UJA to Launch a Special Campaign to Fund Resettlement of Soviet Jews

The United Jewish Appeal will launch a special national fundraising campaign to help pay for the high cost of resettling the crush of Jewish emigrants pouring out of the Soviet Union.

The decision comes amid mounting pressure from local Jewish federations and resettlement agencies hard hit by the largest Soviet Jewish emigration in nine years.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which provides basic housing, social and educational services for Soviet emigrants in transmigration centers in Italy, announced Thursday that it is facing a huge deficit and will no longer be able to accept Soviet Jewish clients at its facilities after March 31.

On Tuesday, board members of the Council of Jewish Federations, representing some 200 Jewish community federations, adopted a resolution calling on UJA to “give serious attention” to a special campaign.

UJA executive committee members, meeting at the Grand Hyatt Hotel here Thursday, voted to appoint a committee to work out the details of the campaign, sources said.

It is expected to be a “separate-line” campaign similar to that used to raise funds for Operation Moses, the Ethiopian Jewry rescue effort.

The Soviet Union’s liberalized emigration policy, in effect, has created a financial crisis for JDC and the North American Jewish federations. Nearly 19,000 Jews were allowed out of the Soviet Union in 1988, a nine-year high, and 30,000 to 40,000 are expected to be allowed out in 1989.

$53 MILLION NEEDED THIS YEAR

More than 90 percent of these emigrants are choosing to live in the United States, thereby overwhelming Jewish resources at the transmigration centers in Vienna and Italy, and in the major Jewish communities of the United States.

JDC expects it will need $53 million in 1989 to continue its services to the Soviet emigrants alone, less $8 million provided by the United States Refugee Program. By comparison, “care and maintenance” for Soviet emigrants cost $13 million in 1988 and less than $1 million in 1987.

JDC is almost completely funded by UJA. Last year it received $52 million from UJA, and this year it anticipates a $59 million allocation. Its 1989 budget for worldwide activities is expected to exceed $70 million.

Most of the money raised by UJA goes to the Jewish Agency for services in Israel. Local Jewish federations allocate a percentage of their total local campaign to the UJA.

Already this year, JDC has cut back services to emigrants by 10 percent, in March. Another $7 million in services has been trimmed from JDC programs in many of the 34 countries in which it operates.

Sylvia Hassenfeld, president of JDC, said in an interview at JDC offices Thursday that the organization has nearly reached its $10 million ceiling on bank loans. By March 31, she said, JDC centers in Rome and the nearby Italian resort town of Ladispoli will no longer be able to accept additional Jewish clients.

“We are having to watch our situation almost daily,” said Michael Schneider, JDC executive vice president.

The situation is being compounded by a change in U.S. refugee policy, due to federal budget pressures, toward the Soviet emigrants seeking entry to the United States as political refugees.

In recent weeks, immigration officials have been rejecting 20 percent of those Soviet Jews applying for the coveted refugee status. Until last fall, refugee status was granted almost automatically for Soviet Jewish emigrants.

The rejections have increased the backlog of emigrants in Ladispoli, thereby skyrocketing the costs to JDC and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which provides additional resettlement services.

Some 7,000 Soviet Jews, in various stages of the emigration process, are now crowded in and around Ladispoli. Approximately 700 have been rejected for refugee status, and most are appealing the decision.

JDC officials said they have tried a number of approaches to reduce costs at the transit centers. Most focus on reducing the average 75 day waiting period it now takes most Soviet Jews to obtain clearance for entry to the United States. Federal refugee funds are only available for the first 30 days of waiting.

JDC officials also have begun working closely with the Jewish Agency in order to try to convince more Soviet Jews to settle in Israel.

In addition, JDC is urging Soviet Jews to seek help from family members already living in the United States and other countries.

JDC officials have communicated their concern to UJA, CJF and Jewish Agency officials this week, and will lead them on a tour of JDC facilities in Europe next week.

Hassenfeld said a separate-line fund-raising campaign is preferable to a drastic increase in JDC’s UJA allocation. Such an increase would come at the expense of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the major beneficiary of money raised by the UJA.

“We hope it wouldn’t come to that,” said Hassenfeld. “That would be a very divisive thing in the Jewish community.”

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