A brief history of the GA for dummies

GA 2010 will be the second event since the UJC re-branded itself as the Jewish Federations of North America.

By GIL STERN STERN SHEFLER
October 7, 2010 11:31
2 minute read.
Zalman Shazar

Zalman Shazar 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

When a few thousand North American Jewish leaders gather in New Orleans in November for the General Assembly - the biggest Jewish philanthropic event of the year- it will be the second such event held by the Jewish Federations of North America since it changed its name from United Jewish Communities the year before.

While the organization's structure has remained the same, the change in name is significant. To understand why, one needs to take a brief look at the history of the network of Jewish fund-raising organizations and their annual gathering.

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The first GA was held over 60 years ago under the joint organization of Council of Jewish Federations" (CJF) and United Jewish Appeal (UJA).

Back then, when Israel was still in its infancy and the memory of the Holocaust was fresh in everyone's minds, a large chunk of money raised in North America - up to 50 percent- was allocated for overseas funds. The UJA, which was owned by the Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency, enjoyed a powerful moral authority that kept the Federations in line with funding those overseas needs.

But by the late '90s the share of overseas funds dropped, the needs of local Jewish communities in North America changed and the Federation demanded to have its say as to how the money was divided. So in 2000 the Jewish organizations formed the UJC, a new entity no longer owned by JDC and JAFi and with the Federations at the allocations table.

Still, not everyone was happy. Overseas funds continued to shrink, although general fund-raising campaign improved. UJC did not have "enforcement power" over the Federation and the two overseas recipients, JDC and JAFI, became increasingly disgruntled.

Subsequently, in its tumultuous 10 years of existence the UJC survived three presidents, but eventually succumbed to its fate.

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"In the business world, when your clients (JAFI and JDC) are unhappy and your share holders (Federations) are unhappy -you are out of business," went the oft-made refrain in the UJC's final years.

Such disaffection was one of the reasons why last year the organization, now helmed by new CEO Jerry Silverman, changed its name in an effort to reshape its battered image and revamp its mission. However, how much of a change the re-branding can bring about still remains to be seen.

Make no mistake: the very existence of the Jewish Federations is something of a miracle, which should not be taken for granted. It is by far stronger than any similar system of charity set up by other ethnic or religious groups in the U.S, perhaps with the exception of the evangelicals. The millions it has raised have been the lifeblood of a powerful Jewish establishment whose charities, advocacy groups and cultural centers have played a pivotal role in Jewish life in North America and the world. But, at the same time, the system faces serious challenges and questions about whether the Jewish Federations can reclaim the vacancy left by UJA/CJF, or how it will meet the demands of the overseas organizations, still remain unanswered.


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