Redefining the Jewish Community: Federations Grapple with Way to Fund Overseas Jewish Needs

“A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” was Winston Churchill’s famous description of the Soviet Union in 1939.

That description might fit the new process by which the American Jewish community will allocate funds for programs and services in the former Soviet Union, Israel and other overseas locales.

A recent survey of lay and professional officers of 32 of the nearly 200 federations that make up the United Jewish Communities revealed that Overseas Needs Assessment and Distribution, or ONAD, as the process is known, is poorly understood.

“There is a lot of anxiety about ONAD,” Dr. Steve Serbin, the president of the Jewish federation in Columbia, S.C., told a meeting of federation presidents and executives last week during the UJC’s inaugural General Assembly in Atlanta.

Who sits on the 25-member ONAD committee, Serbin wanted to know. What overseas agencies are represented? And what is ONAD’s role in the overall structure of the UJC?

The answers to Serbin’s questions are significant because the UJC — created this year through the merger of the Council of Jewish Federations and the United Jewish Appeal — was created in large part to give federations greater control over the distribution of funds raised through federations for Jewish needs worldwide.

Of the $790 million raised by the system in 1999, nearly $300 million was allocated for overseas needs, such as the rescue of Jews in distress, providing social services for the elderly in places such as Ukraine and Romania, and fostering Jewish education worldwide.

This amount reflects the continuation of a trend among federations to allocate fewer dollars overseas in favor of directing more to local needs, such as Jewish education.

Under the old system, federations determined individually what percentage of the funds they raised would go to overseas needs. One of the concerns about the new system is the extent to which it will allow individual federations to continue making those decisions.

There is not yet consensus among the UJC leadership on how or whether to enforce support for core needs, whether by regulations or by moral suasion.

That issue is one of many that the UJC system will tackle next spring as it decides what rights and responsibilities federations will have under the new system of ownership.

Interviews conducted by McKinsey & Company, a management consulting firm, among the lay and professional officers of 32 federations revealed that “the largest group felt the process needs to remain voluntary,” a McKinsey representative said during a meeting in Atlanta.

A sizeable though smaller group felt that federations, as the majority shareholders in the UJC, now have an opportunity to step up their communal support for core needs.

One of the ONAD committee’s main tasks is to determine which overseas needs should be funded by all federations in the UJC system and which should be funded on an elective basis.

The ONAD process is meant for the first time to bring the federations to the same table with the agencies that provide services overseas, primarily the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. It is also intended to open up the system to other agencies in the field.

This represents a significant change from the past, when the Jewish Agency and the JDC decided themselves how to divvy up the funds for overseas needs.

“The decisions are made by the federations,” said Alan Jaffe, the ONAD committee chairman and a former president of the UJA-Federation of New York.

If federations decide that certain needs are priorities, the hope is that they will be more invested in supporting them and in getting local donors to follow suit.

In addition to the chairman, the 25-member ONAD committee is made up of 18 representatives of different size federations and three representatives apiece from JAFI and the JDC.

But UJC President Stephen Solender said communication is essential to the success of the ONAD process. “It’s not going to work if 18 federations reach consensus, and that’s the end of it,” he said, adding that they have to bring along the rest of the federations.

At the G.A., the ONAD committee held its third meeting, this time to consult with top-level representatives of the Jewish Agency and the JDC to begin to determine what the core needs should be.

Jaffe said the committee is aiming to complete its assessment of needs and budget allocations for specific programs by June 30.

In addition to rescue and aliyah, the overseas needs being discussed by the committee include promoting Jewish peoplehood, unity and diversity; and aiding populations in Israel with special needs to create a “caring” society, Jaffe said.

As an example, Jaffe said the ONAD committee might determine that a core need is “Jewish peoplehood,” and could then allocate funds for Partnership 2000 — a Jewish Agency program that creates economic partnerships and professional and other people-to-people links between the Diaspora and Israeli communities — as a program under that core-need umbrella.

Before the ONAD system was devised, the JDC and the United Israel Appeal, acting as a conduit for funds going to Israel via the Jewish Agency, had determined how to spend funds raised by the UJA.

With the call by federations for one North American fund-raising and social service organization, the two groups agreed to relinquish ownership of the UJA in order to allow the fund-raising organization to merge with CJF to form a single North American system. The UIA joined the union for at least five years as a subsidiary organization.

“There was a sense of a disconnect between the overseas service providers” – - the JDC and the Jewish Agency — “and the system,” Robert Aronson, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit and a member of the ONAD committee, said at the G.A.

“The providers did not feel that the system understood overseas needs and vice versa.”

Bringing the two groups together, Aronson said, will mean “we have a more productive operation moving forward.”

Officials of the Jewish Agency and the JDC expressed optimism that the federations would come through.

The chairman of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors, Alex Grass of Harrisburg, Pa., said he is confident that the work of the agency, which is responsible primarily for immigration and resettlement of Jews in Israel, but is also involved in Jewish education, is “so essential that we will continue to receive support, and perhaps even enhance it.”

After the ONAD meeting in Atlanta, Michael Schneider, the executive vice president of the JDC, which provides rescue and relief and promotes Jewish renewal around the world, said it was “a promising start.”

He said the JDC board is resolved to give the process “every chance of success” and that he is “pretty optimistic for all overseas needs.”

The McKinsey study showed that the ONAD process and progress have not been communicated well enough to federations.

The face-to-face meetings, however, promise to help raise consciousness in the communities about the work of overseas agencies.

Solender said the ONAD meeting at the G.A. was the first time many federation representatives had ever met directly with representatives of the agencies.

“The hardest thing we have to do is describe the Jewish Agency and JDC to the folks at home,” Priscilla Kostiner, the president of the Jewish Federation of Portland.

She said there is still some reason for the agencies to be nervous about the future of their relationship with the UJC.

“It’s a change and we really don’t know what’s going to be,” or where the Jewish Agency and JDC will “stand in line” with other agencies, she said..

Jaffe is slightly more positive about the federations supporting a system in which they feel their concerns are being adequately represented, a concept known in the UJC system as “buy-in.”

“It’s likely, but there’s no guarantee,” he said.

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