Officials meet plans of JDC, Jewish Agency with mixed reviews

NEW YORK (JTA) — Two overseas aid organizations have launched major initiatives aimed at securing more funding from U.S. donors that could significantly impact the North American network of local Jewish charitable federations.

The Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee are the main recipients of federation funding for overseas causes. Federations in 2009 gave the two agencies combined more than $130 million to cover their core operating expenses — a large sum by some measures, but nonetheless a sharp decline over the past decade.

In part to win increased support from federations, the Jewish Agency’s chairman, Natan Sharansky, is advancing a plan to shift the organization’s mission from facilitating aliyah to “building Jewish identity of Jews around the world and in Israel by forging a strong connection to Israel, Jewish heritage and people.”

At an April 28 meeting in New York, Sharansky received support for his plan from a strategic planning committee at the Jewish Agency.

Also last week, an internal policy committee at JDC sent 13 formal recommendations to the organization’s board for revamping how it raises money, including the possibility of bypassing the national funding structure by increasingly soliciting local federations directly and raising core funding from sources in other countries.

The recent moves by the JDC and Jewish Agency come as both organizations have been engaged in ongoing negotiations with the North American arm of the federations, the Jewish Federations of North America, over the formula for dividing the money that flows to the two organizations. Under a decades-long formula, the Jewish Agency received 75 percent of the funds, which flow from local federations through the Jewish Federations.

Among the most significant proposals being weighed by JDC is stepping up efforts to raise money directly from individual federations unless "a new and acceptable national agreement on overseas funding" is reached. This would include scrapping the 75-25 split and adopting the principle that the "that funds be allocated according to global Jewish needs."

The JDC memo containing the recommendations states that “In communities where Federation funding for JDC is far below capacity, JDC should be prepared to adopt different approaches to fund raising."

A JDC source stressed that the organization believes in the federation system — but wants local federations to demonstrate that they feel likewise in the form of maintaining their current level of support for JDC’s core funding over the next three years. Federations unwiling to make such a pledge face the possibility of JDC starting to fund-raise in their backyards, the source said.

While many federations understand that the JDC is under financial pressure and feels let down by the system, several federation officials have said that they believe the JDC does not fully appreciate the strain that they are under now to satisfy both local and overseas needs. 

“On the one hand, you have never met a poor Jew until you meet some of the poor people in the FSU,” Jacob Solomon, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Miami, told JTA. “There is a level of grinding poverty there and a dysfunctional situation you really don’t see anywhere else in the Jewish world. That is true. I don’t believe there is starvation and widespread hunger, but is there food insecurity? Sure. There is also food insecurity in Miami, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles." 

Federation officials also are upset with what they see as the JDC’s use of the media to paint a picture of the federations as choosing to fund Jewish identity through a revamped Jewish Agency over feeding hungry Jews overseas through the JDC. 

Some federation leaders and Jewish Agency officials are upset because they say that when the parties started their negotiations, they did so with the agreement that the they would keep the talks private and not negotiate through the press.

“When the JDC is dealing with a very large board — and we have the same challenge of a very large board — they have people who are very passionate and committed to their mission, and in their own right frustrations can often occur and people can do things that are not necessarily supported by their leadership,” said the CEO of Jewish Federations of North America, Jerry Silverman. “But we don’t believe that the press is ever a place to have dialogue."

Silverman said the two sides discussed the situation last Friday. Another source said the JDC and Jewish Agency would possibly be setting up more talks about the current funding arrangement.

“We are in a dialogue," Silverman said. “We had the ability to share our concerns, and they listened very appropriately.”

As for the Jewish Agency, some observers and JDC backers are questioning whether the shift to an identity-building mission demands continued U.S. Jewish funding at such a high level. But Jewish Agency lay leaders and Jewish federation professionals by and large have accepted Sharansky’s plan warmly. 

Sharansky is framing the shift as vital to staving off increasing assimilation and apathy toward Judaism by young Jews — and a way to secure future support for Jewish charitable causes.

“People step back and see where are these problems coming from," Sharansky said. "They see decreasing commitment to their people and their country. That is why we have to deal with the cause. By dealing with this, the Jewish Agency becomes the driver.”

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