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Focus on Issues: B’nai B’rith Youth May Leave Home in Its Quest for Independence, Cash

One of North America’s largest Jewish youth groups will strike out on its own if a resolution in its parent organization passes next week.

Under the proposed plan, B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, a nondenominational group with an estimated 20,000 members in North America, would become a separate nonprofit entity and not just a department of B’nai B’rith International.

While it was previously known that B’nai B’rith was likely to cut funding for BBYO, the idea of the youth group becoming an independent organization only recently became an official proposal.

Like Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and the Anti-Defamation League — other programs that were created by B’nai B’rith then became independent — BBYO would maintain a relationship with B’nai B’rith, but would have its own board, budget and fund-raising apparatus.

The move to be voted on May 18, which has the backing of B’nai B’rith’s president, executive committee and youth commission, is expected to help the youth group raise money.

And money is badly needed as BBYO’s financially struggling parent, B’nai B’rith, has steadily cut allocations to it in recent years.

In fact, BBYO’s 39 regions recently learned that due to B’nai B’rith’s financial woes, as of July 1 they were likely to lose all their funding – – approximately $2 million — from the parent organization.

The regions vary considerably in their dependence on B’nai B’rith. Some, like Chicago and Long Island, receive the vast majority of their operating budgets from the national group, whereas others — such as those in Denver and Detroit — already get substantial support from other sources, like local Jewish federations.

An independent BBYO is expected to be more attractive to major donors and foundations, many of whom were reportedly alienated by the fact that currently all gifts to BBYO have to be channeled through B’nai B’rith.

An international fraternal organization, B’nai B’rith has seen its North American membership rolls plummet in recent years, and many believe it lacks a clear mission or purpose.

According to several insiders, recent fund-raising efforts for BBYO were stymied, because B’nai B’rith would not guarantee donors that gifts to BBYO would be solely for the youth group and not result in B’nai B’rith siphoning off some of the donation.

Donors also feared that B’nai B’rith would simply use the gift as a pretext to decrease the funds B’nai B’rith gave BBYO, these sources said.

Promoting independence for BBYO signifies an abrupt shift for B’nai B’rith’s international president, Richard Heideman, who last summer told JTA the youth group would not “become a separate agency as long as I’m president.”

Heideman and other top B’nai B’rith officials declined to be interviewed about the proposal, saying they preferred to wait and see if it passes at the board of governors meeting.

However, many B’nai B’rith leaders and adult leaders of BBYO said they like the idea of separating.

“It’s generally a positive thing,” said Bruce Plotkin, chair of BBYO’s Rocky Mountain Region adult advisory board, in Denver.

Jay Swidler, adult board chair of BBYO’s Chicago-area region, said an independent BBYO would mean “less bureaucracy.”

“I’d like to have B’nai B’rith International’s fingers and hands off the organization if we’re going to try to move it forward,” Swidler said. “If they try to keep their hands on, we’re bound for disaster because they’ve got their own problems.”

But one BBYO director is worried that “money always comes with strings attached.”

“The agency’s not prepared to sell its soul to survive,” said this official, who preferred to remain anonymous. “We want it to stay the way it is — youth- led, with the kids involved in decision-making.”

Under the plan, B’nai B’rith leaders would have a place on BBYO’s board, along with other donors and supporting organizations and the group’s teen leadership.

While few B’nai B’rith leaders appear to oppose the plan outright, some are saddened and fear it signals B’nai B’rith’s demise.

Daniel Frank, a B’nai B’rith board member from Minnetonka, Minn., who unsuccessfully challenged Heideman in an election last summer, said spinning off BBYO is “probably unfortunately the way that things have to go.”

Others were guardedly optimistic about B’nai B’rith’s future.

Joe Morris, president of B’nai B’rith’s Midwest region, said the parent organization has a future — if it redefines its mission and finds a new niche.

He suggested that the organization step up its advocacy for Jews overseas, expand its small Washington museum into a world-class Jewish museum and become an advocate for Jewish day schools.

“Some of my colleagues are very pessimistic, negative, dour and sad,” he said. “I have a long view — if we’re doing needed things and doing them well there are young people who will join in.”

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