Jewish Agency, Facing Budget Crunch, is Buoyed by Olmert’s Ideas

Comparing the challenge of overcoming his agency’s financial woes with the ancient Israelites’ struggle to enter the Promised Land, the chairman of the Jewish Agency’s budget committee tried to sound an upbeat note.

“We can do it,” Shoel Silver told the agency’s board of governors Tuesday.

Nobody said it would be easy. The Jewish Agency is running a deficit this year of roughly $25 million, and expects a budget shortfall of $45 million in 2009.

Hit by the sinking dollar, rising Israeli inflation and the global economic downturn, the Jewish Agency is trying to reinvent itself as a leaner, more efficient organization.

As it tries to adapt its mission for 21st century realities — tight budgets, dwindling immigration to Israel, increasing disaffection with Israel among Diaspora Jews — the Jewish Agency found an important champion Monday: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

In a speech that was hailed at the board of governors meetings in Jerusalem this week as a sign of a paradigm shift in Israeli-Diaspora relations, Olmert said the time has come for Israel to take a more prominent role in the Diaspora-Israel partnership.

The prime minister said that rather than merely receiving the Jewish world’s philanthropy, Israel will give back to the Diaspora, work to save it from Jewish assimilation and infuse Diaspora Jewish communities with identity and purpose.

“We must stop talking in terms of big brother and little brother, and instead speak in terms of two brothers marching hand in hand and supporting each other so that the Jewish people, both in Israel and around the world, has a better future,” Olmert said.

“Our main goal is to strengthen Jewish education in Jewish communities, including the study of Hebrew; increase awareness regarding Jewish culture and heritage; instill Jewish values; and deepen the links between world Jewish communities and the State of Israel.”

The assumption among board members was that this would include increased funding for the Jewish Agency’s work.

Yet while the speech was cheered, some agency officials wondered whether the strong rhetoric by the politically weak prime minister would translate into concrete action anytime soon, or even last beyond Olmert’s tenure in office.

Zeev Bielski, the agency’s chairman, said a new tone has been set, regardless of how long the transformation takes.

“We’ll never go backwards; we’ll only go forwards,” Bielski told JTA. While Diaspora organizations deserve credit for helping build Israel, he said, “we have an Israel today who can pay back, and we can say what are the needs of the Jewish world.”

Richard Pearlstone, the Jewish Agency’s board of governors chairman, said Olmert’s remarks reflect a new reality in which identification with Israel is seen as the glue that binds Jews worldwide and in which a wealthier Israel can afford to contribute to the Diaspora-Israel relationship.

“It’s a change of the guard,” Pearlstone said. “It’s about changing demographics.”

Olmert noted that Israel is poised to become the largest Jewish community in the world. Some demographers say that landmark already has been achieved, depending on estimates of the size of the largest Diaspora community, the United States.

For William Hess of New Orleans, the president of the World Zionist Organization in America, the idea of an Israeli government more active in Diaspora affairs was welcome news.

“I come from a relatively small Jewish community where we fight for Jewish identity,” Hess said. “I think the government of Israel needs to be involved in the affairs of Jews around the world.”

On Tuesday, the board of governors took a first key step in its new direction by establishing a steering committee to draw up a master plan for boosting Jewish identity abroad and connections between the Diaspora and Israel. The committee will consist of government and agency officials.

Among its tasks, the committee will look at the possibilities of pooling financial resources for programming and projects.

In his speech, Olmert specifically mentioned promoting programs focused on bringing Diaspora youth to Israel, including Birthright Israel and Masa.

Bielski has his own grand visions. He wants to see Israel Houses opened across the Diaspora that teach Hebrew, feature Zionist and Jewish programming, and are run by graduates of programs like Birthright and Masa.

Other agency officials spoke of an Israeli peace corps in which young Israelis who recently completed their army service would work in small and remote Diaspora communities.

Much of the agency’s meetings this week were devoted not to grand visions but to the immediate problem of a crunch on 2008 and 2009 budgets that combined are approximately $400 million.

Members approved a resolution that called for addressing the anticipated $45 million deficit in the ’09 budget by working on raising another $8.5 million and cutting administrative and overhead costs by $7.5 million. The latter would include a hiring freeze and perhaps firing of staff.

Another $29 million in cutbacks was recommended for programming in various departments. The Aliyah and Absorption Department would suffer the steepest cuts, $6.2 million, according to the recommendations adopted. The cuts reflect a significant downturn in aliyah in recent years, as mass immigration movements, like those from the former Soviet Union, have dried up.

Anita Fisher, a board member from Santiago, Chile, spoke about the difficulty of “sitting at meetings expecting to work on constructive issues, and instead we find ourselves working on what we can take off the list so we can bring our numbers down.”

“We sit there asking ourselves, ‘What might we need less of in the future?’ Who can decide that?” she asked.

To address the ’08 deficit, officials proposed that all new contracts and programs be frozen, and that any programs scheduled for elimination in ’09 be cut immediately.

Despite the hand wringing over the “painful choices being made,” Bielski said he was hopeful that the budget crunch would help transform the Jewish Agency into a more agile and effective organization.

“We will be able to face the challenges of the next couple of years as a much thinner organization,” the unflaggingly optimistic leader said, and a “very efficient one.”

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