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Jewish Agency Seeking $60 Million Emergency Aid

Reeling under a mountain of debt, the Jewish Agency for Israel has turned to North American Jewry for emergency assistance.

At a closed-door meeting in Washington this week, Jewish Agency leaders implored top officials of about a dozen large federations to send an emergency advance of $60 million to the organization whose historical mission has been the rescue and resettlement of Jewish immigrants in Israel.

An immediate cash infusion would require a substantial outlay by local federations around the country. But if the agency doesn’t get the money, its ability to function could be crippled.

“It’s not about do or die,” but without the $60 million, “we will have to cut core services” for those in need, said Shoshana Cardin, who chairs the United Israel Appeal, which serves as the Jewish Agency’s operating agent in the United States.

Jewish organizational officials say the agency has reached the end of its borrowing rope and cannot continue to operate without the multimillion-dollar advance.

“We’re at our borrowing limits from the banks and can only go one place, and that’s to the federations,” Cardin said.

“We haven’t paid most suppliers for the first quarter of this year, and we’re barely meeting payroll.”

For decades, the Jewish Agency has been the principal recipient in Israel of funds raised by the annual campaigns of local federations in conjunction with the United Jewish Appeal.

The UIA administers the transfer of those funds, which total about half of the agency’s $400 million budget.

The plea for assistance comes as the agency is undergoing a massive reorganization. Under pressure from local federations, the agency began implementing a restructuring plan on Jan. 1 aimed at streamlining and depoliticizing the organization.

The agency is well known for bringing to Israel hundreds of thousand of immigrants, but it is still struggling to shake off its image as a bureaucratic behemoth.

JAFI, according to officials, has already dramatically cut staff — from more than 1,600 in 1996 to fewer than 1,000 by the end of this year — and has moved toward a balanced budget.

To reduce redundancies in the system, the World Zionist Organization has been brought under JAFI’s roof as of January. The Joint Authority for Jewish and Zionist Education, which had operated outside the agency, has followed the same path.

The agency also has eliminated politically appointed department heads, which Diaspora leaders have long considered wasteful.

Federation officials, including those who have been most vocal in pushing JAFI to restructure, appear to have embraced the idea of helping bail out the agency, which is suffering from an accumulated $400 million debt, according to Yossi Shturm, a spokesman for JAFI in Jerusalem.

In fact, while prior to Monday’s meeting, some federation officials were discussing whether the Jewish Agency should be shut down altogether, by the end of the day, most had agreed that it was necessary to find a way to support the agency.

“Nobody wants the Jewish Agency to go into default. We have to help,” said Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston.

“The question is what is the best way to be helpful,” said Shrage, who recently proposed a reexamination of the whole system of channeling funds from local communities to Jewish needs abroad.

The Jewish Agency’s emergency plan, which was presented by Charles “Corky” Goodman of Chicago, chairman of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors, and Avraham Burg, chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive, is still subject to the approval of local federation boards.

The urgency of the plan was communicated in a memo to Jewish federation and UJA leaders.

The plan will help “stabilize JAFI so that the vital strategic plan can be implemented and so that human services can continue unhampered,” the memo said.

Agency officials blame the debt on the cost of the mass exodus of Jews to Israel over the last 10 years from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia.

The agency has brought more than 700,000 immigrants to Israel, most of them from the former Soviet Union, which opened its gates to emigration as communism collapsed.

A special fund-raising campaign, known as Operation Exodus, was launched, but it did not keep pace with the cost — and unanticipated scale — of absorption, officials said.

The original Exodus campaign to raise $420 million estimated the need to absorb 250,000 people over five years, according to Rabbi Daniel Allen, UIA executive vice chairman. Instead, 320,000 immigrants arrived from the former Soviet Union in two years.

When asked how he would respond to critics of the plan, Burg said, “For 30 years, we held vigils and cried, `Let my people go.'”

Now “you have aliyah fatigue?” he asked rhetorically. “Who do you punish? The olim from Azerbaijan.”

While officials trace the overall problem to the special campaigns to bring in Jews from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, the immediate problem, they say, stems from dramatically declining contributions from Keren Hayesod, which raises funds in 47 countries outside the United States.

But federations in the United States have also been decreasing their overseas allocations in recent years.

The emergency assistance plan that is emerging in the aftermath of Monday’s three-and-a-half-hour meeting in Washington includes these elements, according to sources at the meeting:

. Federations would send a combined total of $10 million a month for six months, beginning in July.

Each federation, which already designates a portion of its annual campaign to overseas needs, would determine its fair share.

. This amount would then be deducted from future allocations, but not for at least two years, with the option to extend it for another two years. For example, if Boston paid $1 million over the six-month period, it could reduce its allocation destined for Israel by $1 million in two years.

Officials said Goodman had vetted his original plan with the New York, Chicago and Detroit federations before presenting it this week.

Goodman was scheduled to meet with San Francisco and Los Angeles federation leaders later this week and host another large meeting in Chicago on April 2.

At the request of local communities that wanted to be involved in the process, the plan now includes a fiscal oversight committee, Goodman said in an interview.

There can’t be any additional debt, Shrage said, and “I’d like to see some understanding that the future will be very different from the past.”

But in an emerging point of contention, several federations said the agency must accelerate the liquidation of some of its assets.

“When businesses have difficult times, sometimes the best way to deploy assets is to divest them,” said Ivan Michael Schaeffer, president of the United Jewish Appeal Federation of Greater Washington. “It’s going to have to happen” in order to get full federation approval for the emergency plan.

But Burg, when asked about the demand on liquidating assets, said he was “not ready to negotiate” about such particulars.

“Responsibility is responsibility,” he said, referring to the federations.

Goodman agreed. “We can’t accelerate the sale of assets.”

One executive of a large federation who has been critical of the agency, said that while he still had many questions, he predicted that his federation like most, would support the plan.

“We do not want to be the community that topples the apple cart,” said the official, who asked not to be identified.

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