We’re hearing some interesting chatter surrounding the Jewish Agency for Israel and the country’s largest Jewish foundation, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation.
Here’s what we know: Over the past several years, Weinberg Foundation Chairman Shale Stiller, Lee Kohrman at the David and Inez Myers Foundation in Cleveland and two past chairmen of what used to be known as the United Jewish Communities, Charles Bronfman and Bobby Goldberg, have been spearheading a major behind-the-scenes campaign to push the Jewish Agency to reform the way it does business.
They were the front men for a group of 11 major philanthropists and foundations who all had either pulled their money or threatened to pull their money from the agency. The funders have lobbied for more transparency regarding how the agency spends the more than $140 million it receives from local Jewish federations in the United States. They also want to make sure that Israeli politicians are no longer using jobs at the agency as rewards for past favors.
This was no mere nudge. We’ve read more than 200 pages of the correspondence among this "big four" (as some call them), Jewish Agency officials and top leaders of the United Jewish Communities (now the Jewish Federations of North America).
"Shale, myself, Lee Kohrman and Jeff Solomon for Charles Bronfman, really the four of us, were out in front of 11 others. There were 15 of us," Goldberg told The Fundermentalist Tuesday. "We threatened that if they didn’t make a change, our 15 was going to go to 30."
Bronfman and Goldberg certainly have been vocal about their concerns regarding the Jewish Agency. But the strongest push may have come from Weinberg, the foundation that gives away $100 million per year, much of it to Jewish causes.
Last April, Stiller wrote in a letter to Jewish Agency Chairman Richard Pearlstone that the Weinberg Foundation was keeping in escrow $750,000 of its 2009 gift to the Associated Jewish Federation of Baltimore that normally would have been passed along to the agency as unrestricted money.
After several exchanges, Stiller said the money would not be released until the agency adopted a series of reforms.
Among the foundation’s greatest concerns was that it had asked the agency for audits, which the agency at first refused to provide before acquiescing — but not translated from their original Hebrew and with the caveat that Weinberg sign an agreement to keep any information in the audits confidential.
"If the Weinberg Foundation signed such a document and sent copies of the financial statements to outside experts, accountants or lawyers, it could be liable for damages to JAFI," Stiller wrote in the April 23, 2009 letter obtained by JTA. "In my tenure at The Weinberg Foundation, no applicant for funds has ever requested that we sign such a statement as a condition to receiving any information."
"I know that some in the Jewish world believe that the Foundation’s position will erode the ‘system,’" he added. "The Foundation’s position is that the ‘system’ is not healthy and needs to be changed."
The Weinberg Foundation does maintain strong ties to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the federation system’s other main recipient of overseas dollars.
In the correspondence leading up to Stiller’s April letter, the Jewish Agency said that oversight of the organization was being carried out by members of the then-UJC and the United Israel Appeal who sit on the agency’s board of governors — and that the foundation could translate the audits at their own expense.
The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Foundation has also taken action in response to what it views as insufficient transparency when it comes to the agency’s budget. It is not withholding money. But it has ordered that the portion of its donations to the UJA-Federation of New York and the Federation CJA in Montreal that end up being funneled to the Jewish Agency not be used as unrestricted money to cover the agency’s core budget. Instead, following the advice of legal counsel, the Bronfman foundation asked that its money be directed to specific agency projects, according to a source close to the situation.
Much has transpired since Stiller’s April letter. The agency brought in a new chairman, former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, who is well respected by many of the big four and their backers. And over the summer, the agency passed a series of governance reforms aimed at separating itself from the WZO and taking the power to appoint the agency chairman from the hands of Israel’s prime minister.
There appeared to be a thawing, with Goldberg and Bronfman visiting Sharansky in the Jewish Agency’s offices in Jerusalem — something that would have been unheard of previously. The general sentiment from Goldberg, Bronfman and, we hear,
Myers was that much more progress was needed, but that they would give Sharansky time to make changes.
But where the Weinberg Foundation stands now isn’t clear. All we know is that the money it had asked the Baltimore federation to put in escrow is no longer in escrow. That could mean the money was sent to the agency; it could mean it wasn’t.
Officials at the Weinberg Foundation, the Baltimore federation and the Jewish Agency have been incredibly tight-lipped about the situation, even declining to provide off-the-record comments or confirmations about where things stand.
Here’s the statement we received from the foundation: "The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation has a proud history of supporting Israel, and since 1990 has given more than $217 million to more than 617 nonprofit programs. Historically, JAFI has been awarded more than $14 million of those funds, largely to support the work of Amigour, which supports older adults in Israel."
Stiller is set to step down as chairman Feb. 23 and will be replaced by Donn Weinberg. Rachel Monroe will become the foundation’s president.
There is specualtion in some corners that we might see a softening of the foundation’s stance toward the Jewish Agency when the new leadership comes in. At least that seems to be the hope of Pearlstone, the agency’s chairman, who would not say whether the foundation has allowed the Baltimore federation to pass on the money in escrow to the agency.
"When the new officers come in, we will welcome them in their roles. I believe there is a different attitude with the new leadership," Pearlstone told me Tuesday. "Until then, I don’t know anything aside from rumors and innuendo, so it’s premature to comment."