Focus on Issues: Jewish Agency Takes Steps Aimed at Winning Federations’ Confidence
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Focus on Issues: Jewish Agency Takes Steps Aimed at Winning Federations’ Confidence

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The Jewish Agency for Israel appears to have scored some important triumphs in its efforts to win the confidence of skeptical federations in North America.

But the jury is still out over whether these triumphs will be enough to reverse the trend of declining allocations.

The Jewish Agency’s annual assembly here, which draws hundreds of delegates from around the world, took several critical steps. Among its actions, the agency:

Expressed strong support for religious pluralism, including a doubling of funding for programs of the major religious streams;

Adopted a sweeping structural reform plan, which includes changing the face of the World Zionist Organization;

Emphasized the agency’s work of facilitating immigration to Israel by starting the assembly with a visit to the former Soviet Union; and

Focused on new “people-to-people” programs to enhance the Diaspora’s connection to Israel.

All of these actions reflect the top priorities of federations.

Fireworks that might have occurred over Orthodox-sponsored conversion legislation pending in Israel’s Knesset — which is anathema to the majority of the Diaspora delegates — were averted by the recent establishment of a government-appointed committee charged with finding a solution acceptable to all religious streams.

A plan considered at an earlier point to bus delegates to a weekend protest in Tel Aviv against the conversion law did not materialize, in part because of an inflammatory slogan used to advertise the rally, “Stop the Haredim,” referring to the fervently Orthodox who back the legislation.

Agency sources said that before the slogan was adopted, the agency had donated money to the coalition against religious coercion that sponsored the demonstration.

At the rally, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, gave a speech in Hebrew calling for religious tolerance, which drew an enthusiastic response from the Israeli crowd.

In any case, the Jewish Agency took a clear stand during the assembly as a champion of pluralism, driven in part by the determination of its leadership and that of the fund-raising establishment to show that it responds when Diaspora Jewish concerns are ignited.

The assembly was constrained by Orthodox objections to the use of the word “pluralism” in its resolutions and to replace it with references to Jewish unity and religious freedom.

Nonetheless, the assembly voted to double — to a total of $5 million — the funding for programs of the major religious streams for next year. The agency also spends millions in indirect funding to programs and projects affiliated with the religious streams.

In another resolution, the assembly condemned violence against Jews at prayer in Israel and called upon the Israeli authorities to prevent violence against Jews and non-Jews around the Western Wall.

This resolution came in the wake of a violent attack against Conservative Jews praying near the Wall last month during Shavuot. Agency Chairman Avraham Burg was one of the few Israeli officials to issue a condemnation.

Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, head of the Orthodox Union and a member of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors, expressed chagrin at the agency’s involvement in the battle over religious pluralism.

“I know we’re outnumbered,” he said, referring to Orthodox opposition. “The question is whether this organization is a consensus group, where everyone feels comfortable and tries to work to solve common problems, or do we simply say that the secular, Reform and Conservative have more votes and will beat the Orthodox over the head every time?”

In fact, the agency’s pro-pluralism actions are likely to benefit the central fund-raising organizations and support the agency’s efforts to position itself as an advocate on behalf of world Jewry.

“It is very important for us to feel there is a voice representing the concerns of Reform Jews,” said Rabbi Harvey Fields, the religious leader of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, the largest Reform synagogue in Los Angeles, a vice president of that city’s federation and a member of the agency’s Board of Governors.

“When it comes to the conversion bill, we’ve had the backing” of the “federation family and the Jewish Agency.”

“The agency assembly really represents the only congress of the Jewish people where all streams meet, and that congress has got to be seen as the vehicle through which Jews will maintain Am Yisrael,” he said. “Without it, our unity is lost.”

In the face of the conversion bill, the Jewish Agency “has served as a lobby of the Jews,” Burg said.

Meanwhile, delegates lauded the passage of a complicated restructuring plan that will have the agency assume most of the operations of its highly politicized organizational partner, the World Zionist Organization.

The plan aims for more efficiency and less politics.

Central to this reform is turning what has been a semi- autonomous Jewish and Zionist education authority into a department of the Jewish Agency that emphasizes pluralism.

This decision reflects, in large part, a desire by federations to have more control over the education authority’s $43 million annual budget and the content of the programs.

Tom Green, a past president of the federation of St. Louis and a member of the agency’s Board of Governors, was one of the delegates who believed that the restructuring agreement was the assembly’s most important achievement.

“It was a long time coming and I think it will streamline the agency,” he said.

The reform initiatives are part of the agency’s uphill battle to improve its efficiency and sharpen its direction as the needs of the Jewish world change.

U.S. federations in particular have been reassessing their relationships to the agency to see whether it can continue to meet the changing priorities of their donors.

Increasingly, they are turning toward their own communal needs, resulting in declining allocations overseas.

At the same time, they want whatever connection they maintain to Israel to be more direct.

The agency has responded to this by creating Partnership 2000, a program that pairs federation communities with Israeli regions for common projects.

At stake is the $220 million funneled to the agency by the federations and the United Jewish Appeal from the annual campaigns through what is known as an exclusivity agreement.

That agreement also provides for the roughly $65 million annual budget of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which enjoys a better public image than the agency.

While funds to the agency are spent primarily in Israel, funds donated to the JDC go to humanitarian relief programs all over the world.

A few communities, including San Francisco and Cleveland, recently made their verdicts clear by deciding to take substantial sums of money and bypass the agency to give directly to programs in Israel.

Federations are expected to decide by the end of September whether they want to continue their exclusive funding arrangement with the agency for another two years.

Even if the federations decide against exclusivity, many expect the agency will continue to be the primary recipient of their overseas allocations.

Dr. Conrad Giles, president of the Council of Jewish Federations, called bypassing the system “a quick fix.”

“There’s enough room for dialogue and enough flexibility within the system to permit diversity without dividing us.”

The response to the pluralism issue is one example of that flexibility, he said.

When asked whether the agency had won their confidence, many federation officials here sounded upbeat, but cautious.

Louise Greilsheimer, president of UJA-Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York, said, “There are some things the Jewish Agency won’t be able to do, but the mere process of having deliberations is important.”

Ted Farber, executive vice president of UJA-Federation of Greater Washington, noted there are “differences of opinion” among federations.

“Unfortunately, some have concluded the agency is not capable of changing in a way to reflect community needs. We think it has taken very positive steps and we have confidence more change will occur,” he said of his own federation.

For his part, Burg, the agency chairman, seems undaunted by the challenge, confident that the agency has made important strides toward reform.

He said he believes that the agency has the infrastructure and expertise to make it the most attractive option in a competitive market and is about to wage a campaign to sell this message to federations.

The one thing federations agree on is what the agency terms its “sacred mission” of resettling immigrants in Israel. There is unanimity that the agency, the only one to engage in this activity, performs this function well.

The agency, which has a roughly $400 million operating budget, spends about 65 percent on resettlement.

To showcase that success, the assembly began in the former Soviet Union, where delegates got a first-hand view of how and where the process begins. They visited summer camps for youth, Hebrew classes and job fairs, and met with parents of students who have made aliyah. In Jerusalem, some of the delegates visited those students.

The whole experience stirred strong reactions.

“We got swept away,” said Dr. Herzl Spiro of Milwaukee, a member of the United Israel Appeal.

“I have worked on absorption for 14 years, but in Moscow I understood Achdut Yisrael for the first time,” he said, referring to the unity of the Jewish people.

“We need a way to communicate with people back home what happened to us in Russia. We have to enable younger people to go and see for themselves.”

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