Aiming to bring “synergy” and “efficiency” to neighboring Jewish communities, leaders of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ and the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey announced that they are “in discussions regarding the possible merger of the two federations.”
In a joint memo sent March 14 to members of their respective boards of trustees, leaders of the two Jewish fund-raising and planning umbrellas said a “committee has been formed to review the many issues involved in such a decision.”
A merger would combine UJC MetroWest, a federation with a $20 million-plus annual campaign with roots in Newark and supporters in Essex, Morris, Sussex, and northern Union counties, with the Central federation, which has a $5 million annual campaign, is headquartered in Scotch Plains, and covers Union County and parts of Somerset County.
In Monday’s statement the presidents of the two federations, MetroWest’s Gary O. Aidekman and Central’s Julie Lipsett-Singer, said that a merger between the two federations “could provide a unique opportunity that would benefit our communities.”
‘Values and passions’
“We believe a merger will lead to increased creativity, which in turn will result in improved services to the newly joined community to ensure a strong Jewish future for many years to come,” Aidekman told NJJN via e-mail.
“Our federation is committed to the principles of tikun olam, repair of the world, and Jewish continuity,” Lipsett-Singer said, “through our collaboration with vibrant local and overseas partners. The opportunity to increase our collective impact locally, in Israel, and around the world, uniting our two federations with similar values and passions, is one that we must explore.”
Both organizations say the idea of a merger was raised well before the current economic downturn.
New Jersey currently has 12 Jewish federations, all raising money for their local Jewish agencies and schools and for programs in Israel and elsewhere overseas. Jewish philanthropists and communal professionals throughout the state have often lamented the duplication of services and unavoidable competition. In 2004, two federations in Bergen County merged to form UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey.
Collaborations between the two federations have increased over the last 15 years, beginning with the publication of a Central edition of the MetroWest-owned New Jersey Jewish News and expanding to include joint efforts in chaplaincy, community relations, IT services, and Jewish camping.
Central and MetroWest together participate in and promote the One Happy Camper initiative, which awards incentive grants for first-time campers to attend residential Jewish camps.
“More recently our campaign departments have worked together on leadership training programs and some outreach efforts,” the joint statement read. “We also share the same viewpoint regarding crisis management, which allows for rapid and effective responses.”
Lipsett-Singer and Aidekman said they recognized that merger talks would have to address the distinct “cultures” of the two communities, their comparative size, and the nature of their lay involvement.
“We are mindful of these differences,” they continued, “but we are confident that we can build a new entity that integrates the best qualities of both federations to create a vibrant, more fully engaged Jewish community that will ensure a strong Jewish future.”
The main merger committee is being chaired by Steven Klinghoffer, a past UJC MetroWest president, and Robert Kuchner, a past Central federation president.
Nuts and bolts
A committee with representatives from the two sides began discussing the idea in earnest about one year ago, according to Stanley Stone, executive vice president of the Central federation.
Klinghoffer said they are hoping to announce a decision by this fall, and if talks are successful would launch the new combined entity by July 2012.
“There is a lot of work to do and we have some big challenges,” he said, “but there is synergy here and a natural affiliation between these two communities, with a lot of social networking — of the old-fashioned kind— that make all kinds of sense for a merger.”
Kuchner said the final decision is contingent on how discussions go with the subcommittees charged with exploring the nuts-and-bolts questions about governance, structure, representation, fund-raising, personnel, and other matters.
As an accountant, he has handled mergers between client firms, but considers this one much more delicate and challenging.
“With for-profit deals, you can measure things in terms of finances and performance,” he said. “Here, the money is important but the people issues are really critical. Things can’t be done with broad brush strokes. We need to consider and be cognizant of every need and nuance. We want to create a structure that everyone is comfortable with and that allows a role for everyone who wants a role, but that isn’t too cumbersome.”
Max Kleinman, who has been executive vice president of MetroWest for 16 years, would head the combined organization; plans call for Stone, who has held the top position at Central since 1993, to assume the number two position.
He said the initiative for the merger had come from the Central federation, and he welcomed it. He and Stone worked together on strengthening the role of the State Association of Jewish Federations, as well as on the joint CRC, marketing, and efforts in the Negev.
The challenge now, Kleinman said, is “to eliminate redundancies while building on the strong assets of each organization.” He didn’t minimize the challenge that poses. “We all treasure past history and traditions, and we have to make sure that the different cultures of these two communities are respected, and that as we open this new chapter, those are interwoven into the new, unified culture.”
He said, “Our goal is not only to save money, but also to do everything we can to build an even better future. What I want to see is two plus two equaling five.”
Stone said federation leaders in Central had considered mergers with other NJ federations over the years, but those discussions had not gained traction. While some community leaders were concerned about approaching a much larger entity like UJC MetroWest, they saw the logic and benefits of their geographic proximity and the success of the ongoing collaborative efforts, said Stone.
The joint statement said the two federations share “common interests concerning the development of Israel’s Negev region.” Stone said that by combining forces, the two federations would also be able to increase their impact there and with Jewish communities in the other parts of the world.
Stone credited immediate past Central president Gerald Cantor and current president Lipsett-Singer with pursuing the possibilities and “looking to do what is best for the community.”
‘Viable and robust’
The main federation office would probably be on the Aidekman campus in Whippany, where UJC MetroWest is currently headquartered. Stone said no final decision has been made about the Central headquarters on the Wilf campus in Scotch Plains, however, “our goal is the creation of regional centers in addition to the main office, which would assure the SP/Union County presence.”
Both Kleinman and Stone said the focus of the merger is only on the federations themselves, and not their various beneficiary agencies. Stone said that a commitment is being made to all their partner agencies — including the affiliated schools, JCCs, Jewish Family Service organizations, and Jewish Vocational Service bodies — that their existing budget allocations will be maintained.
“We have two federations that are viable and robust,” Stone said. “By combining them we are looking to take that energy and make things better for our respective constituents, and for Jews in Israel and around the world. God willing, we will look back in three or four years, and see the benefits that have come from our positive synergy and greater efficiency.”