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Focus on Issues: UJA Plots New Course for Campaign; Shifts Away from Israel As ‘charity’

It is not hard to imagine the reaction at the headquarters of the United Jewish Appeal when word got back that Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin had told Diaspora Jews that their “charity” was no longer needed.

It is the UJA’s job, after all, to raise the money for Israel that Beilin was appearing to denigrate, and to make sure that Israel’s cause is heard amid the clamor of competing local Jewish needs.

At the same time, the thrust of Beilin’s remarks – at least as he clarified them after being called on the carpet by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin – were remarkably compatible with the views of UJA’s executive vice president, Rabbi Brian Lurie.

Lurie agrees that the idea of an impoverished Israel, totally dependent for survival on Diaspora largess, is both untrue to the facts and unfair to the real relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.

“We’re dealing with a different kind of Israel,” Lurie said in a recent interview.

“In the early 1950s, when the Israeli minister of finance used to come to the United States, his first stop was to the president of the UJA to find out when the next payment would be. UJA paid 30 percent of the Israeli budget,” Lurie said.

The situation has changed.

“We’re providing something important, but different. Israel is not a weak country. It’s strong,” said Lurie, noting the economic growth rate and the number of American companies interested in investing there.

And whatever the disagreement between Rabin and Beilin, the fact is, as Lurie noted, that when the prime minister addressed the Council of Jewish federations in November, he called for a “new partnership” between Israel and the Diaspora.

Certainly, said Lurie, “There is a tremendous role for Jewish philanthropy in Israel. That hasn’t ended.”

Precisely how to calibrate the philanthropy into a new sort of partnership is something Lurie, a Reform rabbi and former head of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, has been thinking about for a long time.

Now, Lurie, who came to the UJA in 1991, has a chance to put his ideas into play, as UJA gears up to launch its 1995 campaign in the late spring of this year. The total campaign hopes to top the $700 million mark set by the 1993 campaign. (The 1994 campaign is not yet half way through.)

The 1995 fund-raising drive will be the organization’s first in several years not overshadowed by a “special campaign” to help Jews from he former Soviet Union and Ethiopia. Operation Exodus is scheduled to be completed by May and to have raised more than $1 billion.

So instead of UJA as rescue squad, saving imperiled Jews around the planet, get ready for UJA as “the living bridge” between Israel and the Diaspora.

Lurie hopes the new metaphor will bring together the disparate elements of UJA- funded activity – and enable the organization to navigate the shifting currents of Israel-Diaspora relations.

The bridge is not just about money, said Lurie. “It’s a bridge of people coming in both directions, a bridge of ideas. It’s really a bridge that has spirituality, that has sophistication, that has love, grace and dignity. Something to build the Jewish people. That’s the bridge,” he said.

Within the overall bridge metaphor, Lurie outlined five themes for campaign ’95 and beyond, “five different, very tangible messages that all interrelate.”

Israel as a charity case is not on the list of themes.

Two themes continue the Operation Exodus focus on Jews in the former Soviet Union.

First, the UJA will continue financing the emigration of Jews to Israel, estimated to continue at a rate of 70,000 a year. Secondly, it will continue serving the hundreds of thousands of Jews who are expected to remain in the former Soviet Union, “allowing them to live out their years in dignity,” in Lurie’s words.

“I don’t want to build something to keep people there,” said Lurie. “I want to build something so people will understand what it means to be Jewish, and will want to leave.”

The UJA-funded American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which has long provided such services in other parts of Eastern Europe, has for the past few years been active in the former Soviet Union as well.

The American Israeli component of the living bridge will be centered around “Partnership 2000,” which seeks to revive the Project Renewal “twinning” system in which Diaspora communities work directly with Israeli communities in the Negev and Galilee to solve local programs.

Since the focus is being put as much on connection as on charity, the program will involve joint decision making by the Israeli and American communities involved. There will be more of a “paper relationship” between the two groups than there was in Project Renewal, said Lurie.

And, reflecting comments by both Beilin and Rabin, the Partnership 2000 program will have an economic development component, underwriting programs to create jobs in Israel.

Unlike Project Renewal in the 1970s and 80s, Partnership 2000 is being planned not as a separate campaign, but will instead receive a percentage of a community’s regular campaign, which will be “rebated” back to that community to underwrite its work in Israel.

While it is to be launched during the 1995 campaign, Partnership 2000 will be starting with a few communities and expanding over the next few years.

The final two themes move UJA past its traditional “overseas” focus to deal with issues of American Jewish continuity and identity.

One is promoting “the Israel experience,” or educational trips to Israel. Lurie called this “a major building block in the annual campaign.”

The UJA is part of a consortium of Jewish groups hoping to raise the number of American Jewish youth traveling to Israel to 50,000 annually. Most of the current Israel Experience programs, said Lurie, go through the Joint Educational Authority operated by the UJA-funded Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization.

“Already we’re putting a lot of money to play into this area; obviously that has to be sharpened and honored,” said Lurie.

Finally, the bridge leads directly into Jewish continuity at home.

“If you believe in the Israel experience, you have to have something before and after, to prepare for the experienced and to heighten it,” said Lurie. “For the UJA, it means we have to make a hard look at what we’re doing on campus.”

At the same time, “We’ll help local federations in publicizing concerns over continuity. It’s the first time we’ve gotten involved in a domestic issue, but it’s not really domestic, it’s was a worldwide Jewish issue.”

Last year, UJA issued promotional material which revolved around the word “continuity” – but barely mentioned the concerns over the future of American Jewish life that have made the word a buzzword.

Instead, the materials dealt with the external threats to Jewish survival in Israel, the former Soviet Union and elsewhere that have traditionally been part of the UJA campaign.

“Truthfully, I was a little uncomfortable with that,” said Lurie. “It was a catchword, it was used, it wasn’t that well explained.”

For Lurie, “The Israel experience is Jewish continuity. Taking 8,599 adults to Israel (on UJA missions) is Jewish continuity. It’s an Israel experience, a powerful educational experience.

“So the UJA is in the continuity business. Tzedakah has always kept Jews Jewish. We’re just going to do it in a more serious way.”

But is promoting American Jewish continuity a viable hook on which to hang a fund-raising campaign?

Lurie believes it can be.

“There have been millions of dollars raised. There is already one earmarked gift of a million for an endowment; two more are on the way. Enormous money will be given. It touches people very personally. It’s their progeny’s Jewish identity,” he said.

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