NEW YORK (Sep. 11)
“The United Israel Appeal is not just a bookkeeper,” says Irving Kessler, the agency’s outgoing executive vice chairman. “It is a real bridge, a bridge between the American Jewish community and Israel.”
Kessler, who has just retired after 14 years of service at the UIA, said that while the UIA provides the funds for housing, immigration, absorption, rural settlement, youth care and other social needs in Israel — funds that are collected on its behalf by the United Jewish Appeal — its role does not end with giving the monies.
“We have reached a real partnership with the people of Israel,” Kessler said in a recent interview. He pointed out that the UIA has been instrumental in such ventures as Project Renewal, the plan to rehabilitate Israel’s deprived neighborhoods, and Operation Moses, the rescue operation of Ethiopian Jews that began at the end of 1984.
In addition to being responsible for the expenditure of UJA funds in Israel, the UIA is also responsible to various U.S. governmental agencies for funds and materials received under the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Grants and other programs. Kessler said that in the last 15 years, Congress allocated about $400 million to the UIA.
Kessler disclosed that the State Department contacted the UIA on the eve of the secretive Operation Moses, to see if the organization could raise the money necessary for the costly operation.
“We had paid for each and every plane that rescued the Jews of Ethiopia during Operation Moses,” Kessler related. He noted that the UIA has a “banking ability” that few, if any, of the major American Jewish organizations have, “to borrow millions of dollars from American banks in an emergency.”
Kessler also said that the UIA and its leaders were instrumental in shaping Project Renewal. “The leaders of Israel said to us, “You bring the funds and we will take care of the rest,’ ” he recalled.
“But we were the ones who insisted on the involvement of American Jewish communities in the rehabilitation program and the twinning of American neighborhoods with Project Renewal neighborhoods in Israel.”
Kessler said there have been many changes in UIA operation since he joined it in 1974. “Over the last 14 years, we created a whole system in Israel in which Americans are playing a major role determining Jewish Agency programs.”
He pointed out that while a decade ago only 30 UIA delegates attended the Jewish Agency Assembly, this year almost 400 UIA delegates were present.
“The attitudes of American Jews have changed,” he said. “They want to know now where their money goes and what is done with it in Israel,” Kessler said.
He said that following the Six-Day War in 1967, American Jews showed more interest in, and awareness of, anything that concerns Israel.
“They are more involved and they are more informed than they ever have been,” he said.
More than a year ago, Kessler said, the UIA “revamped its structure to strengthen federation and UJA involvement.
The change turned the UIA board of directors, which now has 63 members, “to one that is the most representative body in American Jewry,” representing tens of Jewish federations, religious and Zionist organizations.
The 66-year-old Kessler, who will continue as a consultant to the UIA, is succeeded by Herman Markowitz of Minneapolis as executive vice chairman of the organization.