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Jewish Services in Crisis (part 3): Competing for Fewer Resources; a Community Weighs Priorities

Francine Immerman has a keen sense of her community’s competing priorities and the conviction that they will come into sharp conflict when the dust settles from the national budget debate.

The 37-year-old woman has children in a Jewish day school here and a grandmother at Menorah Park Center for the Aging. Both institutions receive funding from the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland.

Immerman is also active in the United Jewish Appeal campaigns for Israel.

As the secretary-treasurer of the Government Affairs Committee of Ohio Jewish Communities, the liaison between federations and government, Immerman is more sensitive than most to the likely impact of looming federal budget cuts.

Indeed, she says she is girding for the “hard decisions” the cuts will force the community to make.

The cuts are expected to reduce the flow of money to Cleveland’s 19 federation- supported social service agencies and schools, which receive a hefty 27 percent of their budgets, on average, from government sources.

They could hurt the most vulnerable populations – the elderly, the poor and refugees – while intensifying the demand on already-strained local resources.

They could hurt the most vulnerable populations – the elderly, the poor and refugees – while intensifying the demand on already-strained local resources.

While Cleveland’s federation historically is a national leader in per capita giving, its Jewish Welfare Fund is in the midst of its fourth consecutive flat annual campaign, this year raising $24.5 million, a mere $6.5 more than the previous year.

The other source of the fund’s revenue, the United Way, is also decreasing its allocation due to its own sluggish campaign.

National experts say looking at Cleveland helps other communities better understand the challenges they face.

“Cleveland has a very established Jewish community with a strong identity, a sophisticated social service network and a tradition of involvement on all levels,” said Diana Aviv, director of the Washington office of the Council of Jewish Federations.

“Given its record, it is one of the federations others look to consider how they should handle problems,” she said.

The cuts in Cleveland will force a sharp reckoning with what matters most to the community. It may well pit allies of local social service agencies against advocates of Israel and against champions of Jewish continuity who want to protect funding for day schools at all costs.

“I don’t think federations will ever be out of the business of local service needs because that’s why they came into being 100 years ago,” Immerman said, nothing that they will, however, need to refocus and ask what services are essential.

At the same time, she said, emphasizing Jewish continuity is the only way to ensure there will be strong communities able to meet local service needs and to inject meaning and content into Jewish life.

“The mission of the Jewish community is not [only] to survive, it’s to thrive and flourish. If we pass down bricks and mortar but can’t explain what it means, then what’s the point?”

Immerman said she expects the re-examination of priorities to result in “some shift” in the distribution of funds overseas.

But she said she did not believe that Cleveland will decrease its allocation significantly because of its “deep commitment to overseas needs.”

“We can’t ever forsake our connection to the State of Israel,” she said. “Without if, we lose a key element of Judaism” that has “united us for more than 2,000 years in the Diaspora.”

Two years ago, Cleveland changed its formula for dividing funds between Israel and local needs. The change, first implemented in fiscal 1995’s budget, resulted in a cut that year of more than $700,000 to Israel.

The local agencies also are already feeling the fiscal pressures.

In its 1995-1996 budget, the federation enacted a 1.8 percent cut to agencies across the board.

Executive Vice President Steven Hoffman insists that this was a onetime measure.

In the future, he said, “we will have to introduce some sense of priorities into where to put our dollars.”

The absence of precise budget numbers from Washington makes it more difficult for Hoffman and his federation to formulate a strategic action plan to guide the allocations process.

“We can’t make a plan if we don’t know what’s coming,” said Hoffman.

Sitting in his office in the heart of downtown Cleveland, he likened the current atmosphere to one that precedes a military battle.

“The mood is something like it was in the United States on the eve of the Gulf War,” he said. “We are trying to gather our intelligence to learn what we’re up against and position our forces to prepare for what’s going to come. We know it’s going to be painful, but we will have to wait for things to start.”

Michael Siegal, chairman of the federation’s budget committee, believes that it is critical to establish “a priority scale” because a sustained policy of across-the-board cuts would ultimately jeopardize all the agencies.

The community must determine, “Is education a priority or is it widows and orphans?”

“The easiest answer” to the crunch, added Siegal, is “raise more money,” but that is unlikely to occur.

Setting priorities is a task that has been assigned to a federation strategic planning committee, which has met a few times in recent months.

A Jewish educator was brought in recently to help members with “values clarification” to determine “what our Jewish tradition tells us about priorities,” Hoffman said.

When it comes to assessing the priority of each of the social service agencies, Hoffman said the committee expects to develop certain criteria.

He said questions that might be asked include, “Can this [service] be provided by the general community” or must the Jewish community provide it? “Are there a lot of Jews at risk” if this service is not provided by the Jewish community? “Does the provision of this service help the community to maintain its cohesion?”

Some of these questions demand immediate answers.

For one, the community must decide how much slack to pick up with the end of the United Jewish Appeal’s special Operation Exodus campaign to help resettle refugees, mostly from the former Soviet Union.

Cleveland funneled close to $600,000 to programs to help refugees acquire housing, work, English and other tools needed to survive in a new land. That will virtually dry up in June even though the need continues.

So far, the federation’s executive committee has recommended to the board that current levels of aid to refugees he maintained, Hoffman said.

The Jewish Family Services Association here has helped resettle 5,300 refugees between 1989 and 1995.

Irene Marocco, director of resettlement at the agency, said the number of “free cases” – those who come without family sponsorship and are supported entirely by the community – will be capped.

Yelena Tamarov, 34, and her family arrived in September as one such case from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, driven out by interethnic tensions.

Using her caseworker, Galina Slobodkin, as a translator, she said the resettlement program had made all the difference in the world. “They helped us with everything, with all our problems, so we didn’t feel like outsiders. We feel at home,” Tamarov said. “They met us at the airport, brought us to an apartment, gave us food and gave us money.”

When asked what she would have done without the help, she opened her blue eyes wide, as it unable to imagine the prospect. “I don’t know,” she said, then laughed with relief.

Meanwhile, expected reductions in Medicare spending increases and Medicaid cuts would hit especially hard here.

Jewish institutions in Ohio now get $45 million in Medicaid for the impoverished frail elderly.

Nursing home administrators here say that with 75 percent of their patients dependent on Medicaid, their nursing care, food quality and recreational, social and religious programming are likely to be scaled back.

The Mayfield Jewish Community Center is girding for cuts in daytime programming for seniors. “We’ve already had to prioritize our services to reach greater numbers,” said Carol Kranitz, the center’s director.

Already, the days end at 3 p.m. instead of 5 p.m., when they used to, and a popular program on medication misuse is slated for elimination.

In the dining room on a recent afternoon sat Leah Lavitsky, originally from Odessa, who said she has been coming to the center for 15 years.

“I come because I don’t have another choice,” she said, above the enthusiastic sounds of choir practice. Otherwise, “I sit home alone every day. I like the swimming pool and sometimes they have programs. Sometimes, the meals are not so good, but I don’t care,” she said with a smile.

“The best lunch is Friday,” chimed in Esther Gelman, who said she has come to the center every day for 11 years to swim and sing in the choir. it is Gelman’s routine and that of countless others which hangs in the balance as the historic debate unfolds in Washington on social policy and the role of the federal government.

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