When Gary O. Aidekman stepped into the presidency of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ in July 2008, the economy was spiraling down and there was already a general downturn in donations to the philanthropy’s annual campaign.
While he could not have predicted the seismic events that would define his three-year presidency, from the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 to the deep recession that enveloped the country, he already knew the years of plenty were over.
“It’s been a challenging time, but I’m proud of our response,” he told NJJN in a phone interview. “We knew by September 2008 that the economy was in trouble, even before Lehman Brothers fell, and we were already taking steps to respond.”
Those steps include MetroWest Helps, which raised several hundred thousand dollars for clients of Jewish Family Service and Jewish Vocational Service who felt the impact of the downturn most severely.
The economic decline jumpstarted a full review of operations and allocations to reduce spending and to capture savings and inspired collaborations with other federations. UJC MetroWest raised funds for Haitian earthquake victims and focused its public affairs efforts on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Meanwhile, the 2010-11 campaign will outpace the previous year’s, a welcome sign of better times ahead.
Making the best of a harsh situation — and even flourishing in spite of it — was the theme of Aidekman’s remarks as he finishes his three-year term as president. Lori Klinghoffer of Short Hills succeeded Aidekman on July 1.
The challenges, Aidekman admitted, did take their toll on him.
“I made a habit of going to sleep with iPod earbuds in my ears, so when I woke up in the middle of the night I could get back to sleep and not ruminate,” he said.
Through it all, he has continued to hone his focus on a philosophy of arevut — Jewish mutual responsibility or “peoplehood.” He has never shied away from explaining the importance of Jews helping each other. It’s a philosophy he embraced most fully after becoming president of the federation, but it ripened in the years preceding his tenure.
One key moment came during a visit to Mitzvot of MetroWest, a fair where prospective bar and bat mitzva students get ideas for social service projects. Aidekman described his surprise at finding “an atrium filled with tables — and you discover that only 10 to 20 percent of the tables are for projects about helping Jews in need or strengthening the Jewish community.”
At several recent General Assemblies, the annual gathering of lay leaders and professionals from the federation network, he heard a constant refrain of people saying, “If helping Jews is an important part of Jewish identity, I have a problem with that because it is racist/tribalistic/chauvinistic.”
“The object in my mind is not to stop Jews from helping the rest of the world, but I don’t want to see that happen to the disadvantage of the Jewish community and Jews who need our help,” said Aidekman. “There’s been a real shift toward universalism and away from the particular.”
Aidekman trained as a lawyer and is president of Highview Capital Corporation in Chatham. His father, Alex Aidekman, founded Supermarkets General, one of the largest retail food and drug enterprises in the nation, which operates Pathmark supermarkets, Pathmark Drugstores, and Rickel Home Centers. UJC’s Whippany home — the Alex Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus — bears Aidekman’s father’s name, and the family is known for its philanthropy in the Jewish community and beyond. But it was Gary’s participation in the Wexner Heritage Program — two years of intensive Jewish study and leadership training — in the early 1990s that solidified his connection to the Jewish community.
“It had a major impact on me,” he said. “I felt like I was the typical baby-boomer. I was Jewish but not particularly religious. I did what most kids did — I had a bar mitzva and then separated from the community. I really had no involvement and no understanding of what I had been taught in Hebrew school.”
When he participated in Wexner, he said, “I really learned about Judaism and got involved in the Jewish community with a purpose.”
He would go on to serve as president of the Daughters of Israel nursing home in West Orange and was a founding member of the board of the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey.
Out of the box
During Aidekman’s presidency, UJC MetroWest undertook a full review of operations and allocations to reduce spending and capture savings. “We would have done it anyway, but not as effectively or as quickly if not for the economy,” he said.
The review was also a response to the changing nature of philanthropy. “Donors, more and more, want to know what good their dollars are doing,” he said. “We needed to restructure our allocations process so it would be more programmatic and less ‘black-box’ kind of funding.”
While the annual appeal for unrestricted funds to the federation umbrella remains the heart of its activities, the federation, through its planned giving arm, created “MetroWest Tomorrow,” a major effort to facilitate “programmatic” endowments.
The federation also examined collaborations with other federations in the state. The federation merged its community relations efforts with those of two other federations — UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey and the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey. While the Northern NJ federation eventually dropped out of that collaboration, it continues with the Central federation.
That partnership is part of a larger collaboration that has led to talks of a full merger of the two federations. Those talks are continuing through the summer, and Aidekman expects to continue to be part of the negotiations even after he leaves the MetroWest presidency.
Setbacks and stability
Aidekman doesn’t hesitate to talk about the challenges of the past few years, including the layoffs and furloughs at UJC that were necessary “so that more dollars could flow to agencies,” he said. The cuts amounted to $1.5 million. Meanwhile, the annual campaigns dropped below $20 million for the first time in recent memory.
Aidekman’s tenure also saw the closing of the Brody Early Childhood Center on the Whippany campus.
“That was a tough one, and a disappointment,” he said. “But the dollars and cents made it, if not an easy choice, appropriate.”
He also assisted efforts to help JCC MetroWest, another partner agency, get its house in order after a period of financial turmoil. The JCC closed its facility on the Aidekman campus to focus on its West Orange location. “We have provided significant financial support and oversight for an extended period to go over budget and performance and look for ways to increase revenues and reduce expenses,” said Aidekman. “There are encouraging signs of a turnaround now.”
This year, for the first time since his tenure began, the campaign appears to be gaining stability. Although the campaign technically closed June 30, gifts are still coming in, and Aidekman expects the total to top $20 million.
That’s a welcome rise over last year’s $19.75 million, one that Aidekman takes as a sign for tempered optimism.
“I think the campaign is stabilizing, but there were issues before the recession that still exist today. Some donors who cut back or dropped off have returned, but we still have to broaden the campaign to reach a greater number of Jews,” he said.
Aidekman points to successes that transcend the ups and downs of annual giving. UJC MetroWest managed to raise $100,000 in aid for Haiti in the aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake. He points to the MetroWest Day School Campaign, a collaborative endowment project begun shortly before his tenure that serves as a national model. One Happy Camper New Jersey, began in 2009 in partnership with the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, has extended more than 500 grants of $1,000 each to local families with children attending Jewish overnight camp for the first time. PJ Library, another collaboration with the Partnership, connects young families with Jewish books and CDs.
Aidekman declined to take credit for these programs and said instead that they have happened “through the effort of great donors and great staff.”
As he steps down, Aidekman said he would return to some of the boards he left when he took on the presidency. These include Daughters of Israel and the Healthcare Foundation. He will continue volunteering for the federation as chair of the salary and personnel practices committee, as the immediate past president traditionally does, and will volunteer “as Lori sees fit,” he said.
“Beyond that, I’m going to really try to avoid taking on anything new,” he said “Somewhere down the road, maybe six months from now, I’ll start looking at other opportunities.”