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Merger is official after Central federation vote
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Merger is official after Central federation vote

Enthusiasm, wariness over new partnership with UJC MetroWest

Just one person at the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey annual meeting on June 4 voted against the proposed merger with United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, clearing the way for the two to become a single federation beginning July 1.

With MetroWest members having voted unanimously in favor of the merger on May 23, all that remains is for legal papers to be drawn up. The merger, said to be the largest of its kind, will create a central Jewish fund-raising and allocations umbrella for Union, Essex, Morris, and Sussex counties and parts of Somerset.

Although the vote at Central’s annual meeting in Scotch Plains was overwhelmingly in favor of the merger, the one dissenting vote was highly symbolic: It was cast by Phyllis Bernstein, whose husband, Robert Kuchner, cochaired the merger negotiations on Central’s behalf.

Bernstein said she wanted to note concerns by Central donors and Jewish leaders over a merger with the much larger MetroWest community.

“I wanted it on record that there are objections to the merger,” Bernstein said, standing shoulder to shoulder with her husband after the meeting, “but that doesn’t mean I won’t still be very involved in working for Israel and our community.”

A number of people approached her afterward and thanked her, though they had voted in favor themselves. “It was inevitable,” one man said, “but we’re so much smaller, there is a concern that we’ll lose our identity. I’m glad Phyllis made that fear known.”

With the “yes” vote, the last merger hurdle has been crossed. The annual meeting at the Wilf Jewish Community Campus in Scotch Plains, where the Central federation has had its headquarters, will be the last of its kind.

The new entity, the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, will serve an area with a Jewish population estimated at 126,000. It includes 72 synagogues, 10 social service agencies, three community centers, and four full-time Jewish day schools.

According to a fact sheet prepared by the two federations, UJC MetroWest raised $20.2 million in its most recent campaign year, and Central raised $4.6 million. MetroWest manages an endowment of $275 million compared to $16 million for Central.

The headquarters will be at the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany; a regional office will be maintained on the Wilf campus, with satellite offices in other areas.

Don Rosenthal, who served as cochair with Kuchner, acknowledged there are risks involved and the Central community will be “diluted” in a sense. “This is all a leap of faith,” he said.

But he pointed out that while efficiencies of scale were not the main motive for uniting and the Central federation could have continued as it is, it would have become very hard to maintain its services. For the past three years it has faced falling campaign totals, and overhead now consume 40 percent of that income. As financial resources development chair, the Central equivalent of MetroWest’s general campaign chair, Rosenthal has fought to stem that tide, and became convinced merging was preferable.

“We will face the same risks,” he said, acknowledging that economic conditions will still make it tough to meet campaign totals, “but we will have a stronger foundation.”

Kuchner, who has served as endowment foundation chair for Central and will now serve on the combined Jewish Community Foundation of MetroWest, pointed out that as part of a far larger fund, new possibilities open up. “We’ll be able to invest in a way we couldn’t conceive of before,” he said.

MetroWest also stands to gain from the greater entity and also from the particular nature of a number of Central institutions, he and Rosenthal pointed out. “We will learn a lot,” Rosenthal said, “but we can also show them a thing or two.”

When the meeting chairs invited questions, initially none were forthcoming. Marilyn Flanzbaum stepped up to the podium to add her support for the change. She and her husband, Gerald, both served as president of the Central federation and though they now live part of the year in Israel, they remain intensely involved. She pointed out that those present have been through many mergers and closings of synagogues and other organizations. “This is not an ending; it’s a beginning of the next chapter of our continuing journey,” she said. “Gerry and I, as past presidents, heartily support it.”

No sooner had she finished than hands shot up. The first question came from Michael Margolin, who asked what concrete advantages the merger offers, and he voiced a fear expressed by many others about the potential loss of the sense of community. Others asked about safeguards and what leverage Central’s representatives will have in the merged entity. Kuchner and Rosenthal said those issues had all been considered, and that the new board and governance structure had been designed to give Central stakeholders a strong voice.

When Kuchner called for the vote, Margolin seconded it.

“When we show up — and we will — our voices will be heard,” said Mindy Goldberger, who chaired the annual meeting. She congratulated those present on being “here, at the start of a new chapter, filled with promise and opportunity.”

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