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FOCUS ON ISSUES The decline in Jewish immigration forces dramatic shift in communities

WASHINGTON, March 23 (JTA) — Since the gates of the Soviet Union opened up a decade ago, more than 1,000 Jews have traveled halfway around the globe to settle in the shadow of Arizona”s desert. But now few Jews are coming, and the Tucson, Ariz., Jewish community has embarked on a radical experiment — opening its doors to non-Jews fleeing persecution. It”s not only the right thing to do, community activists say, it”s the only way to keep the program strong enough to provide a full range of services for those Jews who have arrived in recent years. But for all the good intentions to embrace non-Jews, there was a last- minute surprise: When the Knezevic family arrived from Bosnia, they asked to go to synagogue. Unbeknownst to the U.S. government and Jewish agencies who had arranged for them to flee their war-torn region, the Knezevics are Jewish. “We all kind of looked at each other and were inspired,” said Wendy Asher, director of refugee resettlement for the Tucson Jewish community. “When you do the right thing, the right thing happens.” Earlier this month, Tucson once again opened its doors to a family of refugees fleeing persecution. This time there were no surprises, and the local community is now involved in resettling a non-Jewish family of two parents and seven children fleeing from Ethiopia. It has been 10 years since the Soviet Union answered cries of “Let my people go,” unleashing a huge wave of Jewish emigration. Since that time, Israel has absorbed the vast majority of these immigrants — 750,000. And the United States — in partnership with local American Jewish communities — opened its doors to the largest number of Jewish refugees since the aftermath of World War II. Through a combination of U.S. government grants and communal funding, the American Jewish community has helped to resettle more than 250,000 Jews since 1989 by providing a battery of services, including language classes, vocational training and child care. The resettlement effort is widely respected as one of the greatest accomplishments of American Jewry. But now the number of Jews arriving in America from the former Soviet Union is way down. In 1992, the peak year of resettlement, 47,000 Jewish refugees were resettled in communities around the country. This year, in contrast, 5,000 to 7,000 refugees are expected. Largely as a matter of economics, this dramatic shift is forcing local Jewish communities to confront difficult questions: * Should they stop supporting new arrivals altogether or continue resettling a trickle of family members? * Should small communities shut down their programs completely and let the big cities shoulder the responsibility? * Has the time come to retool the Jewish organizational bureaucracy that has ballooned with the growth in programming? * Or should local communities, following Tucson”s example, add non-Jews to their rolls of clients? On the national level, too, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the pre-eminent Jewish organization involved in resettling Jewish refugees, has been forced to re-examine its program and make significant changes. Concerned about sustaining the level of services for new immigrants, for example, HIAS recently announced plans to provide up to $1 million from its endowment to help local communities. The questions for local communities loom even as a new wave of anti-Semitism spreads across Russia in the wake of an economic crisis. Just last week, the federation in Stamford, Conn., decided to end its resettlement program. Leonard Glickman, executive vice president of HIAS, said that given the current situation in Russia, it is “particularly difficult” for communities to make the kind of decision Stamford just made. Still, despite the resurgence of anti-Semitism, Jews in the former Soviet Union are not preparing for another mass exodus. The diminishing number of potential immigrants has been predicted for some time. “It”s not like anyone is surprised. Every refugee migration flow goes through this kind of process,” said Joel Carp, senior vice president of community services and government relations at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. “The refugee service system has always been an accordion,” said Carp, whose community resettles the largest number of Jews from the former Soviet Union after New York and San Francisco. “It may not be the fun and glory that it used to be but that does not mean it”s any less important,” he said. Like most communities, Chicago has been planning for years to accommodate the changes. Faced with the loss of federal funds, the federation has turned to state and local governments as well as private foundations to help subsidize programs such as health care and citizenship classes, Carp said. Unlike smaller cities such as Tucson, Chicago, as a major immigration center, has resettled non-Jews for years at the federal government”s request. But Jewish refugees receive the bulk of services from Jewish communities, and these communities, small and large, are being forced to make changes. The changes, in large measure, are due to the simple math involved in resettling new immigrants. Under legislation negotiated by Jewish activists that dates back to the 1980s, the U.S. government and the Jewish community share the costs of resettling new refugees under a matching grant program. “The money flows on a per capita basis: the fewer people, the fewer dollars,” said Mark Handelman, executive vice president of NYANA, the New York Association for New Americans. In 1994, $46 million in federal funds helped pay for the resettlement of 33,000 refugees in 136 cities. In 1998 about $14 million was provided for some 8,000 refugees in more than 100 cities. While the government has put in its millions, the Jewish community, depending on locations and services offered, has spent more than double, if not triple, that amount of money, officials said. While NYANA is in a unique situation because of its size — it resettles almost half of the Jews from the former Soviet Union — and its national funding from the United Jewish Appeal, it has been forced to cut back, reducing its staff by about 80 percent, Handelman said. NYANA has slashed its budget from $70 million in the early 1990s, when it resettled some 25,000 individuals a year, to $12 million this year, with only 2,700 projected arrivals. Given the fewer resources, the agency is shifting its focus from resettling newcomers to sustaining services for immigrants who already have been here a few years. Stamford has gone even further. The resettlement program “basically shut itself down,” said Sheila Romanowitz, executive director of the United Jewish Federation. “There was nobody coming,” said Romanowitz, who saw her budget for resettlement plummet from the hundreds of thousands down to about $30,000 a year. HIAS, the national resettlement agency, is facing its own dramatic changes. Budgets have been slashed and staff laid off. HIAS, which has been funded largely through the federal program, is rethinking its methods but not its mission. “For the most part, the services we provide are the same no matter what the number of refugees,” said Glickman, whose agency has cut its staff by almost half since 1994. HIAS hopes that through the $1 million in grants it is providing to local communities, “we can ensure that the refugees who arrive this year receive the same quality of service as those of prior years,” said HIAS President Neil Greenbaum. Communities that came to rely on federal funds based on the number of refugees they took in are now grappling with new realities. With increasing needs and competing priorities for Jewish dollars, many local Jewish communal officials fear their resettlement programs will be cut even further. Although nearly everyone agrees that “services should not be tied to arrival numbers,” the budgets have been, said Ruth Paley, the Jewish community”s resettlement coordinator in Minneapolis. Working in a community that once resettled more than 400 refugees in one year and is now serving fewer than 50, Paley echoed the views of many officials in the trenches who said the key to a successful program is scrambling for grants and new sources of funding. “Where is the money going to come from? How are the needs going to be met?” she asked. “It takes a lot of creative budgeting,” Paley said, especially because the reality today is that “resettlement is not a burning issue in the Jewish community.””