Three Federa Tions Threaten Changes if ‘who is a Jew’ Amendment Passes
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Three Federa Tions Threaten Changes if ‘who is a Jew’ Amendment Passes

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Jewish federations in Atlanta, Boston and Pittsburgh have become the first to threaten “re-evaluations” of their gift-giving to Israel, unless the “Who Is a Jew” amendment to the Law of Return is killed.

The strongest statement was made by the Atlanta Jewish Federation. Its board of trustees recently approved a resolution saying that “no portion of (Federation) funds will be allocated overseas until the Law of Return is satisfactorily resolved to the consensus of the leadership of our community.”

David Sarnat, executive director of the Atlanta federation, said last week that the statement’s wording is stronger than its intent, and that no funds will be withheld.

Despite such qualifications, however, actions in Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Boston state a clear message: Federations are responding to the frustrations of lay leaders who are appalled by an imminent change in the Law of Return.

The change would require that converts to Judaism who wish to enter Israel as Jews be converted “according to halacha,” or Jewish law.

The Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements say the amendment would be used by the Orthodox to denigrate their rabbis’ authority.

In Boston, the community response took the form of a public statement last week that the federation would “reconsider our allocations so as to increase our support for those agencies in Israel which promote religious pluralism.”

At the same time, the federation would retain its “traditional support for vital human service needs in Boston, Israel and overseas,” according to Rabbi David Mersky, director of campaign and development for the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston.

In Pittsburgh, the board of directors of the United Jewish Federation will meet this week to consider a number of proposals about “finding an appropriate way to connect with Israel for the future,” said Howard Rieger, executive vice president of the United Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.


The Pittsburgh federation was the only delegation at the Council of Jewish Federations General Assembly in New Orleans last month to approve a resolution calling on the Jewish Agency for Israel to cease funding institutions that support the “Who Is a Jew” amendment. The proposal was rejected by a majority of General Assembly delegates, who felt it was too punitive.

The Jewish Agency for Israel receives approximately 39 percent of the funds raised by the annual community federation campaigns.

In 1987-88, Boston’s campaign raised a total of $25 million; Atlanta and Pittsburgh each raised a total of $9.6 million. Each allocated approximately half of those amounts to the United Jewish Appeal, which funds the Jewish Agency and other overseas concerns.

The Jewish Agency is a non-governmental agency in Israel that provides social welfare and educational services. Officials of the UJA and CJF argue that cutting off funds to the Jewish Agency would only hurt the direct recipients of those services, and not the Israeli government.

In addition, cutting off overseas funds would hurt the work of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, an international relief and social services organization that receives federation funding through UJA.

“The old woman in Romania who needs a scarf to keep out cold needs the scarf no matter what the political climate is,” said Raphael Rothstein, vice president of the UJA.


The Atlanta, Boston and Pittsburgh federations are taking a “wait-and-see attitude,” according to Frank Strauss, communications director of CJF, which represents 200 federations in the United States and Canada.

He said their warnings are based on a political outcome — a change in the Law of Return — that is in no way certain.

Sources familiar with the UJA allocations process said there are a number of ways a community could flex its fund-raising muscle if the law is amended.

“The decision on how to allocate is really made by the Jewish Agency,” said Strauss. “Communities could pressure them in terms of how these funds are allocated. Or they might choose not to send money through UJA, but send it directly.”

In San Francisco, federation leaders began a process three years ago of reserving $100,000 from the annual campaign for their own office in Israel. There they provide direct grants for Israeli social welfare and humanitarian projects.

Atlanta, Boston and Pittsburgh are not yet ready to discuss specific plans if the amendment is adopted, and the annual allocations process does not begin until next spring.

But the pressure is on. In Atlanta, for example, Sarnat described the letters that arrive daily from contributors who write of their ambivalence about giving to Israel, now that they fell their Jewishness is being questioned.

And, according to Sarnat, the majority of those criticizing the federation’s stand say the statement is not strong enough.

“The intent here is dealing with leadership that are severely frustrated,” he said.

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