Youth group in financial limbo

NEW YORK, April 17 (JTA) – One of American Jewry’s oldest – and most financially beleaguered – institutions is expected to slash funding for a program repeatedly described as its “jewel in the crown.”

B’nai B’rith, which has seen its membership and financial resources plummet in recent years, may stop subsidizing regional programming of its youth group, B’nai B’rith Youth Organization.

No final decisions will be made until a May 18 board meeting of B’nai B’rith.

With an estimated 20,000 members, BBYO is one of the largest Jewish youth groups in the United States. Its regions currently receive approximately $2 million from B’nai B’rith.

The anticipated cuts come as B’nai B’rith is decentralizing much of its operations and is expected to significantly cut funding for Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

Hillel, which until the early 1990s was funded almost entirely by B’nai Brith, expects to receive $50,000 from B’nai Brith in the 2002 fiscal year, down from $300,000 this year.

Gary Saltzman, chairman of B’nai B’rith’s national youth commission, sent an e-mail to regional BBYO leaders last month, warning them that they may lose all B’nai B’rith funding by July 1.

The memo “said that we should anticipate no money coming to any of the regions effective July 1 and should plan for it,” said Robert Groman, chair of BBYO’s Nassau/Suffolk region, in suburban New York.

While Saltzman’s memo was not made available to JTA, several sources said it urged regional leaders to explore other sources of funding, such as Jewish federations, foundations and local B’nai B’rith chapters.

BBYO’s 39 regions vary considerably in their dependence on B’nai B’rith. Some, like the New Jersey and Long Island ones, have received most of their budgets from the national office. Others, like the Michigan region, already supplement their B’nai B’rith allocations with money from their local federations.

Some regions also have arrangements whereby they receive office space, staff and in-kind services from local Jewish community centers.

It is possible that the national arm of the federation system and JCCs will step in to help BBYO.

In an April 12 memo to federation leaders and Jewish community centers, the executives of the federation umbrella organization – the United Jewish Communities – and the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America say they anticipate “important consultations regarding the future of BBYO,” and are asking federations to implement a moratorium until May 31 on funding decisions concerning BBYO.

“We believe that acting in concert will ultimately be in the best interest of all local communities and the BBYO program,” continues the UJC/JCCA memo.

But an arrangement with the JCCs might not sit well with BBYO’s grass roots. Last year, for example, top B’nai B’rith officials brokered an agreement for a merger of sorts between BBYO and the JCCA. However, regional B’nai B’rith and BBYO leaders feared that BBYO’s unique identity would be subsumed by the JCCs, and that BBYO regions in areas without JCCs would vanish. They forced the proposal off the table.

B’nai B’rith is expected to continue funding BBYO’s international office in Washington, including its international director. However, BBYO has had only an interim director since last summer, when the director resigned. It also has been operating since this summer without a chief financial officer.

Saltzman and several other B’nai B’rith officials declined to comment on the funding situation, emphasizing that the youth group’s funding is still under discussion and that nothing will be decided until the organization’s May 18 board meeting.

“The expectation is that undoubtedly regions are going to be asked to assume greater responsibility in raising funds, but in terms of the actual numbers and formula, that’s something yet to be decided,” said Daniel Mariaschin, B’nai B’rith’s executive vice president.

Amid the uncertainty about the level of cuts, a feeling of widespread confusion reigns inside B’nai B’rith.

B’nai B’rith officials are complaining privately that Saltzman’s memo was sent out without permission or endorsement from the top. Meanwhile, several high-level BBYO officials and regional chairs are complaining that they feel out of the loop, both about the anticipated cuts and about the consultations with the UJC and JCCA.

“We don’t know who is running the show, and meanwhile we don’t know what to do July 1 when the money runs out,” one regional BBYO leader said.

The expected cuts mean there will be “much more need for local fund raising,” said another BBYO leader, Hal Polon, who chairs BBYO’s New Jersey region.

“That’s something we don’t have enough experience with – and it’s happened very quickly,” Polon added.

Polon, whose region has received hundreds of thousands of dollars a year from the national office, said his board members are frantically trying to secure new funding by July 1.

“I’m not sure where it’s going to shake out yet,” he said. “It’s a little bit of a scary time.”

Nassau/Suffolk’s Groman said that his region probably will be in the clear for the next few years.

But, he said, “Most regions are having much more trouble.”

“We’re one of the few that have had successful fund raising, so for at least the next year or two we’ll survive,” Groman said.

B’nai B’rith and BBYO’s regional structures are not always conducive to easy fund raising. B’nai B’rith’s 17 regions are not divided up the same way as BBYO’s are – so BBYO regions do not always have a clear local partner in B’nai B’rith.

In addition, while some regions fall almost entirely in the domain of a large local federation, others, like New Jersey’s, must approach several small federations if they want money.

It is not clear whether all BBYO regions will be able to cultivate new sources of support, or whether some will go belly up.

Arnie Weiner, the interim national director of BBYO and the longtime director of BBYO’s Michigan region, said he would “like not to think” that BBYO could become extinct as a result of the anticipated cuts.

“I personally feel there’s a lot of good feeling about BBYO,” Weiner said. “The community is filled with alumni and parents who recognize what BBYO’s done for their kids. That will hopefully end up with financial support. But I can’t speak for every place. Some areas are going to be more challenged than others.”

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