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San Francisco federation votes to withhold $1 million from UJA

Jewish Bulletin of Northern California
SAN FRANCISCO, March 30 (JTA) — In a defiant move, the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco has decided to slice $1 million from its annual contribution to the United Jewish Appeal, the nationwide fund-raising body for Israel. “This should not be viewed as a vote against giving money to Israel,” said Alan Rothenberg, federation board president. Half the money withheld from the UJA will still head to Israel, but through other channels. The other half will remain in local coffers to finance new projects. UJA National Chairman Richard Wexler, who came to San Francisco several weeks ago to try to pre-empt the decision, reacted harshly. “San Francisco’s allocation to overseas needs through the UJA system will now become the lowest in both dollar amount and percentage of any of the 19 largest federations in the United States and Canada,” he said. The federation’s action will have a “significant and detrimental impact on Jews most in need,” Wexler said. “There will be people waiting in the former Soviet Union for freedom flights [to Israel] because San Francisco has cut its allocation by $1 million.” Rothenberg said the federation continues to support immigration to the Jewish state. “But it is slowing down,” he said, adding that UJA will likely cut lower-priority items before it turns away Jews who want to go to Israel. The federation has not formally decided how to spend the freed-up money. But the federation’s overseas committee chair, Joelle Steefel, said the half-million dollars for Israel will likely finance efforts such as promoting Arab-Jewish coexistence or creating alternatives to Orthodox practice. The other half-million dollars is expected to finance new local projects from the federation’s top priorities: education, outreach, culture, elder care and local resettlement. The federation board’s decision, approved March 20 in a vote of 29-1, stems from a number of factors, including impatience with the UJA’s internal reform process, a desire for more control over how local money is spent and concerns about Jewish continuity in the San Francisco area. This is not the first time that the San Francisco federation has asserted its independence from the Jewish communal world. In 1984, the federation set up an advisory board in Israel called the Amuta and diverted $100,000 to fund recommended projects, mostly in northern Israel, especially in Kiryat Shmona, its partner city there. UJA leaders considered the trailblazing move “total treachery,” Rothenberg said. “In 1984, they went crazy. They thought we were so far out. They weren’t sure whether to excommunicate us or ignore us.” As the federation’s confidence in its alternative-funding abilities has grown, independent allocations have increased as well. The federation spent $853,000 from the 1996 campaign on overseas projects independent of the UJA, including those recommended by the Amuta. Nonetheless, the bulk of the federation’s overseas money has been and will still be funneled through the UJA. Last year, the federation sent a little more than $6 million to UJA from its record $19 million annual campaign. That UJA allocation will now drop to $5 million. The money sent to UJA in turn goes to the Jewish Agency for Israel through the United Israel Appeal, and to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which aids Jews and non-Jews worldwide through its humanitarian projects. Chief among the causes funded via UJA are immigration and resettlement in Israel. The local move, however, comes amid a growing re-evaluation of Israel funding among federations across the country, including other federations in the Bay Area. Last spring, the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, for example, cut its overseas contribution to about 25 percent of its annual campaign — among the lowest percentage-wise in the country and a sharp decline from nearly 40 percent earlier this decade. “We have been watching and observing a significant turning inward by Jewish federations around the country,” Wexler said. The average amount federations are sending overseas is now 40 percent of their annual campaigns, he said. Some give more, such as Detroit’s federation, which allocates 51 percent, or Chicago’s, which hands over 46 percent. Rothenberg retorted that 35 percent of the San Francisco federation’s annual campaign money will still head overseas through the UJA and other sources — compared with 37 percent last year. UJA’s piece of San Francisco’s pie, however, will drop to 27 percent of the annual campaign, down from 33 percent last year. Adding to the complex financial picture is that if the 1997 annual campaign tops last year’s — which is expected — the federation is planning to send 35 percent of the additional money overseas. If that is the case, the cut to Israel will not be as high as $500,000. Both Wexler and Joel Tauber, a UJA national officer and former national chairman, traveled to San Francisco to try to pre-empt the move. “They came and said, `You should feel terrible about what you’re doing. And we feel proud about what we’re doing,’ ” Rothenberg said. Wexler told the board that elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union will go hungry because they rely on food packages through the Joint Distribution Committee, which receives UJA funds. But Rothenberg said the federation plans to boost its direct giving to the JDC to make up for any reduction via the UJA. Wexler also fears that other federations will follow suit. “If 189 Jewish federations in North America make 189 separate decisions on how people most in need are to be assisted, we will be able to impact even less than we do today,” he said. But Rothenberg said regardless of who handles the money, it will still aid Jews. “Nowhere in the Talmud does it say write a check to the UJA. We want to help other Jews. We just want to help in lots of ways, not in just one way. We all care about the soul of Israel.”