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Behind the Headlines: Real Challenge for Jewish Agency is Meeting Needs with Tight Budget

Leaders of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors are concerned that a series of highly publicized reports about political infighting and financial irregularities at the agency are deflecting attention away from its primary task: helping bring immigrants to Israel and settling them once they are here.

They say that internal disputes over such issues as depoliticizing control of the agency’s various departments are unfortunate distractions from the more fundamental challenge of meeting stepped-up demands posed by the arrival of waves of immigrants with a budget that is increasingly strapped.

“The biggest tension-producer is the shortage of funds,” one Board of Governors member said last week during a tour of Jewish Agency projects near the Dead Sea.

“For the first time, people are saying there is just not enough to do what we need to do. And that creates the potential for internal tensions.”

The Jewish Agency spent $614 million in 1992 while taking in only $560 million. And this year’s income is projected to decline to $500 million or less, according to Howard Weisband, secretary-general of the Jewish Agency.

At the same time, the Jewish Agency expects an increase this year in aliyah, particularly from the unstable republics of the former Soviet Union. Jewish Agency Chairman Simcha Dinitz is predicting the arrival of 100,000 immigrants, compared to just over 75,000 last year.

Members of the Board of Governors also said all the publicity about internal problems had obscured the real progress being made to render the Jewish Agency more effective by streamlining its structure and fine-tuning priorities.

Weisband pointed out that by the end of the Board of Governors’ quarterly meeting last week, the Jewish Agency was able to trim its projected deficit from $87 million to $26 million through a combination of currency exchange savings and the deferral of payment into a reserve fund for a loan program for immigrants.

‘PROBLEMS THAT HAVE TO BE ADDRESSED’

Another important accomplishment many pointed to was the merger of two large departments into one dealing with rural and urban development. The move is expected to result in significant administrative cost savings.

In the end, the internal disputes did not dim “the very sober recognition that we have concerns and problems that have to be addressed, and solutions which simply must be found because of the importance of nation-building and improving the quality of life here,” said Alan Shulman, chairman of the Assets and Liabilities Committee of the Board of Governors.

“We should always focus on the things that bind us,” he continued. “All of our goals are common, and we should try to be sensitive to reach other’s experiences (in determining) how to reach those goals.”

“These are critical times, and we have to work together,” said Deborah Kaplan, president of Hadassah. “There is more that ties us together than divides us.”

Norman Lipoff, chairman of the United Israel Appeal, the bridge between the United Jewish Appeal and the Jewish Agency, has been on the front line in the fight to depoliticize the agency’s operations.

“We feel a sense of responsibility to all those providing resources for continuing to improve the structure and operation of the Jewish Agency, and there are some serious disagreements,” he said.

“But they need to be put into perspective,” he added. “Over the last four or five years, there have been tremendous changes, and while there was not a lot of agreement in the beginning, we worked our way through them.”

AN EFFORT TO DEFINE PRIORITIES

Shoshana Cardin, chairman of the Jewish Agency’s Goals and Priorities Committee, said she thinks the agency is “moving in the right direction.”

The Board of Governors members have “made an effort to (define) priorities to the point where they determine the budget instead of the reverse, and there has been a streamlining of operations.”

The Dead Sea trip was an effort to familiarize the Board of Governors members with Jewish Agency programs in the Negev, “to give them a sense of how policy-making relates to what’s happening in the field,” said Weisband.

Fourteen to 17 percent of all immigrants from the former Soviet Union are settling in Beersheba, the capital of the Negev, and further south, according to Dinitz.

The trip featured a lecture by Avishai Braverman, president of Ben-Gurion University, who told the participants that “Zionism will fail if we don’t develop the Negev.”

The board broke up into smaller groups for separate tours of Jewish Agency projects, including an absorption center, where immigrants told the stories of their aliyah; a senior citizens complex, where residents gave a choral performance; a youth aliyah day center for area children from disadvantaged homes; and an idea “incubator,” which develops scientific and technological projects with market potential.

“We spend a lot of time in meetings talking about our purpose, priorities and structure, attempting to be efficient,” said Lipoff, after lunch with students at the day center. But “it’s a wonderful feeling to see firsthand what the decisions we’re making are doing in the day-today life of the people.”

“It’s exhilarating and it’s reassuring,” he said.

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