NEW YORK (JTA) – Every day, United Jewish Communities, the Jewish federations of North America and our partner organizations work hard to fund, organize and run an extraordinary network of essential programs that make Jewish life in North America, Israel and around the world vibrant, meaningful and secure.
From New Orleans to Kiev to Jerusalem, UJC works to ensure a fundamental Jewish priority – the existence of a caring and supportive community.
Countless deserving individuals, groups and programs throughout the Jewish world require help from our system – and they get it. This support comes in the way that is consistent with our values, giving to clients who don’t know the donor, in a manner that assures dignity and pride.
The hungry are fed and cared for; the next generation is educated and empowered; the single parent is given a helping hand; young singles and families are embraced by new communities far from their
family and friends; the vulnerable in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere in the world are embraced and comforted; emergency systems are in place to respond to every challenge, from war in Israel to a hurricane in the United States.
And tens of thousands of young people are sent on educational trips to Israel.
The UJC/federation system is an active partner and parent of Taglit-birthright israel. The program is among the most successful endeavors to ever have come out of the American Jewish community, and we at UJC and the federations of North America have expanded our support of this effort over the years.
But Taglit-birthright israel is only one of the many programs we support.
We sincerely hope that members of the community appreciate just how far-reaching are our aims. We spend our days agonizing over which communal needs demand attention most urgently.
Often this work can feel like that of an army medic doing triage in the field, painfully categorizing his injured comrades: Should we divert money that buys food for poor people to another free trip to Israel? So many demands are close to our hearts; it is our task to prioritize. In the end, the key point is that we are a complex series of community organizations, not a single-issue constituency. We are a community, not a sole donor.
Taglit-birthright israel is lamenting that there is a waiting list for participation. We are unaware of any program that has served an entire population of people, and yet that’s the noble goal of birthright. The
Taglit-birthright israel waiting list is an important one, but it’s not the only one.
Indeed, the world Jewish community is burdened by many waiting lists: Thousands of Ethiopians connected to the Jewish people live today in camps under the searing African sun, hoping against hope that their names will soon be moved from a waiting list to a list of those granted permission to immigrate to Israel. Jews in the former Soviet Union are on a waiting list to benefit from a monthly food package. Aging survivors of the Holocaust are on a waiting list to receive increased support to live out their days in dignity and comfort. Older people right here in North America are waiting to get into a nursing home that can sustain their lives.
We want to do more, and we have a plan to do more.
Last year, UJC gave birthright israel $6 million. This year we’re hoping to increase our financial commitment. Meanwhile, we support birthright in other ways as well. Over the years, many federations have invested additional resources by running their own community trips. They include Seattle, San Francisco, Philadelphia, MetroWest and Northern New Jersey, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Orange County, New York, St. Louis and Baltimore.
The Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago extends the Mifgash portion of its community’s birthright trips – during which these young Jews spend time with Israeli soldiers – at its own expense. The Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston has developed the IACT (Inspired, Active, Committed, Transformed) Initiative, an integrated approach to leverage the impact of birthright israel on the participant, the campus and Jewish campus life. And last year, Boston spent an additional $200,000 – yielding three extra birthright buses – and another $700,000 on local follow-up.
This year, that same program will cost $1.04 million, all on top of UJC fair share. And in cooperation with the birthright israel Foundation, federations around the country are providing a post-birthright slate of alumni programs.
But it doesn’t end there. The UJC funds the core budget of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which itself then gives birthright some $5 million each year. Further, UJC pays out its financial commitment to Taglit-birthright israel on a monthly basis rather than in an annual lump sum. This may sound mundane, but we assure you it is not. It means that we are a constant source of cash flow for a program that badly needs it. And we are happy to report that even as we at UJC work to support the myriad programs that require our assistance, we will remain so committed.
Finally, we have been working for the last year with a small group of the leadership of the federations and birthright israel to develop a plan for a multi-hundred-million-dollar foundation that could help to
sustain birthright israel into the foreseeable future. We have done so in the belief that the support of birthright should not be debated as a “zero-sum game.”
There is a vast philanthropic capacity in the Jewish world, and with the right plan we believe that we could be in a position to raise those new dollars without having to trade off the needs of birthright against the valid requirements of the many who cannot help themselves without our support. We have traveled far down the road to validating such a proposal. Why is the leadership of birthright israel not joining us to lead such an effort, which should be so close to their hearts?
At this time of year, when we take stock of our actions and seek a place in the Book of Life, there is the accepted way of insuring a better future, namely by continuing to perform the mitzvot to which we
are obligated, not walking away from that responsibility or diminishing it because there are competing needs. This is the time to step up with a sustainable plan for the future and get the job done in a responsible manner by adding to the magnificent annual support that enables birthright israel to perform many miracles.
May this be a year of strength for the Jewish people worldwide.
Howard Rieger is president and CEO and Joseph Kanfer is chair of the Board of Trustees of United Jewish Communities.