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JNF to Shift Management, Resources in Wake of Probe

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The Jewish National Fund of America is moving to put its house in order following upheaval over its spending and accounting practices.

In its most dramatic move, the JNF will launch a search for a replacement for Samuel Cohen, the organization’s top professional, who is shifting to the post of senior executive vice president.

The decision was made this week during meetings with regional and national leaders that were closed to the media.

JNF also decided to:

Form a new committee charged with nominating new lay leaders.

Establish a task force to see how best to increase the amount of JNF money that gets sent to Israel.

The disclosure that JNF spends much more money for programming in the United States than it does in Israel is part of what triggered a recent public storm around the charity.

Hire an accounting firm to audit this year’s spending and to review accounting procedures.

Cohen and JNF President Milton Shapiro said in a telephone interview after the meetings concluded Tuesday that accountants would also review the agency’s management structure, both nationally and regionally. JNF has 24 regions across the country.

The actions follow revelations from an internal investigation that has shaken the charity’s public image and threatened to hurt its capacity to raise money.

The probe, which included a partial independent audit, found no malfeasance by the organization.

Nonetheless, it found “management, accounting and fund-raising inefficiencies, as well as errors in JNF’s financial statements.”

The inquiry also pointed to the fact that only roughly 20 percent of the money it spends actually makes its way to Israel. The accounting system had obscured that fact.

This week’s actions apparently reassured at least some of the leadership.

“Most people believe that the first steps have been taken to permit the organization to go forward with its mission and that the necessary public relations steps will be taken to help it raise money,” said one JNF lay leader attending the meetings and who requested anonymity.

“Everybody realizes the negative publicity has hurt the organization very much,” he said, characterizing the mood of the conference.

JNF historically has described its central mission as reclaiming and developing the land of Israel. Officials now concede that the extent of their programming outside Israel was not widely known.

In 1994, of $26.9 million in total expenditures, $5.5 million arrived in Israel. At the same time, $6.3 million of so-called “Israel programming” actually was used for educational purposes in the United States and another $4.5 million was spent in the United States on Zionist education.

Cohen, in the telephone interview, said that this week’s meetings showed that there is “a clear consensus” that JNF should “forward much more money to Israel.”

Surveys of scores of JNF representatives from across the country taken at the conference found that leaders want to see 50 percent of the funds go to the Jewish state.

To that end, said Cohen, all programming will be “re-examined.”

At the same time, both he and Shapiro defend JNF’s past spending choices.

“Every penny spent by JNF is spent on or on behalf of Israel,” Shapiro said. “Am Yisrael is not housed only in Israel.”

Cohen, who said he is shifting posts at his own request, agreed.

“We’ve been investing in our future and these investments have paid solid dividends,” Cohen said, pointing to increased income, stepped-up involvement, especially by young people, and “a solid basis for hope for the future.”

Cohen also denied that the organization had been damaged by the probe, saying that “there has been no evidence of loss of income.”

He said he is confident that JNF “will emerge strengthened from the process.”

Bob Levine, JNF’s national campaign chairman, echoed this optimistic view.

He said two recent fund-raising events in New Jersey took in donations that “equaled or surpassed” donations at the same events last year.

Some of JNF’s critics are mollified for now.

Assuming that JNF makes good on its pledges, “we are quite optimistic that things really are going to be changed and that the mission of JNF will come back to being what it’s supposed to be,” said Sandra Breslauer of Houston.

Breslauer and her husband, Steve, were JNF lay activists whose questions about the charity had helped spur the probe.

Meanwhile, Shapiro publicly defended Cohen’s role and performance.

In a statement, Shapiro said that Cohen “has been an inspiration to all who have worked with him and he has motivated countless people of all ages to love the land of Israel and the JNF.”

No longer responsible for the day-to-day operations, Cohen will “concentrate on long-range strategic planning to bring the message of the Jewish National Fund to the broader community,” read a JNF announcement.

The JNF lay leader who requested anonymity said that JNF needs “a Mr. Clean who is a great operating officer to put his imprimatur” on the charity as the new chief executive.

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