Focus on Issues: Head of Jewish Agency Takes Campaign Appeal on the Road
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Focus on Issues: Head of Jewish Agency Takes Campaign Appeal on the Road

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Avraham Burg, the popular and charismatic Israeli politician, has taken to the campaign trail.

But the trail is not in Israel; it is stateside. And the campaign is not for Israeli political office; it’s for the United Jewish Appeal.

“I decided to resign from the Knesset and enter the Jewish Bermuda Triangle,” Burg quipped during a recent early-morning presentation before a small group of Jewish financial consultants in a pristine conference room on the 41st floor of a mid-Manhattan office tower.

Burg is the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel and was brought here for a monthlong whirlwind tour to make the case for the needs of the campaign.

Burg, sporting a classic dark suit and white shirt and escorted by the UJA honorary national chairman, Marvin Lender, looks the quintessential Wall Street financier, save for the purple-knitted yarmulka and the accent.

The UJA, in concert with local federations, runs an annual fund-raising campaign of about $725 million to meet Jewish needs. Federations decide how much of it to keep at home for local programs and give the rest to the UJA for distribution, mostly to Israel and elsewhere overseas.

The Jewish Agency, best known for its preparation, transportation and resettlement of immigrants, is the primary recipient in Israel of this campaign money via the United Israel Appeal, the agency’s U.S. representative. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee gets the bulk of the rest.

Burg’s trip is the fruit of extraordinary efforts by the fund-raising establishment. His schedule is jampacked with solicitations and meetings with federation boards across the country, with all the logistics accommodating his Orthodox Judaism during this holiday season.

The visit reflects an unusual public display of unity by the UJA, local federations, the Jewish Agency and the UIA. It also shows a heightened awareness that a more creative strategy is needed for a cause that historically was an easy sell, but has, in recent years, been beset by competition and flagging interest.

“I think this is the first time in many, many years that we have a road show like this,” Burg said in an interview at the UJA’s national office.

Richard Wexler, UJA national chairman, said Burg’s visit reflects a recognition that “what we have to do is raise money in every way we can, that the message of need is compelling and when a compelling person delivers it, people respond.”

Already, Burg “has been a boon to the campaign,” Wexler added. “He is one of the best fund-raisers we’ve ever been exposed to.”

Indeed, the 1997 campaign shows great promise overall, said Wexler, with double-digit increases in this season’s UJA big-gift campaign events.

He ascribed the upward trend to several factors, including stepped-up face-to- face solicitations of major donors; the application to the regular campaign of donations that in recent years went into Operation Exodus, the special drive for rescue and resettlement; and missions in the former Soviet Union and Israel.

Max Kleinman, executive vice president of the United Federation of Metro West in New Jersey, called Burg “an ambassador for the world Jewish community.”

Burg recently spent a day in Metro West, where “he talked about klal Yisrael,” said Kleinman. “He says, `We have differences, but on fundamentals, we’re one people.'”

After the solicitations, pledges were up “as a result of his participation as well as the story that we have to tell,” Kleinman said.

Burg’s trip comes in the midst of serious cuts in budget and personnel at the Jewish Agency, in part due to the relatively flat annual campaigns here of recent years.

He concedes that the retrenchment has been painful. But he believes that his mission here is not merely to tell the Jewish Agency’s story. He is here to promote the collective Jewish humanitarian enterprise represented by the establishment’s central campaign.

“God forbid if we should sanctify organizations,” he said. “The picture is bigger than the Jewish Agency, or the federation or the UJA. The picture at the end of the day is the set of relationships” between the Jewish people and the commitments that must be served by these organizations.

Burg is well-aware that as the need for Jewish rescue ebbs and with Israel economically thriving and militarily secure, a campaign for overseas needs among Diaspora Jews is a challenge, or, as he puts it, “an anti-climax.”

“It’s difficult to persuade people that immigration and education are as important,” he says, referring to the two primary functions of the agency.

But Burg is good at telling the stories, with a smattering of Hebrew and Yiddish words, that dramatize the mission.

A favorite of his is about a young couple recently flown to Israel from a mountain village in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan.

“Where you usually have business class is full of chickens, dogs and cats and pekalach and shmatas (packages and rags). There are no chairs. It looks like the Lower East Side, the Hester Street of our mothers and fathers at the turn of the century,” Burg says.

On the bus from the plane to the airport terminal in Tel Aviv, a bitter argument between the couple ensues, during which the man hits his wife more than once across the face.

Burg knows his listeners are jolted, and he continues. “I said to myself, `Hey, run there, she’s a battered woman,’ and then I stopped and said, `They are coming from the mountain and it takes time, don’t interfere.'”

“It was the first time I understood what initial absorption is,” Burg says.

“Someone has to be there” to help them adjust to Israeli society, he says. “If we don’t do it on a voluntary basis, it won’t get done.”

Although the impact of the story can be seen on the faces of Burg’s listeners, his battle is uphill.

Federations say they are hard-pressed to maintain current levels of overseas allocations — down overall from 51 percent of the gross campaign 12 years ago to about 40 percent today — when their needs at home are so great.

Burg is careful not to sound competitive. But he is insistent that Israel remains a critical calling card for the campaign.

“Any community that will say `local needs only’ in no time will find itself with such problems; it won’t be able to raise money for even the most immediate and basic local needs.”

Shoshana Cardin, chair of the UIA, said there is a “large sum of money going to Israel by donors in federated communities [who] are bypassing the system” in favor of specific projects and institutions.

The trend must be countered by transmitting the message of the “centrality of the campaign as a community-building instrument,” she said.

This is clearly where Burg steps in. He does not contest that the campaign’s contribution to Israel, on its face, is relatively small, about $240 million, which goes to both the Jewish Agency and the JDC.

But he is blunt about the high stakes for Jewish peoplehood.

“People in Israel and here say we don’t need each other any more,” he said.

“But there is no possibility of any Jewish community” living alone, he added. “An isolated Jewish community is doomed to fail.”

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