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Regional leaders monitor progress of reform at JNF

NEW YORK, Dec. 29 (JTA) — Regional leaders of the Jewish National Fund of America are watching and waiting to see whether plans to reform the organization will be carried out and will be sufficient to restore confidence in its operation. The charity has been scrambling to put its house in order after upheaval over its spending and accounting practices. At least one regional chapter, New England, has threatened to disband its board unless the principals at the organization resign and other changes are implemented. The New England chapter’s president, Michael Lipof, charged that the organization’s reform plans have so far been a “sham.” Lipof said he had even “stopped people from contributing” to the charity best known for its tree-planting and land development projects in Israel. But other regional leaders say New England’s “revolutionary” approach is not representative of the sentiment across the nation and that restructuring the charity will take time. Such radicalism is counterproductive, they say. Stuart Gertman of Cleveland said he is “disturbed by the inflammatory rhetoric” of a vocal minority and decried what he called a “vendetta atmosphere among a few.” JNF board members in his city, he said, are upset about the organization’s problems, “but are gratified by the [reform] process and are giving it time” to take its course. For their part, national JNF officials also defend the reform effort, saying that it is far-reaching and moving as quickly as possible. “None of the steps can be taken overnight,” said Mark Cohen, JNF’s spokesman. Regional lay leaders agreed last week during a conference call to wait until Jan. 20 before meeting to evaluate the progress of the reforms and to decide on the next step. They formed a committee, of which Gertman is a member, to monitor the reforms on behalf of the regional leadership. An internal probe of JNF led to disclosures in the fall that far less money than expected — roughly 20 percent — actually makes it to Israel annually for tree-planting and other land development projects. Historically, this has been JNF’s central mission. The probe, which included an independent partial audit of the agency, found no fraud or malfeasance, but said sloppy accounting procedures were rife. The revelations were a blow to the charity’s public profile, apparently contributing to a slight drop in nationwide contributions. They led its lay leadership to undertake a host of measures designed to restore confidence in JNF. The measures were decided upon in mid- November, at the time of the group’s annual meeting. These measures included: * launching a search to replace Samuel Cohen, who has moved from executive vice president of the agency to the post of senior executive vice president; * searching for a new chief financial officer and a major accounting firm to audit its 1996 spending and overall accounting procedures; * forming a new committee to nominate new lay leaders; * forming a task force with subcommittees on program priorities, restructuring, fund raising and increasing the flow of JNF money to Israel. But the New England regional chapter in late November formally rejected the plan, calling it “unacceptable.” The board of directors unanimously called for the immediate resignation of JNF’s national senior officials — lay and professional — and called for the appointment of a crisis manager to guide the restructuring effort. “In charities with serious problems, the top people resign,” said Lipof. He said it was inappropriate that Cohen continue to have hands-on responsibility for the management of JNF’s day-to-day operations. He cited as “unconscionable” a recent memo from Samuel Cohen to national and regional executive staffs. The memo, which was obtained by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, shows his continued control over JNF. “From now on,” the Cohen memo read, “until notified otherwise, before any of our regional directors or national departments send out memos, reports, articles or whatever, across the board throughout the country, I want to see and approve them beforehand.” “The business of shipping out articles and minutes across the country, especially those that relate to our recent problems, exacerbate the situation and certainly don’t help,” the memo said. But Alan Blumenfeld, president of the New Jersey region and a member of the new monitoring committee, defended Cohen and the reform plans. “We decided something in November and we should at least see it through before we say it’s not working,” he said. The problems developed at JNF “not through fraud or fault,” but through “enormous growth in a short period of time.” He said of Cohen: “There is nothing Sam did intentionally to harm the organization.”
“The business angle got beyond him and everyone’s annoyed about it and rightfully so,” Blumenfeld said. But Cohen “won’t be hands-off until they fill the position” he occupied. “There’s nobody in the wings and the organization can’t run itself,” Blumenfeld added. For his part, Cohen dismissed the detractors as “dissidents.” He said his mandate “comes from the duly elected leadership of the Jewish National Fund and they have asked me to be helpful in the process of instituting the changes as quickly as possible.” Cohen said the search and interview process for the top positions are under way, noting that he is involved in some preliminary screening of candidates. He also said the task force committees on restructuring and other matters are at work. Officials said they are slated to meet starting Jan. 9. Leonard Kleinman, who lives in Tampa, Fla., and chairs the subcommittee on restructuring, said he has confidence in the reform effort. “Some people appear to be reactive and impatient but if you make moves on that level, you’re bound to make mistakes.” “Nobody has imposed limitations” on his restructuring initiative, he added. For his part, Lipof agreed to wait until the task force subcommittees meet next month before rendering final judgment. As for the impact on fund-raising efforts, Blumenfeld, who also serves as JNF’s national community campaign chairman, said contributions across the nation appear to be down “slightly,” though “stronger regions are doing well,” including his own New Jersey. Gertman also said the episode has had little impact in Cleveland. “The cash is flowing, people are paying their pledges, trees are being purchased,” he said. People “believe we’re in the process of cleaning up” the problem “and we are.”