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A push for overseas dollars

NEW YORK, Jan. 16 (JTA) — For every dollar Joe Levine gives to the North American federation system, about 30 cents is sent abroad. That proportion has remained steady the last few years, but marks a sharp decline from a time when federations sent about half of their donations overseas. The shift began about 15 years ago, and has continued downward ever since. Now, the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group for North American federations, is forming an advocacy committee for its overseas operation. For local federations, who foot the bill for the UJC, “overseas needs are remote,” said James Lodge, director of the Overseas Needs Assessment and Distribution Committee, known as ONAD. “We as a national system have an obligation” to help people understand overseas needs, he said. The move to form an advocacy group reflects a growing sense by federation leaders that the system is failing to effectively fund its overseas partners. Its major partners include the Jewish Agency for Israel, which handles immigration and absorption to Israel, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which delivers international relief and welfare for needy Jews. The general overseas fund administered through ONAD is separate from special campaigns, such as the current Israel Emergency Campaign, which to date has raised $334 million. The Jewish Agency and the JDC have channeled those emergency funds to other groups in Israel for services such as child safety and protection programs, aid to terror victims and Argentine Jewish immigration. UJC’s formation three years ago was a response, in part, to the desire to reverse the trend by local federations to shift dollars to local needs. According to Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, a confluence of factors contributed to the trend: • The early 1990s was a time of peacemaking and prosperity for Israel, where politicians joined federation leaders in telling Americans to keep their money at home. • The Jewish Agency, the federations’ largest overseas partner, was seen as a “symbol of bureaucratic inefficiency.” • Donors began designating dollars for specific Israeli programs outside the federation system. • The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey revealed a 52 percent intermarriage rate among those who had married in the previous five years, prompting federations to spend more on domestic education and identity-building programs. UJC’s new overseas advocacy replaces a function held by the United Jewish Appeal before it merged with the United Israel Appeal and the Council of Jewish Federations to form the UJC. After the merger, “the advocacy role of the UJA evaporated. That’s why they have to recreate it,” Tobin said. In addition, the collapse of the peace process, Israel’s sliding economy and “anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism all over the world forces the federation system to pay more attention to Israel again,” he said. Under the UJC, the 25-member ONAD committee — comprised of representatives of various federations, the Jewish Agency and the JDC — was created to give federations more ownership of and, consequently, buy-in to overseas decisions. Under the old system, the distribution of funds was determined by the Jewish Agency and the JDC. The creation of the ONAD process prompted increased allocations by the federations, but still didn’t add up to the amount ONAD recommended. “The process I think has been amazingly effective in stabilizing a period of downward numbers,” Lodge said. “But it’s not enough.” In 2002, the JDC got $55 million from the UJC and the Jewish Agency got $160 million. Still, the amounts fell short of its goals by $7 million during ONAD’s first year and by $17 million during its second year, and it “will fall significantly short” again this year, according to Richard Wexler, who serves on UJC’s Budget Committee. Several UJC insiders say the shortfall stems from UJC’s inability to make a compelling case for overseas needs to its member federations. The UJC’s overseas division “has not as of yet fulfilled its responsibility to communicate to the federations the need to act on the recommendations of ONAD,” said Bennett Aaron, former chair of the United Israel Appeal. In the meantime, UJC’s beneficiary agencies are advocating on their own behalf. “We now have JDC and, to a much lesser extent, JAFI, going around from community to community lobbying,” said Jay Sarber, president of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis and a member of the ONAD committee. “They’re expending dollars that we need for overseas expenditure.” But some say that cutting out the middle man is useful for federations that like to make their own allocations decisions. “Who says that the highest and most important use of UJC time is to sit around and to try to make that determination?” said Barry Shrage, president of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies “They haven’t done a very good job for the last five years, and you wonder, why bother?” Not every federation leader agrees. Steven Terner, executive director of the Columbia Jewish Federation in South Carolina, said that a small federation like his, which has fewer resources than federations in larger cities, is “indebted to the volunteers that spend many hours assessing and evaluating the programs.” “The UJC is a participating democracy, and it works,” he said. Still, many criticize the system, saying it is plagued by political gridlock, with millions of dollars at stake for the overseas partners. A chief grievance is the 75-25 split in allocations between the Jewish Agency and JDC, a breakdown that predates the creation of UJC and continues today. Some say growing humanitarian needs around the world and a drop in aliyah mean the JDC should get more funds. Others insist that at a time of crisis for Israel, the Jewish Agency’s aliyah programs are a priority. In an attempt to reassess needs and allocations, ONAD representatives visited Russia, Israel and the Ukraine last spring and summer. A committee was slated to be formed in the fall to discuss the findings, but the group met only once in October, and didn’t make concrete decisions. At the UJC’s annual conference of federations in November, a vote on redetermining allocations was tabled because “the leadership sensed a split,” Sarber said. The indecision has left many frustrated. “There was an enormous investment made in needs assessment this past year,” Sarber said. He said there was a general feeling that the way everything has played out — “sort of a continuing resolution approach as opposed to any alterations at this point — is a little frustrating.” The issue reflects the larger problem of a dearth of overseas funding, he said. “A rising tide would raise all ships,” Sarber said. The UJC must “take it out of the realm of partisan politics, and put it in the realm of problem solving.” □