elect Lawrence Pickling succeeds him.
Three years ago controversy raged over the issue of Israel’s acceptance of non-Orthodox conversions. Though not resolved, the matter is being addressed by a conversion institute created with the participation of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform educators, Tisch noted.On the peace front, he pointed out that three years ago, when Benjamin Netanyahu was prime minister in Israel, “many American Jews to the left of him were disappointed, embarrassed or disapproving” with the pace and climate of negotiations. “Now, with [Ehud] Barak, American Jews feel that Israel is taking that extra step toward peace.”With Israel stronger diplomatically and militarily than three or four decades ago, Tisch said, American Jewry’s relationship has changed. “We were the big brother then,” and while the kinship is still strong, he said Israel has matured and “our focus has changed” because Israel “doesn’t require the same level of attention from us.” At present, federation’s primary goal of funding for Israel goes toward immigration and absorption of those coming on aliyah.Tisch hopes that by the time he completes his term next spring, more funding will be helping UJA-Federation serve more Jews, and a larger number of people will understand the organization’s work. “The more educated people are about us,” he said, “the more they are going to contribute.”