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Emergency Drive Tops $320 Million; Shifts Toward Rebuilding Israel’s North

Since the early days of Israel’s war with Hezbollah, the North American federation system has garnered some $320 million in pledges from the Jewish community. The Israel Emergency Campaign of the United Jewish Communities and local federations already has collected more than $100 million in cash. Of that $100 million, $94 million has been allocated and $54 million has been paid out, according to an allocations report released by UJC last Friday.

When it began in July, the campaign was meant to take care of the immediate needs of those in Israel’s battered North — outfitting bomb shelters with air conditioners, lighting and televisions, moving some 40,000 Jewish and non-Jewish children to summer camps out of the range of Hezbollah’s rockets and providing psychological help for those directly affected by the attacks.

Now that the rocket fire has ended, the fund-raising campaign is continuing. The focus now, say officials involved, is to make the northern region more inhabitable and actually draw people back to the area.

“When the bullets and the bombs and rockets were flying, the imperative was getting kids out of harm’s way, and I think we did a pretty damned good job of that,” the UJC’s president and chief executive officer, Howard Rieger, told JTA.

“But the fact of life is that” people have left the North, he said. Given that the area is heavily populated by non-Jewish residents, he said, “you need to do what you need to do to not lose a balance in the North. We will address some of the longer term needs.”

As the UJC gets set to announce a second round of allocations next week, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee — the UJC’s nongovernmental partners in Israel — stand to see significant increases in their budgets this year.

The JDC has already seen a boost of $25 million, according to its executive vice president, Steve Schwager, and it could see a doubling of its roughly $100 million budget for Israel next year, he said.

The new allocations will be decided by a professional and lay committee made up of representatives from small, medium and large federations from across North America based on proposals from Israeli agencies and the government, officials say.

The new allocations will go to improving the education system in the North and to help rebuild the area’s economy, Doron Krakow, the UJC’s senior vice president for Israel and overseas, told JTA.

The allocations report released last week indicated that some $4 million had been designated for small business loans.

The Jewish Agency is seeking funds to give scholarships to Israelis to draw them to universities in the North, said the chairwoman of its board of governors, Carole Solomon.

And the JDC has been working to improve several schools in the North, bringing in consultants to help teachers and administration, and to help with structural improvements. The JDC is now asking for $8 million of IEC money to expand the program to more than 50 schools.

Some of these initiatives do not appear to be directly war-related, but those involved draw a link.

“This war revealed that the North needed strengthening and needed to upgrade the level of services it could provide,” Schwager said. “We would not have recognized these weaknesses. All of the dollars are going to be targeted for improvements of the North, not only to rebuild but to make the North a better place to live.”

A portion of the funds are being allocated to help Ethiopian Jews.

In 2005, the UJC launched Operation Promise, a three-year campaign to raise $160 million to help frail and elderly Jews still living in the former Soviet Union, to help bring over to Israel the remaining Falash Mura living in Ethiopia and to help with the continuing settlement in Israel of the Ethiopian Jewish community.

But that campaign ran into trouble. It stagnated, according to UJC’s Krakow, when Israel’s government declined to double the number of Falash Mura it was bringing into the country to 600 per month.

Now, roughly $10 million of the emergency campaign funds has been allocated to the Ethiopian National Project, which was designed to help the absorption of Ethiopian Jews. Of that, according to the UJC report, $5.6 million will go to build youth centers and provide support for parents, $2.9 million will go to expanding such programs in seven new cities, $1.3 million will go to providing domestic violence workshops and Amharic-speaking social workers.

Roughly $5 million of the emergency campaign money that has been allocated to Ethiopian causes would have been covered under Operation Promise, Krakow said. He said that the Ethiopian cause is now a postwar cause because it is a population on the lower rungs of Israeli society and was therefore harder hit than some others.

“The fact is that the Ethiopian community is already suffering from the impact of the war,” said Krakow, noting that domestic violence in that community has been exacerbated by the war.

In addition, six absorption centers were damaged during the war, according to the UJC report, for which $229,926 was given for immediate repairs — and another $3.2 million has been allocated for improvements.

The UJC’s Rieger said that the scope of the emergency campaign — which he said does not have a specific dollar goal in mind — has not changed since its inception over the summer. He dismissed critics who say the federation system is trying to use the war to fill in fund-raising gaps.

Some debated whether JAFI and JDC should work with banks and obtain loan guarantees instead of relying on the broader Jewish community if they were going to be working on continuing projects that weren’t necessarily just for repair, said Stephen Hoffman, president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland and former CEO of the UJC.

But Rieger said that it was not going to fall solely upon the North American Jewish community to build a better northern Israel. Whatever dollars the UJC raises will be leveraged by Israel’s government and by Israeli philanthropists, he said.

“Clearly we’re not going to rebuild the North by ourselves, even if we put every penny we raised into it,” he said.

“I agree with what they did,” Hoffman said of the expanded IEC initiatives. “The rationale is that when we told the story about what Israel would need because of the war, we did not say we are only going to build housing in the North and jobs. We talked very distinctly about helping Israel deal with vulnerable populations when budget sources would be tight.”

The campaign did come under fire last week, after a mass e-mail circulated by Helen Freedman, the former executive director of American Friends for a Safe Israel, a group that opposed Israel’s disengagement from Gaza last year. She insinuated that 30 percent of the money the UJC allocated was going to support Arab causes.

Her letter, which prompted an e-mail campaign directed at the UJC, was based on reports in Israeli newspapers, she told JTA.

“All of this while the Jews from Gush Katif are getting nothing,” she said, referring to Jews who were forced to leave Gaza. “The mainstream Jewish organizations have ignored them completely. This is what made me furious.”

In its report released last week, the UJC rejected the allegations, saying the actual allocation to non-Jewish causes was 3 percent.

“It’s really outrageous,” Steven Nasatir, the president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, said of the criticism.

“It’s irresponsible. I was in Israel during the war. I saw the devastation in the North. And I am proud that we can support those in need, Jew and non-Jew alike, even if it wasn’t 33 percent.”

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