A call for a dramatic shift in communal spending to educate Jewish youth opened the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations here Wednesday night.
“Clearly, Jewish education must receive a massive transfusion of money if the tide of opting out of Judaism is to be slowed,” said Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress and chairman of Hillel’s international board of governors.
Bronfman’s opening address highlighted a packed convention schedule that, for the third year in a row, gave top billing to the issues of American Jewish identity and Jewish continuity.
The future of American Jewry took center stage over issues such as Israel and the Jews of the former Soviet Union – issues that continue to be of concern, but in the past played a much more dominant role at major Jewish gatherings.
As American Jewry’s top professionals and lay leaders from local federations and national Jewish organizations gathered here, some 100 college students mingled with the 2,600 delegates.
The students’ presence was a clear sign of a shift in focus toward the future generations of American Jewry.
Sharing the opening plenary with Bronfman was Wendy Smith, the 21-year-old president of the Yale University Hillel, who praised the “successful and budding partnership between the community and the campus.”
A CJF plan to dramatically increase funding for Hillel, the major Jewish link on campus, was expected to be unveiled before the assembly closed Saturday night.
The plan, two years in the making, seeks a doubling of federation support for Hillel activities over the next seven years. The plan was expected to be approved in January.
Outreach on the college campus was only one piece of a “new Jewish agenda” that Bronfman advocated to “address the problem of our disappearance as Jews.”
His agenda also included a reiteration of the call, made at the CJF assembly two years ago by his brother Charles, to send 50,000 or more American Jewish youth annually to visit Israel. But at the very top of the agenda, said Bronfman, “is to see to it that every Jewish child who wants a Jewish education can get one, regardless of ability to pay.
“It is the duty of my generation and my children’s generation to see to it that Jewish schools are available and affordable to the next generation,” he said to a burst of applause.
The high cost of a Jewish day school education often excludes families who would otherwise participate.
Bronfman said the money needed can come from “re-prioritizing the Jewish tax dollar.
“There is a plethora of all kinds of Jewish organizations, there are duplications, all with their claims on the same dollars,” he said.
He urged “the federations, the donors and leaders of the Jewish community to appoint a prestigious commission to examine this issue on a zero-budget basis.”
Singling out the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress as organizations that duplicate efforts, as well as the World Jewish Congress, the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency, Bronfman urged that “there should be no sacred cows” in this process.
While others have made similar suggestions, Bronfman’s status as one of the largest donors to the United Jewish Appeal escalates the discussion.
“I’m not today going to threaten anything,” he said in an interview following his address. “But one day the big givers will say, `if you won’t do it, we’ll do it.'”
In his address, Bronfman, the billionaire chairman of the Seagram Co., and minority shareholder of Time Warner Inc., warned of a looming battle “between the givers and the spenders, between the bureaucrats and plutocrats” if the reprioritization he called for does not take place.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, responded to Bronfman’s appeal, saying, “There nothing wrong with re-examining and taking a look.”
But he said that funds for Jewish education cannot be found at the expense of his organization or the other defense agencies.
“It wouldn’t make a dent in what we’re talking about, especially since the federation money that goes to the three agencies is maybe $36 million,” he said.
Less than 10 percent of ADL’s $31 million budget comes from CJF, said Foxman. As for the rest of the funds, “50 percent comes from non-Jews, and the rest comes from Jews who believe that is their priority,” he said.
“We’re democratic society,” he added, “and the marketplace determines where Jews give their money.”
Martin Kraar, executive vice president of CJF, said that while be believes all organizations should be looking at themselves in relationship to the Jewish continuity agenda, the consolidation of the defense agencies proposed by Bronfman is a decision for those agencies to make.
“It’s not a CJF decision,” he said.
While Jewish continuity and educational programs have become an increasing priority at the local and national communal levels, Kraar said that CJF has no plans to form a blue-ribbon commission that would restart the process from scratch.