CJF Leaders Move on Pluralism, Back Partnership Plan with UJA
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CJF Leaders Move on Pluralism, Back Partnership Plan with UJA

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Responding to what they described as “tremendous” grass-roots pressure, federation leaders across North America have backed a plan to double campaign allocations to the Reform, Conservative and modern Orthodox movements in Israel.

The move, an important gesture designed to demonstrate the Diaspora fund- raising establishment’s commitment to religious pluralism in Israel, came this week during quarterly meetings here of the Council of Jewish Federations.

Among the other significant developments that occurred during the three-day meeting of the federation umbrella body:

The CJF executive committee unanimously approved a plan to form a joint operating partnership with the United Jewish Appeal. That plan will be subject to a national vote via satellite next month.

CJF committed the federations to provide $20 million over two years toward a special campaign being mounted by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to ease the hunger of elderly Jews in the states that formerly constituted the Soviet Union.

Extensive discussions were held to examine the federations’ relationship with the Jewish Agency for Israel amid signs of growing frustration.

In deciding to double allocations to a wide range of religious institutions in Israel, federation leaders made it clear they needed to be able to report to donors back home that the fund-raising system is taking action in the face of growing threats to non-Orthodox Judaism there.

Alarm has soared throughout the federation world in the wake of the Israeli Knesset’s recent preliminary passage of legislation that would reinforce exclusive Orthodox control over conversions performed in Israel.

During the CJF gathering here, communal leaders reported that anger at Israel over such actions was threatening contributions to the federation campaign and would reverberate even in the arena of U.S.-Israeli relations.

Michael Belman, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, said one donor rescinded his $50,000 pledge because he did not want his money going to Israel and instead distributed it to five local agencies.

“This thing is going to grow,” Belman warned.

Norman Tilles of Providence, R.I. agreed. “The issue of religious pluralism will exacerbate the trend for more money to stay locally and less to go overseas,” said Tilles, who is also national president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

That, in turn, will prompt Congress to ask, “Why should we give $80 million to the Jewish Agency” for refugee resettlement “and billions to Israel when the American Jewish community is cutting back?”

But federation leaders also stressed that CJF should stop dealing with threats to religious pluralism on a crisis-by-crisis basis, and get into the business of helping to educate Israelis about Jewish diversity.

Said Murray Laulicht, president of the United Jewish Federation of Metro West, N.J., federations have to help “build Am Yisrael, Klal Yisrael.”

“We have to support those in Israel yearning for religious expression,” he said. “If we take ourselves out of this, we will be irrelevant, and we will lose the battle.”

It was Laulicht who initiated the resolution calling for doubling allocations for projects of the various religious streams in next year’s budget of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the campaign’s vehicle to fund the religious movements in Israel.

The CJF executive committee unanimously approved the resolution, subject to the review of the CJF committee on pluralism.

A recommendation for the allocations increase is expected to be acted on in June at the Jewish Agency’s annual assembly in Israel.

Currently, the agency spends about $1 million a year each on Reform and Conservative programs, and about $450,000 on Orthodox programs. The agency’s total annual budget is $400 million, with half contributed by the United Jewish Appeal and the federations. Sixty-five percent of its operating budget is spent on immigration and absorption.

UJA, meanwhile, has created new “opportunities” for donors to contribute directly to projects of the various religious movements in Israel, separate from donations to the annual campaign, said Richard Wexler, UJA’s national chairman.

CJF’s move to back a joint operating partnership with UJA comes on the heels of a similar move last week by UJA’s board.

The central Jewish fund-raising campaign for both overseas and local needs is already run jointly by the local federations and the UJA. The partnership calls for an administrative consolidation to save money and increase fund-raising efficiency to boost the campaigns.

At last spring’s CJF quarterly, a more comprehensive plan to merge the two organizations collapsed, after complaints that the plan was too radical and did not reflect enough consultation with the local federations.

That plan also called for the two bodies that own the UJA to join the merger. But under the plan approved this week, the United Israel Appeal and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, will remain separate and autonomous.

“Nobody should underestimate the importance of getting our own community- building and fund-raising apparatus in order,” said Dr. Conrad Giles, CJF’s president.

Such restructuring “will put us in a position to respond better to the needs of our community and of Jews outside our community.”

Also high on the quarterly agenda this week was re-examining the relationship between the campaign and the Jewish Agency.

The Jewish Agency leadership is asking federations to preserve that relationship for at least two more years in light of the agency’s own reform and restructuring efforts.

By contract, the Jewish Agency is the primary recipient in Israel of federation campaign proceeds earmarked for overseas needs. But many in the federation world have become increasingly frustrated with the agency, claiming it is not as efficient, responsive or relevant as it should be.

That frustration has been matched by a decline in federations’ overseas allocations. Federations decide autonomously how much to give to UJA for overseas distribution and how much to keep at home for local programs.

The system suffered a jolt in the recent decision by San Francisco’s federation to reduce its UJA allocation by $1 million. Half will still go to Israel through other non-specified channels more reflective of donors’ concerns, and the other half will stay home for local projects.

The state of relations between the campaign and the Jewish Agency has surfaced again as an issue because the bodies that fund the agency must decide by September whether they want to renegotiate the terms of their contract with it.

The Jewish Agency leadership is asking federations to hold off on reopening negotiations as it implements a new restructuring plan aimed at remedying some of the most serious organizational ills.

The restructuring plan calls for the Jewish Agency to assume control of the bulk of the operations of its organizational partner, the World Zionist Organization. The agency’s commitment to fund the WZO, long a bone of contention for many federations, ends after two years.

Consolidating the two administrations into one would result in a seven-figure savings, according to Charles Goodman, chairman of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors.

The agency would also assume full control of the Joint Authority for Jewish and Zionist Education, a responsibility it has shared with the WZO. The semi- autonomous body’s politics and lack of accountability have been a major source of frustration for the federations.

Much hinges on whether this restructuring plan clears its next hurdle, however, according to Shoshana Cardin, chair of the United Israel Appeal, which funnels UJA campaign proceeds to the Jewish Agency and acts as its agent in the United States.

Cardin is also a member of the agency’s restructuring subcommittee. The group is slated to travel to London this week to win support for the plan by UIA’s two partners in the Jewish Agency: the WZO and Keren Hayesod, which raises money for Israel in Diaspora communities outside North America.

She said winning that endorsement and moving forward with the plan would help boost confidence in the system on the part of the federations.

But some federation leaders say privately that momentum is building to push for a renegotiation of the relationship spelled out by the contract.

During the CJF meetings here, there were two closed focus groups with federation leaders to try to find out what they want and need from the Jewish Agency.

Sources say that even some of the federations that are most dissatisfied with and skeptical about the Jewish Agency recognize that there is no other entity which could perform its central role of resettling immigrants.

But at the same time, if they remain dissatisfied, amid growing campaign pressures, federations will be increasingly likely to cut their allocations to UJA and bypass the Jewish Agency in the pattern of San Francisco.

For his part, Wayne Feinstein, executive director of the San Francisco federation, said, “We feel very strongly about the need for collective action on agreed Jewish national priorities,” such as aliyah and “strengthening Jewish identity.”

Beyond that, San Francisco has long felt that “the national system has had to be more flexible and responsive and needed to facilitate opportunities for Jews in our community to have direct connections with Jews in Israel and elsewhere overseas.”

The agency’s funding of the WZO over the years and the failure of the UJA-CJF merger last year “accelerated” San Francisco’s feeling that “if we didn’t begin to take steps to meet what donors expected and demanded of our federation, then our campaign would erode,” said Feinstein.

He said his community believes it should notify the UIA in the fall it wants to reopen the contract, because “we no longer see the Jewish Agency as the exclusive instrument for Diaspora philanthropy in Israel.”

Meanwhile, federations threw in their support here this week for a $46 million campaign being mounted by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to help ease poverty among elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union.

Federations are slated to commit, on a pro-rated, voluntary basis, $10 million a year to the effort over two years. The amounts they contribute to the effort will be credited as increases in their allocations to the UJA.

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