Q & amp;A with UJC’s Rabbinic Cabinet leaders


A little-known fact of American Jewish history is that the force behind the creation of the original United Jewish Appeal, now known as the United Jewish Communities, was the prominent rabbis in the aftermath of Kristallnacht, the nationwide pogrom in Nazi Germany, Nov. 9-10, 1938.

Nazi-organized mobs smashed Jewish store windows across Germany and Austria, hundreds of synagogues were set ablaze and Jewish males 15 and older were rounded up and sent to places like Dachau, in what is called the first phase of the Holocaust.


Prominent American rabbis, including Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver demanded that organized American Jewry create a united response to mobilize all possible resources to help the doomed Jews in Nazi Germany, and later across all of Europe.

“It was rabbinic leadership that caused American Jewish lay leadership to get together and create the United Jewish Appeal, bringing under one umbrella organizations that previously had separate missions and often were at odds with one another,” explained Rabbi Gerald I. Weider, senior consultant to the United Jewish Communities Rabbinic Cabinet. Weider, 63, and Rabbinic Cabinet Chairperson Rabbi Steven Foster, 66, both longtime pulpit rabbis, were in St. Louis last week to meet with local leaders of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis and their rabbinic colleagues. They also sat down for an interview with the Jewish Light.

Tell me about the roots of the Rabbinic Cabinet.

Weider: The Rabbinic Cabinet of the UJC is the oldest constituent body of the United Jewish Appeal. In fact, it was a group of rabbis from all streams of Judaism who called volunteer leadership together in order to create a federated approach to fundraising for both local and overseas needs. The Rabbinic Cabinet has been one of the building blocks of the federated system in North America and Israel.

How many serve in the Cabinet – and how are the members selected?

Weider: At present, there are about 1,000 rabbis who are officially in the Rabbinic Cabinet. Entry into the Cabinet is contingent upon a minimum $1,000 gift to the annual campaign of the local federation. We are pleased that many St. Louis rabbis have been active members of the Cabinet for years, and have contributed significantly to our successes.

Foster: It is estimated that rabbinic contributions total in excess of $2.5 million. This does not take into account the multiplier effect on lay people through rabbinic inspiration and direct giving, which can be considerable.

Tell us in a nutshell the purpose of the UJC Rabbinic Cabinet, and why it continues to be important today.

Weider: We hope to inspire rabbis, synagogues and federations to create a symbiotic relationship in which they work together to fulfill the Jewish dream of repairing, transforming and perfecting the world America, Israel and around the world through collective acts of tzedakah (justice) and chesed (loving kindness). By pooling the collective wisdom and abilities of the nation’s rabbis, we serve as a strongly positive force to bring together the synagogue and federated communities.

Does the Rabbinic Cabinet take any positions on things like the ‘Who is a Jew?’ or the ‘Women and the Wall’ controversies, or issues regarding conversion and intermarriage.

Foster: We do not get into such issues at the Rabbinic Cabinet, and we do not get into political issues either in the United States or Israel.

Rabbi Foster, you served for many years as chair of the Colorado State Human Rights Commission and have been a board member of the American Civil Liberties Union Chapter in Denver. Did you ever think there would be an African-American President of the United States in our lifetime? Also, is the partnership forged by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in the civil rights movement continuing today?

Foster: No, I would never have dreamed that there would be an African-American President in my lifetime. As to the alliance between the African-American and Jewish American communities symbolized by Rabbi Heschel and Dr. King, it does still exist and much work needs to be done. There were some tensions over the years, but I believe things are in a good place now between the communities. We also have both Jews of color and African-American rabbis, and this has helped foster good relations between the communities.

Rabbi Weider, you served 28 years as Rabbi of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, and are credited for sparking a revitalization of the synagogue. How do you intend to use those skills in your role the Cabinet?

Weider: We work to engage rabbis in the annual campaigns of local of local Jewish Federations, to expand the number of synagogues that support the Federation system, and to expand synagogue/rabbinic backed initiatives in Jewish communities in the United States and Canada. Most important, we seek to provide rabbinic expertise and high quality rabbinic counsel on synagogue and fund-raising strategies for Federations and management of community campaigns that benefit K’lal Yisrael in local community settings. We have an excellent group of such rabbis and congregations right here in St. Louis, and have been encouraged by the greater cooperation and coordination of services and programs among synagogues and agencies during the economic downturn we have been experiencing. We also take our experiences with revitalizing our own local synagogues and apply those approaches to other communities in North America.