It became official on July 1, 2012, when the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey joined forces with United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ to become the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
As leaders signed legal documents and clinked champagne glasses, they created a single organization to serve and represent some 121,000 Jewish people in five counties of New Jersey with a combined endowment fund of over $315 million (now more than $350 million).
A year later, federation president Lori Klinghoffer considers the merger to be “a work in progress and will continue to be for the next few years.”
To Klinghoffer and other leaders, the merger began proving its success during its first major challenge — responding to the massive displacement and property damage caused by Superstorm Sandy last October.
“During Hurricane Sandy our Jewish Family Service agencies worked together in terms of dealing with some of the most serious crises within their catchment areas,” said Max Kleinman, who served as executive vice president of MetroWest and then became head of the new federation. “We had one information technology center to get our computers and phones running. If we had different systems, as we had before the merger, it would have been a lot more complicated.”
“Not having power, not being able to come to the office, was an issue,” said Stanley Stone, who was executive vice president of the Central federation and is now executive director of Greater MetroWest. Stone — who maintains offices at both the headquarters of the GMW federation on the Aidekman campus in Whippany and at its regional office on the Wilf Jewish Community Campus in Scotch Plains — said electric power was lost in both places.
“It was crisis intervention. Day-to-day operations got pushed aside. It was a bigger area to service, and we were definitely more efficient,” he said.
“Nothing proves the strength of this community better than how we respond to crises,” Klinghoffer said. “In Sandy’s wake we came together as one community. There was no question of who was from where.”
One or many?
Bringing the communities together was bound to create tensions as well. There was the question of size: “MetroWest” served Essex, Morris, Sussex, and northern Union counties and included an estimated 91,000 Jews; “Central” served Union County and parts of Somerset County, with some 30,000 Jews.
“We are much bigger than we were before,” said Kleinman, “and one issue is, how are we able to touch all our donors and constituencies in a way where no one feels left out? That’s difficult, because it is a much larger geographic area; it is one of the challenges we are committed to resolving.”
“We will have a more decentralized approach moving forward and more activities in our underserved areas.”
Maintaining a presence on the Scotch Plains campus, however, has made it possible to “showcase the value added from different types of services that our merger brought to folks who live in the old Central area that wouldn’t have been available beforehand,” said Kleinman, such as the Daughters of Israel senior care center in West Orange, and assisted-living housing options and programs for the developmentally disabled in Essex and Morris counties. “They would not have been available to Central New Jersey if there had not been a merger.”
In addition, Kleinman said, residents in the historic Central area now benefit from programs developed by the former MetroWest federation for, among other populations, young leaders and the educational community, through its Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life.
Another area of discrepancy was money: MetroWest raised over $20 million a year in its annual UJA campaign for local, overseas, and Israel services, Central about $4.5 million.
But when the merged federation held its first Super Sunday on Dec. 2, 2012, at the two campuses simultaneously, the result was impressive.
The phonathon raised a total of $2,377,670 for the UJA Campaign of Greater MetroWest — some $137,000 more than the $2.2 million total raised by the two communities functioning separately the year before.
Another concern that the merger raised among Central leaders — volunteers who contribute to the annual campaign and serve on its boards and committees — was that their identity and priorities would be submerged.
When the merger was put to a vote at the Central federation’s annual meeting in June 2012, Phyllis Bernstein of Westfield cast the sole negative ballot. A year later, she told NJ Jewish News, “a lot of people I know feel disenfranchised.”
To Bernstein, the cause is largely an issue of geography.
“Whippany is very far away, so people don’t go to Whippany as often as we would go to Scotch Plains. There needs to be more activity in the Scotch Plains office so there will be opportunities for people to have more Jewish federation life in their community.
“My own participation has decreased, absolutely, especially in the women’s area. It is too far to go. I have to push myself,” she said.
The source of Bernstein’s unease is an area of great concern to Klinghoffer.
“We are working very hard together to create a unified communal feeling, but we do have to recognize whether we are talking about people who live in the Scotch Plains-Westfield-Hillside area, or people who live in the Morristown-Montville-Denville area, or people living in Essex County, or all the way west in Sussex.”
Saying she feels strongly that “we are a community of communities,” Klinghoffer insisted, “We can’t really look at this as one community…. We are extraordinarily diverse both in our geographies and our culture, and we have to be mindful of that, so it’s not one-size-fits-all for everything.”
The merged federation hoped to maintain a strong presence on the Wilf campus, at what were Central’s offices there. However, with the inevitable efficiencies resulting from a merger, personnel reductions were made to eliminate redundant functions.
Of the 15 people employed by the former Central federation, 12 were retained after the merger; among them, nine were transferred to the Aidekman campus, one assigned to the Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life — the Greater MetroWest federation’s educational agency — there. Four of the former Central staff members who were kept on have since left the GMW federation; one now works at the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations (also housed in the Wilf campus federation offices).
One year later, there are a total of 96 people working at the two GMW offices. Only six, in addition to Stone, are based in Scotch Plains — three of them transfers from the original MetroWest staff in Whippany, three members of the original Central staff.
“One thing we could have done a better job with was sustaining the office presence in historic Central,” Stone conceded. Recently, however, new staff was hired for the Scotch Plains office, including Debra Levenstein, regional manager; Paul Kaplan, development officer, who will begin in August; and Stacey Kirshenbaum, program associate.
Discussions are under way regarding a possible reduction in the size of the 225-member board of directors. Largely volunteer-run, federations rely on donors and “lay leaders” for governance, financial planning, event planning, and face-to-face fund-raising.
“Having a board that size is not ideal,” Kleinman said. “The reason it was that size was so many people did not want to leave the board, and we did not want to disenfranchise anyone who wanted to serve. Over time we will be able to scale back the size of our governance structure and offer other opportunities for engagement with the larger community. This will be part of our strategic planning process.”
“Hopefully this will unify the community,” added Stone. “Great effort is being made to enlist and get input from historic Central, as well as the MetroWest constituency. I see that as a positive.”
The next wave
A year before the merger was completed the Community Relations Committee of MetroWest began involving people in the Central catchment area in policy and planning, notably in the areas of Israel advocacy and the campaign against Iran’s acquiring nuclear weapons.
“In the past year we went out of our way to hold many meetings in Scotch Plains and include many ‘Central’ people in our leadership,” said CRC director Melanie Roth Gorelick. Among those former Central leaders is Gordon Haas of Elizabeth, the first chair of the combined CRC of Greater MetroWest.
The merger is “working well,” from the standpoint of the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations, said Jacob Toporek, executive director of the umbrella group for the state’s 11 Jewish federations.
“I am hoping for the benefit of the State Association that the merger motivates other federations to do the same thing,” said Toporek. “I think it will make them stronger. Some federations are having great difficulty in terms of raising money for their services. I think the stronger we are, the better it is for the community.”
Speaking after his installation as the State Association’s new president, West Orange attorney Mark Levenson agreed with the need for consolidation.
“It’s no secret that the federation structure, in terms of the multiplicity of small federations, is not necessarily the wave of the future,” he said. “There are a number of other small federations that really do want to think about a different model going forward. And while no one is changing the locks on any doors today, if we don’t think about how we deal with either consolidations or mergers going forward, then we could be in a situation where, instead of having a reduced number of healthy and vibrant Jewish federations, we could really have some Jewish communities that would not be well served by the federation umbrella and apparatus.”
Former leaders of MetroWest and Central agree that in at least one area, consolidation has paid off: partnership projects in Israel.
Among them is Robert Kuchner, a past president of historic Central who now chairs the GMW Israel and Overseas Committee. The GMW federation supports a range of projects and partnerships and is especially active in the Negev, where the former Central maintained some key projects in such desert communities as Tamar and Arad. Other projects can be found in development towns like Merchavim, Ofakim, and Kibbutz Erez. The merger has also brought Central’s Mack Ness Fund, a $15 million bequest for economic development programs in Israel’s South, into play for new initiatives.
The merger has “created a whole new dynamic” in the region, Amir Shacham, director of Greater MetroWest’s Israel Office — and former head of the MetroWest Israel Office — told NJJN last year.
In a July 16 e-mail, Shacham pointed out that one clear advantage to the merger can be seen in the corps of shlihim posted to the area.
Through the Jewish Agency for Israel’s shlihim program, Israeli emissaries spend time in local communities, carrying out educational and cultural programs at synagogues, day schools, and community centers.
Whereas before the merger, the Central federation had one shliha, and MetroWest had six, an additional emissary has been added, so that now eight shlihim are posted to Greater MetroWest — making it the largest such delegation in the United States — and they all run programs at sites throughout the region.
“It has made my life busier and better,” said executive shliha Noga Maliniak, who is based in Whippany. “It expanded our territory and the number of our programs. We had to cover more agencies and more synagogues and more schools and more JCCs. It made more people involved with Israel, and of course that is better.”
In reflecting on the past year, Shacham said, “We have proved that we can work as one Israel and Overseas team on both sides of the ocean,” he wrote. “This first year allowed us to include former Central and MetroWest lay committees and staff under one cohesive umbrella.”
Stone summed up the first year: “A merger is like a marriage,” he said. “There are good days and bad days.” In terms of Greater MetroWest, “we are still writing the book. I feel confident that four or five years from now this will be viewed as a successful move for the community, and the agencies will be that much stronger. I am optimistic about the future.”