Photo: Robert A. Cumins
Joseph Kanfer, the new top lay leader of the UJC, attends the group´s recent General Assembly in Los Angeles.
By Jacob Berkman
NEW YORK (JTA) — Can the CEO of the company that makes Purell hand sanitizer keep the North American federation system healthy?
Joseph Kanfer, the new top lay leader of the United Jewish Communities, is hoping to make the umbrella organization as accessible and successful as the flagship product of GOJO Industries Inc.
Kanfer, of Akron, Ohio, faces a daunting task following his election as chairman of the UJC board of trustees on Nov. 15.
The federation system, which includes 155 local federations, has created new momentum after raising nearly $350 million through its Israel Emergency Campaign in the wake of Israel’s war with Hezbollah in Lebanon over the summer.
And the system takes in nearly $3 billion annually through its campaigns, special campaigns and endowments, making it the second largest charity in the United States.
But even though the federations’ combined annual campaign is growing incrementally — from $826 million in 2000 to $877 million in 2005 — the number of federation donors has shrunk significantly over that same period, from 650,000 to about 565,000, according to UJC figures.
Kanfer, 59, has a straightforward mission for the system that provides millions of dollars for local, national and overseas needs:
“Broaden the base,” he told JTA in a sit-down at the UJC’s General Assembly in Los Angeles in mid-November, the day before he took office.
Achieving that goal has eluded his predecessors, but those who have worked with Kanfer say he is uniquely qualified to succeed.
The father of three daughters and a son, he is described as something of a Jewish Renaissance man with a global vision for the broader Jewish community.
In Akron he attends Chabad-Lubavitch services and regularly learns with the center’s rabbi, Mendel Sasonkin, who also offers classes at the city’s GOJO headquarters. But Kanfer says he also belongs to and attends all three mainstream synagogues in Akron, across the denominational spectrum.
The immediate past president of UJC’s Renaissance and Renewal Pillar, which is charged with looking at Jewish identity issues and the Jewish future, he is also keenly in tune with the need to engage young Jews.
In his meeting with JTA, Kanfer referred often to Jewish texts.
UJC, which has been using the slogan “Live Generously,” has gotten away from its roots, he said. Those roots, Kanfer said, are found in Jewish texts that have provided Jews with successful guiding principles for 3,000 years.
Living generously implies that being charitable is an act of kindness. But “we have to establish that it is no longer a nice thing to do. It is a Jewish responsibility,” Kanfer said. “Proverbs says that if you have no money and I have no money, then it is our obligation to give to each other.
“Those were Jewish values that were once important, but we have not passed it on.”
Kanfer also understands from personal experience the need for UJC to have multiple entry points.
Growing up in Canton, he belonged to an Orthodox shul, but his family was not particularly religious.
A self-described gym rat, Kanfer said he spent hours at the local Jewish center. In high school he found out that his parents couldn’t afford the membership, but it was being subsidized by the local Jewish community.
“When I discovered that, it left an indelible impression of community responsibility,” he said. Kanfer was moved as well by Israel’s wars in 1967 and 1973, which showed him the need for the Jews to have a connection to Israel.
But it wasn’t until his oldest daughter, Marcella, entered kindergarten in 1978, at what was then the Hillel Academy in Akron, that Kanfer became involved in the organized Jewish world.
He would eventually become president of the school — now named the Jerome Lippman Jewish Community Day School, after his uncle.
At about the same time he was introduced to the federation world, joining the National Young Leadership Cabinet of the United Jewish Appeal, which in 1999 merged with the Council of Jewish Federations to become the UJC.
But it is Kanfer’s reputation as a master strategic planner that has federation executives and outsiders encouraged that he might be able to invigorate the federation system.
Kanfer helped pioneer what he and his company called the “Alignment Model” to transform GOJO from a family-run soap business, which started by selling industrial-strength grease cutter to auto mechanics from the trunk of a car, into the company that pushed Purell into the far reaches of the world market.
The eight-step model, which is displayed in every conference room at GOJO headquarters, involves developing a purpose, vision, core values and benchmarks for success before even thinking about a strategy to change a company.
The goal, a GOJO spokesman said, is to ensure that the entire company is on the same page — is aligned — before deciding how to proceed. The model stresses working with a company’s personnel and strengths rather than starting anew.
For GOJO, that meant a paradigm shift from just selling soap to looking at the company as one that promoted “well-being through hygiene and healthy skin,” Kanfer explained. Providing well-being meant figuring out how to get the hand sanitizer into hospitals, restaurants, schools, military bases and other facilities all over the world.
The model has been widely used in the business world, but Kanfer has also used it to transform two Jewish nonprofits — the Jewish Education Service of North America and Jewish Family & Life.
At JESNA, which Kanfer served as board chairman, that process involved clearly defining its purpose to improve Jewish education, said its CEO, Jonathan Woocher.
That meant no longer working alone as a boutique consultant, but trying to work as a think tank with local Jewish education boards and with the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, which focuses on day schools, to accomplish their collective goals.
Kanfer said he has spent the past six months examining how UJC works and developed a two-year plan to build on the organization’s strengths.
He said he intends to use the Alignment Model to tweak an organization that is often seen as fractured, top heavy and bogged down by an unwieldy democratic process.
Kanfer suggested several areas that needed improvement:
• improving lay and professional partnerships;
• streamlining the UJC’s decision-making process by creating “coalitions of the willing” that would enable the organization to act quickly in certain situations rather than getting bogged down waiting for consensus; and
• figuring out how to deal with the shifting Jewish population.
The federation system, he said, does not need to have ownership of every Jewish initiative. Rather it should become a “thought leader” and work with like-minded organizations.
Kanfer also suggested that a system apparently concerned with courting and appeasing large donors needs to recognize the federation’s true capital — not only monetary assets but social capital as well, which he believes the federated system largely underestimates.
He said he would like to emphasize the importance of smaller federations in a system in which big-money federations tend to take the lead or work on their own.
This philosophy already seems to have hit home with UJC executives.
In extensive conversations with JTA during the four-day General Assembly, UJC President and CEO Howard Rieger said the system must figure out how to work better as a cohesive unit.
A key, he said, is convincing stronger federations that they need to help smaller federations succeed. The failure to do so allows potential donors to slip through the UJC cracks, especially as the younger generation starts to move away from larger cities and toward areas with smaller Jewish populations.
For an organization often criticized for its failure to reach out to and understand the needs of younger Jews, the Kanfer appointment could be a boon.
Kanfer says it is his constant conversation and dialogue with his children — Marcella, Mamie, Kettie and Jaron, all in their early 30s and 20s — that have influenced his emphasis on engaging the next generation.
Together they are in the process of drafting a purpose for their own family foundation, he said. Kanfer described the purpose tentatively: to “promote vibrant, compelling, inviting Judaism such that its riches — Torah, tefillah and gemilut chesed (learning, spirituality and acts of loving-kindness) — are embraced in an ever-changing world.”
As an early step in his plan, Kanfer said he would like UJC to start a college campus campaign to have students give $18 donations just to accustom them to the idea of giving.
In late January, UJC will hold its leadership retreat in Florida, where national officials will start serious discussions about implementing a strategic plan, he said.
But the first step in Kanfer’s plan — defining UJC’s purpose — already may have taken place at the G.A. in Los Angeles.
The slogan of the conference, “One People, One Destiny,” hung in the backdrop behind each high-profile speaker that took the podium at the plenary sessions. Kanfer said it was “very close” to what he thinks the UJC goal should be.
“Our focus has been peoplehood,” he said. “What do we do to enrich peoplehood and the peoplehood component? How do we define who we are and what our role is? We have to take a look at the Jewish world and what is our unique role.”
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