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Getting Past Iran Feud Is Least of Federations' Problems

Read more: http://forward.com/opinion/324539/getting-over-iran-feud-isleast-of-federations-problems/#ixzz3rIgLGyt8

It was hard to escape the feeling that things were a little backward when
the Jewish Federations of North America, the national network of local
Jewish federated charities, convened in Washington on November 8 for
its annual General Assembly.
The organization was emerging from a painful, months-long crisis after
being caught in the crossfire of American-Israeli feuding over the Iranian
nuclear deal. In town after town, community leaders, donors and
activists had been at each others throats, pitting conservatives against
liberals, and Likud stalwarts against Democratic loyalists. The three-day
assembly was intended to foster healing.
Much of the program consisted of how-to workshops on fundraising,
leadership development and social-service delivery. But the highlights
were four elaborate plenary sessions focusing on the crisis and getting
beyond it. Each plenary featured a parade of celebrity speakers,
orchestrated to move the 3,000 delegates through a reconciliation
Curiously, the plenary programs didnt move from defining the problem
to presenting solutions. Instead, as some delegates complained
afterward, the plenaries began on an inspirational note of personal
journeys to Judaism, moved to innovative ideas for community
organizing and culminated in a barrage of confessions and analyses
wallowing, one delegate said over the disunity crisis. The
assemblys official theme was Thinking Forward, but it moved
backward, from solution to problem.
The program ended with speeches by two principals in the recent war of
words, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and White House
Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. Both fell over themselves declaring
that the hatchet was buried, that the previous days Netanyahu-Obama
meeting was excellent and that U.S.-Israel ties were back on track. But
the speakers very presence was a reminder that the divisions are on
hold, not healed.
Positioning the Iran crisis at the assemblys climax put an exclamation
point on the distress, bordering on trauma, that Jewish philanthropy
leaders felt this year when the two governments came to blows. The

damage was twofold. First, traditional Jewish philanthropy thrives on

consensus and pride. Donors are encouraged to feel that helping Israel
helps America. When forced to take sides, some back off.
More practically, its difficult for local organizations to function when
boards are mired in name-calling of the sort that accompanied the Iran
crisis, when Democratic loyalists were accused of betraying Israel.
The network leaders distress was palpable in nearly every speech they
gave. The organizations president and CEO, Jerry Silverman, devoted
much of his keynote speech to a plea for tolerance of diverse opinions
and for unity, not unanimity. The outgoing lay board chair, Cleveland
steel executive Michael Siegal, insisted just before introducing
Netanyahu that federations must always be a safe place for a diversity
of opinions.
The incoming chair, Los Angeles attorney Richard Sandler, told a latenight dessert reception that fostering diversity was his main priority in
Jewish community life.
But getting past Iran is the least of the federations problems. Theyre
slowly emerging from a much larger crisis that began a generation ago.
The simplest way to describe it is in numbers. The 151 local Jewish
federations across the United States and Canada raised a combined
total of just a little more than $900 million in their annual fundraising
campaigns this year. Thats barely up from the $790 they raised 20
years ago, in 1995. But that 1995 figure was the equivalent of $1.2
billion in todays dollars. Two decades before that, at their peak, in 1974,
they raised $686 million, the equivalent of $3.3 billion in todays dollars.
By standing still, theyre falling back.
Of the 1974 total, fully two-thirds was sent to Israel. Of this years sum,
about $150 million, or one-sixth, is sent to Israel and other overseas
Israel is still a rallying cry for many donors. But growing numbers give
despite Israel, not because of it. Besides, federation dollars are a drop
in the bucket next to Israels $85 billion government budget, or even
compared with the $3 billion in annual U.S. aid. By contrast, local
Jewish communities feel intense pressure to care for a growing senior
population and to fund better Jewish education.
Local Jewish social services, once thought to be an immigrant-era
museum piece, became urgent in the early 1990s. The reasons? Twin
crises of the 199192 recession, which hit the Jewish middle class hard,
and the needs of Russian immigrants.
One result was an effort begun in 1992 to restructure the national
network, then called the Council of Jewish Federations, to give it clout to

deal with national crises. Talks were begun to merge it with a separate
body, the legendary United Jewish Appeal, which recruited top local
donors into a national cadre lobbying the federations for Israels needs.
The merger effort proved devastating. Talks dragged on for years,
sapping the energy of the national leaders. By the time the merger was
concluded in 1999, local federations had learned to live without a central
body. Since then its floundered, gone through a series of chief
executives, even changed its name twice. Worse, nothing replaced the
elan and national branding of the old UJA.
One sign of decline was the assembly itself. In its heyday it was the
central yearly gathering on the American Jewish calendar, attracting
anyone who had money to give and anyone who wanted some. Dozens
of outside organizations rented rooms, ran side sessions and set up
In the 1990s the council tried to reclaim the assembly as a federation
trade convention. Outside organizations were pushed aside. The
assembly went flat. Energy and attention shifted to the annual
conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on one hand
and the biennial convention of Reform Judaism on the other. The
national Jewish scene had big events on the right and the left, and the
center was gone.
If this years assembly is any indication, Silvermans arrival in 2009 may
have begun an upswing. Hes taken a number of canny steps, including
hiring away the impresario of the AIPAC conferences, Renee Rothstein,
to revive the assembly. Outside groups are back, from J Street to
Interfaith Family to Chabad, injecting new energy. For all their flaws, the
flash of the plenaries was eye-popping.
The capper may have been the agreement by the White House and the
Prime Ministers Office to have the federations host dueling webcast
Iran speeches by Obama and Netanyahu last spring. It showed that
theres room and need for someone to hold the center.
However tensely, thats what this years assembly has tried to do.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com
Read more: http://forward.com/opinion/324539/getting-over-iran-feud-isleast-of-federations-problems/#ixzz3rIgAe4Yh