Few cry over federation system’s funding change

Elderly Jews take part in a Shabbat dinner at a Hesed social services center in Yekaterinburg, Russia, sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, in a file photo. (Lev Krichevsky)

Elderly Jews take part in a Shabbat dinner at a Hesed social services center in Yekaterinburg, Russia, sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, in a file photo. (Lev Krichevsky)

ATLANTA, March 21 (JTA) — It is a death over which few will shed tears. The United Jewish Communities, the coordinating body for the North American Jewish federation system, is scrapping the process it has been using for several years to determine its funding of overseas programs. The much-lamented Overseas Needs Assessment and Distribution Committee, known as ONAD, is being supplanted with an agreement between UJC’s two main overseas partners, the Jewish Agency for Israel, which funds Israeli immigration and absorption as well as Zionist programs worldwide, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which provides relief and welfare programs for Jews abroad. The agencies, with approval for direct negotiations by UJC’s board, agreed on March 13 to continue the longtime 75-25 split in core overseas funding that favors the Jewish Agency. Currently, the Jewish Agency receives about $138 million from the federation system and the JDC receives $46 million, $3 million of which it dispenses to World ORT, a global vocational training program. An additional 10 percent of overseas funds comes from designated gifts by individual federations to the agency of their choice. As part of the agreement, the federation system will advance $18 million to the JDC from its special campaign, Operation Promise, to aid needy elderly in the former Soviet Union. Operation Promise, which has raised $50 million in pledges, aims to raise $160 million over three years for Ethiopian immigration and absorption in Israel, and to help revitalize and aid the Jewish community in the former Soviet Union. The two-year agreement between JDC and the Jewish Agency will come before the UJC board for approval in June and would begin July 1. The new agreement, essentially a return to pre-ONAD days, is hailed by many for returning order to what had become a messy process. But the decision raises a serious question. ONAD was created for a reason — to help boost overseas funds. Since local federations do not always comply with UJC recommendations, to what extent will the new process urge increased funding overseas? ONAD was born along with the UJC — the 1999 merger of the Council of Jewish Federations, the United Jewish Appeal and the United Israel Appeal. The streamlined system was created, in part, to reverse a trend of declining federation dollars overseas in favor of local projects. ONAD, a committee representing a cross section of federation leadership, was meant to engage people in overseas projects, inspiring the system to boost overseas giving. Under ONAD, dollars allocated for overseas fell at a less drastic rate, but the funding never substantially increased. At the same time, the process pitted the Jewish Agency against the JDC, creating a climate of competition, with each group pleading for money to respond to basic human needs. The Jewish Agency, for example, lobbied for lifting up poor Ethiopian immigrants in Israel, and the JDC detailed the needs of hungry Holocaust survivors in the former Soviet Union. Many complained the exercise was a political logjam: When ONAD members discussed altering the 75-25 split, Israeli heavyweights, including Ariel Sharon, petitioned ONAD members to make Jewish Agency funding a priority. When the last round of negotiations ended in December 2004, the committee’s two-year plan recommended that the split remain unchanged. But all the politicking and recommendations belied a much more serious issue in the federation system, insiders say — the noncompliance of individual federations to meet these recommendations. That in turn intensified the fighting between the UJC’s overseas partners, who fear a dwindling pool of funds. JDC’s executive vice president, Steven Schwager, warned that the new agreement is contingent on maintaining current levels of overseas funding. But federation dollars largely stay local. According to an October 2005 UJC report of the ONAD review process, while the federations’ combined annual campaign, which tops $800 million, increased by 4 percent together since 2000, dollars for overseas have dropped by more than 4.5 percent since 2001. According to Richard Wexler of Chicago, a UJC board member and head of the Jewish Agency’s North American Council, the first year of ONAD saw excellent compliance, but then federations slipped back into a pre-ONAD practice, making decisions independent of the ONAD request. Furthermore, the ONAD process eroded trust in UJC’s overseas partners by forcing the two agencies into competition, he said. In his weekly letter to federations last Friday, Howard Rieger, UJC’s president and CEO, stressed the need to boost funding overseas, but did not detail modes of advocacy. “Core needs must be sustained and the only way to do so is for them to keep pace with the growth of Annual Campaigns,” he wrote. “Many communities act upon that principle, but some have either chosen not to, or found it difficult to meet this commitment. We must work with every federation to do everything in our power to shore up that aspect of our operations.” Rieger declined an interview with JTA until the new agreement is approved. For their part, the JDC and the Jewish Agency appear pleased. “Like any negotiations, they weren’t easy but there was a spirit I think in the room that both JAFI and JDC have a renewed dedication to working together” with UJC to raise the profile of overseas needs in the federation system, said Jay Sarver of St. Louis, budget and finance chairman of the Jewish Agency. In fact, some say ONAD may have helped pave the way. It spawned the growth of Israel and overseas committees at federations that were engaged in a healthy debate about allocations, said Steven Klinghoffer of MetroWest, N.J., the most recent ONAD chairman. But even Klinghoffer suggested that the exercise failed, citing issues of federation compliance and the formation of Operation Promise. “One could argue that the Operation Promise campaign would not have been necessary if we had been able to reprioritize” funding, addressing those needs through the general campaign, he said. At least now, he said, “the good part is that there’s shalom bayit,” or peace in the house.

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