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Survey of U.S. Lay Leaders Shows Preference for Funding Local Needs

It’s not just the average American Jew who is feeling less connected to Israel these days — the leadership of American Jewish organizations is as well.

A growing sense of estrangement from Israel, which has been well documented in recent surveys of randomly selected American Jews, is also true of professional and lay leaders of Jewish communal organizations, according to Gerald Bubis and Steven Cohen.

They released their study this week in Jerusalem to coincide with the massive gathering of Diaspora Jewish leaders at the General Assembly of the UJA Federations of North America.

The estrangement is being felt by Israeli leaders as well — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his keynote address at the G.A., which was held for the first time in Jerusalem, announced government plans to spend $5.1 million in the coming year on Zionist education among Diaspora Jews.

Cohen, who teaches at the Melton Center for Jewish Education at Hebrew University, in Jerusalem, and Bubis, a vice president and fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, the study’s major underwriter, found that both lay and professional leaders of Jewish federations, national agencies, community centers and social service organizations consider Israel and other Jewish communities overseas a less compelling philanthropic cause than needs closer to home.

About three-quarters of respondents said Jewish social and human services and Jewish education should get a lot of support from Jewish federations.

Just over half — 58 percent — said the same of Israel and other overseas needs.

The more than 100 Jewish federations in the United States and Canada raise money from donors in their local communities and then disburse it to local agencies such as nursing homes, soup kitchens, synagogues and day schools. Some of the money — a shrinking percentage in many federations in recent years – – is sent to Israel for charitable causes there; some is sent to aid needy Jews in other parts of the world.

When asked how they would like to see funds divided from their own community federation, just 2 percent of respondents said they would keep the local- overseas split the same as it is now.

A majority of the volunteer and professional leaders — 58 percent — said that they would like to allocate more funds locally.

Only 40 percent said that they would like to see more sent overseas.

“This study should serve to provoke those who are committed to a strong relationship to search for ways in which American Jews can develop meaningful relationships with Israel in a philanthropic context,” Steven Cohen said in a telephone interview from Jerusalem.

“It’s reasonable to question whether giving money to UJA-Federation and the Jewish Agency is the best way to use one’s philanthropic dollars.

“But if that doesn’t work, then my values lead me to ask Jewish people to consider other ways to consider building a national and peoplehood-building enterprise,” Cohen said.

Shoshana Cardin, a longtime national Jewish leader in the United States said, “It is wrong to focus on percentages by geographical boundaries. It is best to focus on the challenges and how to address them together,” citing education and identity programs as two of the challenges confronting world Jewry.

While there are other historical factors at work, underlying the estrangement between philanthropists and professional leaders of Jewish institutions, Cohen said, is frustration with the Israeli government’s stance on religious pluralism.

“My research shows that American Jews are more concerned about the perceived slap in the face, the rejection of their Jewish identity by Israel than they are with Israel’s position on the peace process,” Cohen said.

“Evidence of that goes back to the late 1980s, when even during the intifada,” the 1987 to 1993 Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, “people were more concerned about issues of who is a Jew and recognition of Conservative and Reform Judaism than they were with Israel’s relationship with Palestinians.”

One way to potentially change the declining enthusiasm that American Jewish philanthropists have regarding giving to Israel, Cohen said, would be to help them build relationships with specific causes close to their hearts. A few federations have begun to do such targeted giving.

“American Jews need to have the opportunity to support institutions, or projects, that speak to their vision of Israel, even if we talk about allowing them to support competing visions of Israel, be it Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, the vision of feminists or of civil rights activists,” he said.

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