Jewish World Review June 14, 1998 / 24 Sivan, 5761

Who are our leaders, and who cares?

By Gary Rosenblatt

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- The real story this week concerning the United Jewish Communities is not that the umbrella group of 189 federations of North America chose new professional and lay leadership, which it did. It’s that so few American Jews care about --- or are even aware of --- the workings and decision-making of the primary Jewish fund-raising organization in North America that last year raised more than $800 million.

Is that because the goals and programs of the UJC are fuzzy, at best, to most of us, or because we are moving further away from being an organized Jewish community? The answer is probably a bit of both, plus the fact that so much of the inner workings of the Jewish establishment are clouded in secrecy.

Take, for example, the ascendancy of James Tisch, the CEO of the Loews Corporation and current president of UJA Federation of New York, to the chairmanship of UJC, and the selection of Steven Hoffman, the top executive of the Jewish federation in Cleveland, to succeed Stephen Solender as CEO of UJC.

Few even among the leaders of the fledgling UJC --- the result of the merger a year and a half ago of the United Jewish Appeal, the United Israel Appeal and the Council of Jewish Federations --- knew of the selection process that chose Tisch and especially Hoffman. How and why were these two tapped, and by whom, at this critical time?

What’s been discussed and debated among the elite --- and no more than a handful were involved in the actual selection plans --- are the needs of the moment and the personnel available to do the job. Tisch, 49, brings relative youth to an aging Jewish leadership. He is a member of one of the wealthiest and most influential families in the country and can bring his business acumen and high-powered access to his new post. A few critics have suggested that his company’s ownership of tobacco companies should disqualify him as a role model and leader of the Jewish community, but most are unwilling to speak publicly. Tisch is given high marks for being bright, committed and skilled, but there are concerns as to how much time and energy he is willing to devote to an enterprise steeped in the kind of bureaucracy he is said to have little tolerance for.

Hoffman, who was mentored by Solender, is well respected for his success in Cleveland, one of the premier federations in the country. But some federation execs around the country wonder why one of their top colleagues would take on the headache of the national post, with its brief but troubled history.

So far UJC has failed to carve out a clear mission for itself. The local federations primarily want a service-oriented organization to help them raise funds at a time when the economy has slowed, fewer younger Jews are committed to Israel and traditional Jewish causes, and designated giving appears more appealing than centralized giving, the backbone of federation ideology.

Frustration with the current UJC professional leadership has been growing, and officials of local federations around the country have been wondering when and how the new national body will define its role and lead the struggle toward strengthening Jewish survival, identity and commitment in the 21st century.

Part of the criticism seems valid; UJC officials themselves acknowledge the difficulty in getting past issues of structure and governance to defining a vision and establishing programs. But part of the story goes beyond UJC and speaks to the growing disconnect between Jewish institutions and the population they supposedly serve and represent.

The Jewish establishment is, for the most part, to the right of American Jewry, politically and religiously, and older, too. Anyone who has been to a meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations can attest to that.

What’s more, the old norms no longer apply to identifying and describing the American Jewish community. Most Jews are not members of any Jewish organization or synagogue. And according to Rabbi Irwin Kula, the president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, “speaking of ‘the Jewish community’ is over, it’s a myth.”

In a wide-ranging address at the annual conference of the American Jewish Press Association, meeting in Denver last week, Rabbi Kula described an American Jewry that has grown more fragmented and individual-oriented. He challenged the editors of Jewish newspapers to probe beneath the surface of news stories and tell readers more about how Jewish life is changing, and why.

One of the criticisms he offered is that many Jewish newspapers are overly cautious in their reporting, “hypersensitive and dependent on the moneyed elite so as not to upset funders.” He could have added that the same description applies to many Jewish leaders who because of those same concerns are reluctant to speak openly to the press.

Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, told the editors that American Jewry in the 21st century will shrink both absolutely (the number of Jews will go down) and relatively (Jews as a percentage of the U.S. population will grow smaller). The implications --- both practical and psychological --- of such a decline are enormous, he said.

So we have an increasingly narrow organized Jewish community with an increasingly diverse agenda at a time when definitions of Jewishness are up for grabs. Is it any wonder that longstanding consensus issues have broken down, from support for Israel to opposition to interfaith marriage?

The real story, then, is not who is leading the organized Jewish community but where are they taking us --- and how many of us are along for the ride?

JWR contributor Gary Rosenblatt is editor and publisher of the New York Jewish Week. Comment on this article by clicking here.

© 2001 Gary Rosenblatt