Culture, Identity, Mishegas, Politics

All hail our leader William Daroff

If it was doubted before that social media breeds transparency, then the evidence is in Mobius‘ Twitter debates with William Daroff, head of the UJC. The summary: Daroff says the UJC represents all of and is entitled to speak for all of us, at least because they paid for grandma to move here from the old country; Mobius dissents. The juiciest part I excerpt below, but do read the whole thing:

Daroff: @mobius1ski Does Obama represent you? Did Bush? You might not agree w/everything we say or do – but we do represent you.
Mobius1ski: @Daroff Comparing UJC to elected officials is beyond hubris.
Mobius1ski: @Daroff My U.S. citizenship is a social contract w/ the gov’t. My Jewishness is not a social contract w/ UJC.
Daroff: @mobius1ski Didn’t mean to be hubrisy; simply stated: organized Jewish community endeavors to represent Jewish communal interests.

There’s more. Daroff needs a reality check. In his childhood, the federation may have been the be all, end all of Jewish communal life. But the past 20 years saw not just a boom of independent growth, but a decline of previous institutions. The federation system struggles to find not just funding, but a leadership that isn’t plauged with failure and embarassing turnover rates. (Worth mentioning here: yesterday the federation’s highest rising star Daniel Sokatch just left the SF Fed after less than a year to head the New Israel Fund.)
Meanwhile, after decades of stagnation, more than 300 new Jewish orgs have been founded in the past ten years alone, representing 400,000 Jews and $100 million, according to JumpStart’s 2009 social entrepreneurship report. These newcomers were founded to get away from the UJC and do work outside the consensus: AJWS, New Israel Fund, Jewish FundS for Justice, Progressive Jewish Alliance (founded by Sokatch), the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, J Street, the Limmuds, PresenTense, ad neaseum, all founded in the past 35 years. And of course, none of these orgs have a seat at the JCPA policymaking plenum or the Council of Presidents I might add further. Their umbrellas are pretty narrow.
It’s a product of our times as well as our generation, created to fulfill a vision for communtiy that the UJC didn’t have and wouldn’t seed. The UJC doesn’t represent me or anyone else who gives neither a dime nor a damn. (Okay, okay, I gave $5 to UJA-NY Fed once, but just so I could vote in the icky World Zionist Congress and undermine the right wing.) My money has gone to groups founded in the past 35 years and I’m hardpressed to find a legacy org worth saving. (Also an exaggeration, I like HIAS’ immigration work with non-Jews.)
Mobius was very kind to UJC to recognize the good work it did and does. But it’s not the model we need anymore, and I feel it’s not disrespectful to say “Thank you for your work, but it’s time to retire.” The federation is raising money from fewer and fewer donors, making Daroff’s claim to democratic mandate slimmer and slimmer. And personally, I find his haunty, self-important puffery the epitome of leadership I can’t admire.
Daroff, it’s a new era and you need to see your institution in relation to the changes afoot. Take it down a notch. Humility is in these days.

35 thoughts on “All hail our leader William Daroff

  1. KFJ, no matter what Daroff says, remember that UJC isn’t monolithic. Many large federations (such as Detroit and Boston) have broken ranks and battled with the national organization over a variety of issues. I have high hopes for a new direction under Jerry Silverman (who comes from Boston, after all). And while many of the new upstart organizations may not have a seat at JCPA, they do have places at the Federation table and the ears of many high-ranking Federation execs and laypeople.
    This isn’t to say that I don’t have my own list of criticisms for the UJC nationally and my own federation locally, but I think making the jump from “this guy misrepresents the Jewish community’s feelings about Iran” to “evil evil evil” is not fair or accurate.

  2. this guy misrepresents the Jewish community’s feelings about Iran”
    Gee. Why would anybody be concerned about this Iranian government acquiring nuclear weapons?

  3. Minor correction–Sokatch was at the Fed for just over a year. That said, the point is well made.
    Shoot, what if the JCPA not only gave all of the “little lefties” a seat at the table, but weighted votes according to sheer membership numbers?
    AJWS & the Reform movement alone would flip the entire conversation on its head (let alone all of the little guys combined).
    Whose streets? Our streets!

  4. Several people just said Dan’s post and mine come off as childish, to which I agree and disagree:
    Mobius posted the conversation to his blog at my request, actually, because I feel the things Daroff said deserved to be heard by the people he implies are marginal — us. Apparently, the magic consensus process of the UJC means voices like J Street or Mobius’ can be dismissed. Which is where this thread began.
    I agree, to project our angsty last-picked-at-wallball discontent onto the totality of legacy orgs is pretty third grade, so I aim to be specific in my criticism. When a top leader says “I do represent you and choose your values for you” then I’ve found something specific.
    The UJC/federation system is a confusion of purposes. Social services funding, foreign policy lobbying, funding and advocating for a foreign government, and ethnic/religious continuity funding exist under one roof. It’s the switchboard and pumphouse of so much of what’s wrong with our community. I am not one who believes that in its present form it should continue to exist as gatekeeper.
    As for the emotions in play and the bitter words that followed, I think them pretty normal. These are the first thing I see us feel when that topic arrises. It’s damn near a mantra of our generation, some version of that sentiment. Be it Israel, the federations, the JCPA, the Conference of Presidents, or just crotchedy individuals speaking to a mythic communal concensus, the pushback about who speaks for us (the new kids on the block) is one of the forces changing the landscape. Look to not only the number of new orgs and voices out there, but what kinds of projects and voices created.
    If people would like to look down their noses at the expression of those feelings, fine, but voicing the zeitgeist is one thing I feel Jewschool is suppposed to enable, even if those emotions are very simple.
    Also, an apology that I didn’t make this post more eloquent and streamlined earlier, I was short on time and felt Daroff’s comments should be viewable so that any of you could tell him your thoughts personally:

  5. I appreciate the dialogue & have attempted to respond, in part, via twitter. So, as KFJ suggests, please check out my tweets at
    As you’ll note, I’m on the Hill at the moment lobbying for more funding for social service programs for federation system agencies — agencies that care for millions of Americans, without regard for the level of their donations (if any), and in keeping with our moral mandate to care for the vulnerable among us & to care for our neighbors as we would care for ourselves.
    As I tweeted, here are the Public Policy priorities of UJC/The Jewish Federations of North America (pdf):
    So, before you dump the federation system as being obsolete, or out-of-touch, please consider that we are consensus-based and THE mainstream of the organized Jewish community. Before you reject our existence because of our support for sanctions on Iran’s energy sector, please also consider that we stand on that issue with the Reform movement, with the Reconstructionist movement, with the Conservative movement, and the Orthodox Union. It is the consensus position, those opposed to it are free to be opposed, are certainly within their rights, represent the views of many others, are fine people, but they are simply outside the mainstream of the position of the organized Jewish community.
    Lastly, before you reject the federation system because of our position on Iran sanctions, please do not forget the vulnerable whom we assist through social service programs at our agencies — in a way that no other organization in the Jewish world is doing, in a way that no other organization in the Jewish world has the capacity, and in a way that too few outside the Jewish world are doing.
    Now, I must run back into meetings. Thank you for reading – thank you for the dialogue – I think it’s very healthy, and look forward to catching up on more of every one’s thoughts later this evening.
    Warmest regards and best wishes to you & all of kol yisreal for a sweet, happy, and healthy new year. K’tivah v’chatimah tovah.

  6. KFJ, thanks for clarifying. I 100% agree that we need to be vocal when someone claims to speak for us without caring what we actually think. And I agree that having all those different functions under one roof is problematic, but not an insurmountable problem (and not always a problem – there are benefits).

  7. How is what some of you proposing any different from the Federation monolith? You’re out in the cold because you’re still in the minority, or at least are perceived to be in the minority. But what you’re trying to create is no different – an exclussive club for those who believe as you do to push their agenda with as little interference and as great a resource base as possible.
    I don’t know all the organization names, or the people involved, but I don’t remember JStreet or the Reform movement inviting a broad spectrum of Jews to their leadership inner circles either. I think JStreet adding a Morton Klein or Allan Dershowitz might greatly expand their support base, but I think they would rather choke on unprocessed sea salt. Perhaps the difference is that UJC claims to represent all Jews, while the Reform movement has no such illusions, but let’s be honest here – half of JStreet’s advertising is not on behalf of Israel or Obama, but on behalf of itself, precisely because right now it represents a fractional elite within the Jewish community. That includes some of you here.
    Yes, many of you here are Jewish communal elite. You ARE the system, but not THE system. UJC is THE system, and that’s what you want to be. At least that’s how it looks from where I’m standing.
    As for hubris, this post, and some of the comments which follow show plenty of it. Whose streets? Our streets! Really? Take it down a notch. Humility is in these days, didn’t you hear?

  8. Mr. Daroff, just because a bunch of denominations’ governing bodies say they agree with you does not make your position a “consensus”. Either hold elections, or restrain yourself to “a consensus of member organizations”. Pretty soon you’ll be saying its a “consensus” position that Israel committed no war crimes of any kind in Gaza.

  9. But what you’re trying to create is no different – an exclussive club for those who believe as you do to push their agenda with as little interference and as great a resource base as possible.

  10. Pretty soon you’ll be saying its a “consensus” position that Israel committed no war crimes of any kind in Gaza.
    Is this supposed to be a diversionary provocation or does it just look that way? Stay honest, Amit.

  11. I think its important to clarify the difference between speaking for the political views of the established movements in Judaism and the people who belong to those movements. While it may be true that these movements stand together with Daroff on the issue of Iran, there are many people who belong to those synagogues, who attend their events, and send their kids to their schools, who disagree with those policies. Again, Daroff is speaking for a constituency which he doesn’t necessarily represent. Just because the board of directors, the rabbi, and the brotherhood want to start war with Iran, does not mean that the community members do as well.

  12. First of all, kudos to KFJ and Dan for brining this debate to our attention.
    Even bigger kudos to Daroff for responding here in the comments.
    And, since you mentioned the various Limmud groups in different cities as part of a trend leading away from the type of organization that UJC is, I’ll say this. I work for Limmud NY. We’re a product, in many ways, of a UJC program called Bikkurim, which bills itself as an “Incubator for New Jewish Orgs” or some such thing. And what’s-his-face, the new guy whose actually in charge of the UJC stopped by around 2 or 3 this afternoon just to say hi.
    All that said, I agree pretty much all of KFJ’s and Dan’s sentiments on the topic.

  13. Oh I absolutely agree, Mika. The idea of “democratizing” the Federations is only a playful idea, not an actual goal. My comment of “whose streets our streets” isn’t hubris, it’s tongue-in-cheek silly.
    The goal, from JStreet’s perspective, along with all the other little organizations, is to be recognized for representing entire sectors of the Jewish community that get left out when “THE JEWISH COMMUNITY SPEAKS.” Ya know, the folks who refuse to donate, get active in the Organized Jewish Community for whatever reason.
    The point is to fully and honestly represent the spectrum of Jewish thought and to ensure that the variety of voices are at the table. JStreet promotes itself so much because it’s trying to establish itself. And I’m sure they’d happily welcome Dershowitz to speak, as soon as he becomes a progressive re: the middle east.
    American Jewry is not monolithic, never has been and never will be. Someone just needs to let the OJC know.

  14. Also, It’s cool how the consensus feeds itself. Member organizations vote on issues “according to the consensus”. The federation says all orgs. voted and created the “consensus”. People say, well, that’s what the federation says, it must be the “consensus”. Nobody knows what the opinions really are and big money decides everything. That’s no consensus.

  15. “Perhaps the difference is that UJC claims to represent all Jews, while the Reform movement has no such illusions.”
    Exactly!!! This is not some side point. It’s the main point. And the ujc mission creep has made it worse. Hell, if all the ujc did was support social services, not only would I not mind, I might even donate, but knowing that my money would be going to support “the continuity agenda” and hawkish foreign policy means I would rather give to AJWS and J Street. So, if I am activly choosing not to support the federations, it’s fucking maddening that they claim to represent me. We are not one (and thank G!d for that), so please ujc stop grapsing at the invisable Jews who used to be your donors and be honest. You represent old rich Jews, nothing to be ashamed of.

  16. People say, well, that’s what the federation says, it must be the “consensus”.
    And the same exact process happens on the left. People who are too busy to do this for a living come to Jewschool, read what KFJ has to say and think, well, that’s the “consensus” progressive position. Why? Because KFJ said so. And if you disagree – and no reasonable person can disagree because KFJ is very likable – you are obviously an anti-peace, war mongering, fundamentalist, haredi, ultranationalist, racist, Likudnik, settler… (a few hours of debate later)… fascist Nazi!
    JStreet publishes polls to try to implant the idea that it represents the consensus position. And who founded and supports JStreet, thousands of little people or mostly a clique of big money?
    I’m not picking on KFJ; he’s doing what he feels he needs to be doing. This comment is about Amit’s silly idea that only the evil Federations generate false “consensus”. I don’t see how it could hurt to be intellectually honest, which is that this is a game of Risk for everyone involved.
    I’ve dabbled enough in Jewish community politics to know that the vast majority of Jews don’t know and mostly don’t care about these kinds of “inside baseball” cat fights. Claims of membership support for one organization versus another are generally overblown AstroTurf designed to gain leverage in negotiations for prestige and resources that most membership will never understand or even know about.
    If the Reform movement, JStreet, Jewish progressives, etc. were so united, so well supported by their members, and on such solid ground that they needed nothing more (in members or resources), this conversation would be moot. They would simply keep growing until it was obvious to one and all that they simply cannot be ignored. The only reason this conversation is occurring is precisely because a portion of the leadership in the progressive Jewish left feels it can gain something by attacking The Establishment.
    Let’s face it, JStreet has not made its name by supporting Israel, but by attacking AIPAC. That’s what underdogs who want attention do, they attack the biggest game in town and hope someone is watching. The alternative is to spend years carefully developing and sustaining a program that grows membership, support and energy from the bottom up. And who really has the time or the patience for that?
    To pit the context for this conversation within the community as a battle of good versus evil (granted, in more nuanced terms) – as some of you clearly wish to do – is disingenuous.

  17. Funny you should mention this, because today when KFJ initially tweeted about this post as “Jewschool thinks…” several of us got on his case. As it says on our masthead page:

    The ideas, thoughts, and words published on by Jewschool contributors and/or commenters are the opinions of those individuals only and do not represent the views or positions of Jewschool…

    In other words, we recognize that we each speak for ourselves, and collectively represent a range of Jewish lefty ideas, but not the totality of what Jews on the left think.

  18. As a Jewish community activist for some fifty years, in Federation, synagogue, and the Reform and Zionist movements, I have repeatedly seen that there is nothing new under the sun.
    Some of the people who protest, They don’t speak for me, marginalize themselves by criticizing from the sidelines. But some organize upstart organizations (Breira. JStreet. CAJE. Limmud. Indy minyans. Etc.) And these upstarts eventually co-opt the mainstream. Note that I did NOT say, are co-opted by the mainstream.
    The mainstream “consensus” organizations are all smart enough to know that their world has changed and are in search of new directions — UJC, URJ and USCJ being prime examples. Yes, they are less limber than the upstarts, and they still have the responsibilities for doing some of the things they’ve always done even while figuring out what new things they should be doing, and what new methods they should be taking to do them.
    If you have better ideas, don’t just scold — implement.

  19. The dilemma reflected in this debate – how do large organizations legitimately claim to “represent” people? – is, of course, by no means unique to the United Jewish Communities (whose Washington office William quite ably runs). Every organization of any size, especially those with a diverse membership, faces the same challenge. That is true of UJC, of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, of my own office for the Reform Movement, and, for that matter, of AARP, the AFL-CIO, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
    It is true, as Daniel and others argue, that the Jewish community is a vibrant place, and that we are in the midst of what I hope is an era of innovation. There is, indeed, an impressive array of new organizations on the scene; they are doing important work, and, often, reaching Jews who are not being reached by the more established institutions. But the troubling notion that an umbrella organization should not claim to represent anyone unless it can represent everyone is a prescription for paralysis and on the part of these organizations.
    When representing any constituency, all any organization can do is come up with the best and most democratic processes possible, and stick to those processes unwaveringly. Unanimity, ideal though it might be, is simply not a realistic option, but neither is foregoing the pressing and critical opportunity to be a strong voice for the consensus views of the people who our organizations do, indeed, represent. (I would note, for example, that the specific issue which drew Daniel’s attention, economic sanctions against Iran, is one that enjoys a very broad consensus within the American Jewish community.) UJC (and JCPA, and the URJ, etc.) have extensive decision-making processes in place to make sure that our policy positions do, in fact, reflect (as best they can) the consensus views of our constituents.
    Mark Pelavin
    Associate Director
    Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

  20. Mark, there’s still a big difference between a membership-based organization such as the URJ speaking for its own members and a community-based organization such as UJC claiming to speak for all Jews. If a Reform Jew profoundly disagrees with how the RAC (or any other arm of the movement) represents him, he can disaffiliate with the movement. There is no similar option available to someone who disagrees with how the UJC representsher opinion.

  21. This is a terrific conversation and I compliment the participants.
    A few observations:
    — I do want to take issue with some initial dismissive characterizations of the federation systems. The “thank you now retire” approach lacks basic respect and the tone is counterproductive, to say nothing about the underwhelming understanding and appreciation of the success and sheer immensity of the communal system (warts and all). Gratuitous zingers shouldn’t be mistaken for intelligent thought and certainly don’t constitute derech eretz.
    — KFJ proclaims that “we” don’t need the UJC model anymore. Who is “we”? Who do you speak for? I know you’re not talking for the tens of thousands who but for the UJC system would struggle for food, shelter, clothing — dignity — with no hope. I know you’re not representing the millions of FSU Jews building new lives, or the 100,000+ Ethiopian Jews transported from the 1600s to modernity. I am certain you don’t speak for the tens of thousands of Israelis –many kids — who found shelter, safety and even fun when Israel was under attack.
    And there are the millions of donors who have contributed more to these causes and to this system than any other Jewish philanthropic endeavor. I hope the innovators are successful in both raising funds and achieving results. But it will be decades before they can dream of even coming close to the donors (and dollars) who joined together to build and sustain the communal system. (And by the way, aren’t these “establishment” foundations who are providing funds for the innovators?). That is not a knock on innovators. How could they come close to a system that’s been around for a century? It may not be sexy and it may lack the buzzwords the innovators use, but the communal system has been changing lives and making them better for 100 years — and we should all be hoping this important works continues.
    — All that said, the world has changed, America has changed and American Jews have changed (and continue to change). And so, too, the communal system has to change. It might change so much that many won’t recognize it. So be it. Without change, it could disappear — and that would be a shame. A system that raises (under basically one banner) nearly a billion annually with ten billion plus under management is a source of pride. The magnitude and longevity of the communal system is nothing to sneeze at and it would be a tragedy to see go down the drain. And with all due respect to the innovators, they can’t replace the system. Yet. Maybe someday. But not now and not in the foreseeable future. Maybe innovators should try to save it even as they change it?
    — The beauty and opportunity here, if we can get past anger and resentment (justified as some is!) is that we can go from strength to strength. Those who came before us built an incredible system. It has done and continues to do a lot of good. But it has cracks. It has gaps. People have been left out. The system grew too comfortable, too insular and too staid. Definitions became too narrow. Thinking too rigid. Too much emphasis on money and too little emphasis on ideas. Too much of “this is how we’ve always done it,’ “my way or the highway,” or “because the big donor said so.”
    — Change is needed. It’s long overdue. Change is coming whether the system likes it or not. Innovators and others, especially those who have been excluded from the system, have an opportunity to shape the future. Dumping on the past won’t get us from strength to strength. Burning the village to save it isn’t much of a strategy either. Engaging – assertively, creatively, insistently and respectfully (maybe singeing here or there) – is what will ultimately get the change so many want to see.

  22. I think there’s another issue at play here, and that is the more parochial question of the role of the UJC. Once, the Federation system spoke politically primarily through what is now JCPA. Neither UJA nor CJF had a political voice.
    And there was a lot to be said for that, because the work that UJC does in raising and disbursing money is more effective the least political it is. Why annoy donors, be they Republicans angry about lobbying for social services or Peace Now supporters angry about lobbying for Iran sanctions?
    In opening a DC office and hiring William Daroff to assume a high profile, UJC is doing something different than it has in the past.
    It’s a gamble. Maybe the UJC has decided that lefties are donating to NIF, not federation, so why worry what they think? From where I sit, it seems like a dangerous gamble at a time when federations should be trying to broaden their base. Why not leave advocacy to the advocacy organizations and the Presidents Conference? Are rallies supporting Israeli military actions in Gaza really good for the campaign bottom line? Or is that simply a cost of having become the de facto central community institution?

  23. Wonderful conversation. I am a radically liberal but largely observant (Masorti) Jew from the bum end of the baby boom, who aligns not with his generation, but with the 20 and 30 somethings of what I call the “Heeb” (as in magazine) generation.
    I just want to echo a couple of sentiments I’ve read here.
    The conflation of Jewish community organizations from the UJC to the ADL with the Jewish community at large is fallacious and unfair. It really is nothing more nor less than an attempt at cultural hegemony. The real Jewish community is a loosely tied together living organic whole and, at least since the dawn of modernity, cannot be understood as having a mainstream. Pashut.
    The UJC and the URJ are not parallel organizations. A subset of Jews (and non-Jews) has chosen to self-identify with the URJ, and therefore it enjoys some right to speak for that subset. The UJC often implies it speaks for all of us. It doesn’t, and I’d really rather it stopped trying to do so.
    Again, I appreciate this conversation and thank @Mobius1ski for bringing to the fore the concerns an increasing number of us share. I also thank @Daroff for jumping in, but he needs to rethink the way he represents his organization and dogma to the world, because if he continues to claim (implicitly or otherwise) false authority I and others will continue to call him out–loudly.
    Shabbat Shalom v’Shanah Tova

  24. MP writes:
    “But the troubling notion that an umbrella organization should not claim to represent anyone unless it can represent everyone is a prescription for paralysis and on the part of these organizations.”
    No one has stated that notion – it’s a red herring and a symptom of lazy thinking or deliberate spin.
    The UJC, and to a much smaller extent even the URJ, have engaged in political combat against smaller and weaker subsets of the Jewish community for the thought crime of being a minority view. Now that payback is nigh for those decades of misrepresenting, as the distance between your leaders/donors and the younger/left wing generation is so far that the links are visibly fraying, suddenly it’s an exercise in consensus democracy.
    Let the UJC and for that matter the URJ* do a better job of reflecting my voice as being an actual Jewish voice within the community, and maybe I’ll switch from wanting to weaken/cripple your organizational voice to one of wanting a seat at the table.
    That being said, I know people who have tried to stick around for that mythical seat at the table. They all either ‘sold out’ or gave up. Daniel Sokatch is kind of a unique phenom. Anyone know why he gave up?
    *I was beaten black and blue by copes at a peaceful demonstration in Israel some years ago, and my father reached out to ARZA to find someone who would give a damn. Of course he failed. To the extent that violation of human rights in Israel is a non-issue while Jimmy Carter protesting human rights violations is an issue, is the extent to which the organized Jewish community isn’t merely wrong, it’s the pillar propping up the enemy. To defeat that enemy, the pillar must be attacked.
    No one has said so here, but personally I’m eager to see the ORJ become irrelevant. Deplete the institutions of the ORJ and watch a thousand Jewish communities bloom.

  25. I don’t want the ujc to close up shop, I just want it to be honest and speak for its donors, not all jews. Darroff said he will represent me if I like it or not, and that makes me fucking mad as hell! If I don’t like what the urj (or any member org) is doing I can drop my membership. In the current discourse, if I don’t like what the ujc is doing, what am I supossed to do, become an apostate? Given the ojc’s nasty obsession with jewish babies, I’m rather surprised that the ujc is working so hard to encourage me to give up my jewish identity.

  26. This from Daniel Sokatch, as he left the SF Federation:

    “Everybody knows that the federated system is in a period in which it is engaged in varying degrees of introspection and re-evaluation,” he told me just before this newsletter went out Thursday. “In some places it is more explicit than in others, but declining membership and fund raising are indicative of more than economic troubles. We need to rethink the functions behind some of our traditional community organizations.”

    Emphasis added mine, and how. This rethinking of functions is what I’m proposing here.

  27. One more from Daniel Sokatch (he’s the perfect example for all of this recently, being someone who left the concensus federation machine because of it’s limitations).

    There were relentless efforts to quiet the diversity of opinion when it comes to Israel by going after professionals who were deemed insufficiently pro-Israel. … I think this points to the limits of the Federation, at least for now, as something that can be a tent for all pro-Israel voices.

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