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CJF to Re-evaluate Role in Russia; Ncsj Will Be Most Affected by Study

January 10, 1995
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Three years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the federation community is re-evaluating its role in the former Soviet republics.

The National Funding Councils of the Council of Jewish Federations will convene a committee next month to examine how to best aid Jews in the transformed landscape of the former Soviet Union.

The agency most likely to be affected by this study is the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, which receives more than half its $670,000 annual budget from CJF.

Founded in 1971 as the organized Jewish community’s response to grass-roots efforts on behalf of Soviet Jewry, the NCSJ became the official lobby for free Jewish emigration and for maintaining the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which linked Soviet-American relations to emigration rights.

But with the collapse of Communism and the emigration of more than a half- million Jews from the former Soviet Union in recent years, the continued role of the NCSJ has come under question.

“The issue is what is the best, most efficient way of structuring our whole approach to the former Soviet Union, and programs which advocate on behalf of Jews in the former Soviet Union in the future,” said Robert Hyfler, director for budget and planning at the United Jewish Appeal-Federation of Greater Washington.

“We have no predetermined stance, other than to say that things have obviously changed in the past [several] years, and structures need to change with changing times,” said Hyfler, whose federation was one of those that proposed the study.

“Many functions of NCSJ need to continue, and maybe need to be enhanced. Maybe some of those functions could be better served under better venues.

“I have no idea where the process is going to lead,” he said.

The agency’s budget has shrunk from $800,000 in 1992. That year, its highly respected executive director, Martin Wenick, left the agency to join the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which helps resettle refugees in the United States.

The move was seen at the time as symbolic of the change in focus in efforts on behalf of Soviet Jews.

NCSJ’s primary role as political advocate has been overshadowed in recent years by the massive resettlement efforts on behalf of Soviet Jews in Israel and the United States. These efforts run in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

Groups like the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Israeli government also spend tens of millions of dollars on educational and welfare programs in the former Soviet Union.

The other main advocacy group, the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, has a budget of $750,000. It receives no funding from the federation system.

Richard Wexler of Chicago, chairman of NCSJ, acknowledged that the pending CJF re-evaluation has created “an aura of uncertainty” concerning his agency.

That uncertainty was heightened last week, when the Washington Jewish Week, citing “knowledgeable sources,” reported that NCSJ Executive director Mark Levin was being considered by the White House to fill a possible new post as liaison to the Jewish community.

Levin’s departure would be keenly felt in an agency with only four other full- time staff members.

Both White House and NCSJ sources denied the report.

“I know of no direct White House inquiries into Mark’s availability or Mark’s interest” in the post, said Wexler.

Wexler attributed the planned federation study to “an unfortunate ignorance among a small group of federation professionals of the role the NCSJ is playing.”

Especially in a time of increased instability in the former Soviet republics, Wexler said his organization is as vital as ever.

“The conference continues to advocate for freedom of the Jews of the former Soviet Union to leave the 15 republics in which they are located and to ensure that the gates do not close, through our contacts with the government in each of those republics,” said Wexler.

“We continue to advocate for the right of those Jews who choose to remain to practice the Jewish religion freely and openly.

“And we are the organized Jewish community’s instrument for advocacy with our own government – the Congress, State Department, etc. – on behalf of those communities in the former Soviet Union, for economic assistance and matters related to Jackson-Vanik,” he said.

“We welcome the scrutiny – especially at a time of tremendous volatility in the former Soviet Union, the reorganization of our own Congress and when we’re actively involved in a myriad of activities for our constituency in the former Soviet Union as well,” said Wexler.

Leaders of the funding councils say the say the study is not a threat to NCSJ.

“We are not discussing whether the agency should exist or not. We are not discussing funding levels. We are looking at the agency vis a vis what it does,” said Barbara Rosenthal of Cleveland, chair of the funding councils.

“One of the major purposes of the founding of the funding councils was to support and be helpful of the national agency system and that continues to be our goal,” said Rosenthal. “So we really look at ourselves as partners.”

The scope and nature of the federation inquiry will not be determined until the end of February.

The study was proposed in November, in the closing meeting of a funding councils subcommittee during the CJF General Assembly in Denver.

“During the closing moments [of the subcommittee meeting], the question was raised of whether or not it was time for a review of the services provided to and on behalf of the Jews of the former Soviet Union,” said Yisroel Cohen, director of the National Funding Councils at CJF.

“The purpose of the National Funding Councils is to – on a regular basis – review and evaluate the agencies that are part of the process, so this is not extraordinary,” Cohen added.

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