A new proposal to reorganize the central institutions of the American Jewish fund-raising structure is raising profound questions about the centrality of Israel in American Jewish life.
Some experts and communal leaders fear a restructuring plan now being considered by the United Jewish Appeal and the Council of Jewish Federation could weaken American Jewry’s ties with Israel.
But defenders of the proposal, now under discussion by a joint UJA-CJF task force, say the relationship is unlikely to change, because Israel will remain at the center of the American Jewish community’s fund-raising efforts.
Whatever the case, critics and proponents of the plan alike agree that a complete overhaul of the fund-raising structure is long overdue.
And the fact that both sides are speaking of the plan’s potential impact on Israel-Diaspora relations indicates the sweeping nature of the changes now being contemplated.
The outcome of these discussions could completely change the way American Jews contribute money to Israel. And because the strength of American Jewry’s relationship to the Jewish state is often measured in philanthropic dollars, any change in the way American Jews give to Israel could alter the way they relate to Israel, observers say.
The plan under consideration is the first concrete proposal to emerge from a two-year “Study of the National Structure” that UJA and CJF jointly launched last year.
It calls on UJA, traditionally responsible for raising money to aid Jews overseas, to take on all fund-raising responsibilities, operating a unified national campaign for the federation system that would cover local, national and overseas needs.
CJF, the association of Jewish federations in North America, would concentrate on community building. But it would also have an increased role in the governance of UJA, controlling at least 40 percent of the UJA board.
UJA is now owned jointly by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which provides humanitarian relief for Jews around the world, and the United Israel Appeal, which funds the social services provided by the Jewish Agency for Israel. ..TX-Under the task force blueprint, the Joint would relinquish control of UJA, and the United Israel Appeal would cease to exist altogether, with UJA picking up its duties.
The proposal would theoretically save money by bringing UJA and CJF into the same building, centralizing administrative services and eliminating overlapping programs.
The plan immediately encountered roadblocks when it was presented to task force at its May meeting.
“We began a heated Jewish discussion of the issue, with no conclusion,” said Joel Tauber, chairman of UJA’s board of trustees and one of the co-authors of the proposal.
Among the vexing issued that the task force is grappling with are: – Will Israel remain the center of American Jewish fund-raising efforts? – Will Israel’s share of federation campaign proceeds continue to decline?
From its creation, Israel has been the driving engine of American Jewish philanthropy.
A chart of UJA revenue mirrors a graph of the Jewish state’s drama: Peaks of income came in the wake of Israel’s creation and initial absorption of refugees, the 1967 Six-Day War, the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the mass immigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union in this decade.
UJA owes its existence to local community federations, which 8in 1938 successfully urged the two major appeals for overseas Jewry — the Joint and what was then called the United Palestine Appeal — to conduct a joint campaign.
The success of this combined overseas campaign led community federations gradually to merge the local arm of the UJA campaign with their own fund- raising drives for local needs. The last of these mergers took place in 1986, when New York’s Federation of Jewish Philanthropies joined with the local UJA to become UJA-Federation of New York.
Under this combined system, donors solicited by either their local federation or national UJA write one check to the federation. The federation then allocates a percentage of its campaign proceeds each year to UJA, to support humanitarian programs in Israel and elsewhere overseas.
The problem is that in recent years, this percentage, which once surpassed 50 percent, has been dropping significantly in city after city, as federations allocate more money to fund Jewish education and pressing social service needs.
In effect, after UJA convinces donors to write a check to federation, it then has to convince the federation to send more of that check on to UJA.
UJA’s leadership comes from the ranks of major donors particularly concerned about Israel and other overseas concerns. CJF’s leaders reflect the priorities of federations, which in recent years have become increasingly preoccupied with local needs.
Critics are saying the blueprint now being debated could dilute support for Israel, by broadening UJA’s mandate and diversifying its governance.
“Part of the defining logic of the system has a tension between some people whose first priority is to Israel, and some people whose priority is to the local community,” said Samuel Norich.
Norich is author of “What Will Bind Us Now: A Report on the Institutional Ties Between Israel and American Jewry,” which last year analyzed the role of the central fundraising institutions in maintaining the Israel-Diaspora relationship, and the potential impact of changes in the structure.
Norich said the essence of the new proposal is that UJA will lose its primary mission of raising funds for Jews overseas to become the fund-raising arm of continental Jewry and the local needs of each federation.
“I can’t help but see it as bad news for the Israel-Diaspora relationship,” he said.
But Tauber of UJA, who co-chairs the task force, maintains that Israel will remain at the center of the Jewish philanthropic enterprise. And he said it is not philosophy alone that dictates Israel’s centrality, but reality.
“Our emphasis on Israel still raises the most amount of dollars, so from that point of view it will continue to be the centerpiece of everything we do at UJA,” he said.
Moreover, the reason that UJA is “even considering the proposal,” he said, is because it would contain assurances that the federations would raise or at least maintain their current level of allocations for overseas needs.
The proposal gave two suggestions for boosting the share going overseas.
One would have federation give a five-year guarantee to keep the overseas allocation at the current level.
The other would “recognize that the new structure should produce more productive campaigns” and seek agreement that UJA get a higher share of the increase, with an aim toward again achieving the once common 50-50 split.
The feasibility of any such plan is very much open to question, since each federation is autonomous.
“It’s not clear who would ask them to give up their autonomy, and if they would want to,” said Daniel Shapiro, a CJF representative on the task force.
But another task force member insisted that without such assurances from the federations, “there will not be major movement of any nature” in the restructuring process.
In the end, any proposal will require the full consent of all four concerned parties: UJA, CJF the Joint and the United Israel Appeal.
According to Frank Strauss, director of communications at CJF, the committee hopes to present a final plan for consideration by the end of the year.
But other involved talk of a much longer timetable.
“When New York merged [UJA and the federation], it was an eight-to 10-year process,” observed one committee member. Although the plan afoot falls short of a merger, said this member, “we’re talking about a process that’s going to take time.”