Jewish Agency to Reconsider Budget Cuts to Liberal Streams

Amid protests from Conservative and Reform leaders in the United States, Jewish Agency for Israel officials will reconsider budget cuts to the Israeli branches of the liberal movements.

The Jewish Agency had proposed slicing some 18 percent off each movement’s nearly $2 million allocation from the agency’s $320 million total budget, liberal movement leaders said.

But Jewish Agency officials now say they will debate the cuts at the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors meeting Feb. 23 in Jerusalem.

Richard Pearlstone, an Aspen, Colo., developer who chairs the agency’s Budget and Finance Committee, said he could not predict whether the agency would restore the money.

“Everybody in the Jewish Agency took cuts,” Pearlstone said. “I’m not sure what the outcome will be.”

The issue came to a head in December, when 18 Conservative and Reform officials wrote to the heads of the United Jewish Communities protesting the cuts. The UJC, the umbrella organization of North American Jewish federations, funnels money raised by the federations to the agency.

The letter went to UJC President and CEO Stephen Hoffman, UJC’s chairman of the board, James Tisch, and Robert Goldberg, chairman of the Executive Committee.

“If we allow this problem to fester, we are fearful that the unity of spirit and commonality of purpose that have characterized our efforts in North America during the past two years will begin to break down,” the religious leaders wrote.

The cuts amounted to some $300,000 per movement. While the money would likely have only slightly hurt programs such as religious education and teacher training, liberal religious leaders protested the move for symbolic reasons.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations and one of the officials who signed the letter, voiced fears that the plan signaled deeper cuts to come in the liberal movements’ programs in Israel.

Some feared “this would just be a precursor to eliminating these funds” entirely, Yoffie said.

But Shoel Silver, co-chair of the Jewish Agency’s subcommittee on allocations and the Toronto-based president of the United Israel Appeal Federations Canada — which initially proposed the cutbacks — denied any such plans.

“We’re dealing with a triage, a situation where you have limited resources. The Jewish people are suffering over there,” Silver said, “and all of us are trying to find a way to make it work.”

Silver also said the cutbacks might not reach 18 percent, because of a quirk in the agency’s budgeting process.

Jewish Agency budgets are figured in dollars but are allocated in shekels, and the exchange rate fluctuates. The higher percentage mentioned might apply in the case of a weaker dollar, but ultimately “the impact in shekels is about 7 percent,” Silver said.

In addition, Silver noted, federation donors long have been encouraged to give directly, “over and above” their usual contributions to such programs as the liberal movements, and those added donations could fill the allocation gap.

Conflicts over the budget surfaced when the Board of Governors met last November to vote on the agency’s 2003 budget of about $320 million, down from $420 million in 2002.

That budget went from subcommittees for the agency’s various departments to the Budget and Finance Committee, which made its recommendations to the full board in November.

But the letter to UJC officials alleged that the liberal movements’ representatives to the Jewish Agency were not privy to the final debate on the budget, and that the movements were blind-sided by the November recommendations.

“It was a shock,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

How such a twist could occur remains unclear. The liberal movements hold seats in the agency’s hierarchy as members of the World Zionist Organization, and several of their representatives attended the budget deliberations.

But Silver admitted there was “some confusion” over whether an appropriate quorum was present when the budget reached the board’s floor for discussion.

In the wake of the vote, the liberal religious leaders turned to the UJC, which also holds seats in the agency’s governing structure.

Officials at UJC’s New York headquarters did not respond to interview requests from JTA.

Epstein also flew to Jerusalem to meet with Sallai Meridor, chairman of the Jewish Agency’s executive, and this week said agency officials seemed to be keeping “an open mind” about the budget.

The behind-the-scenes maneuvering reflected efforts to avoid a new budget showdown in February, when the agency’s board is due to meet again to revisit the issue.

The cuts would be “counterproductive and severely damaging to our common purpose,” the movements’ letter to the UJC said.

But Pearlstone, a member of the UJC’s board and past national president of one of the UJC’s precursors, the United Jewish Appeal, reacted angrily to such talk.

“Their letter has not been toward compromise,” he said.

“I don’t take very kindly to threats,” he added, referring to suggestions that the liberal movements might simply bypass the UJC system, “and I don’t think” the Jewish Agency “does either.”

This is hardly the first time disputes have surfaced over spending for the liberal streams in Israel.

In the mid-1980s, Yoffie was among those who helped shape an arrangement that funneled North American federation dollars via the agency into education and religious activities of the Conservative and Reform movements in Israel.

The arrangement arose because of what Yoffie called the “monopolistic nature” of the religious establishment in Israel, where the Orthodox parties control religious spending and remain largely opposed to the liberal religious branches.

Under the arrangement, the Conservative and Reform movements each receive 40 percent of donations budgeted for religious activities in Israel, while Orthodox institutions get 20 percent.

The Orthodox share reportedly was cut only 10 percent this year, and Orthodox institutions are budgeted to receive $750,000, Silver said.

Echoing the December letter to the UJC, Yoffie said the Jewish Agency agreed to oversee spending on the liberal groups in Israel as a kind of religious “affirmative action,” and to help North American immigrants affiliated with those movements.

In the past few years, as the U.S. economy has slumped, money raised for all the religious movements in Israel has declined by about 20 percent, Silver said.

The downturn reflects a general drop in Jewish giving. The process by which the UJC sends money abroad, called Overseas Needs and Distribution, went from $159 million annually to $141 million for the coming year, Pearlstone said.

Yet this year’s budget fight has rattled the foundations of the understanding on the liberal movements.

Some expressed resentment that a budget fight would risk a relationship that had grown tighter because of Israel’s security and economic challenges.

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of ARZA/World Union, who also signed the letter to the UJC, said the money battle comes “after we all agreed to consolidate our efforts” for the UJC’s Israel Emergency Campaign.

Hirsch said he hoped the fiscal fight arose because of the “bureaucratic scope” of all the fund-raising organizations involved, “rather than because of a decision by some individuals.”

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