NEW YORK, March 26 (JTA) As Jewish federation leaders around North America craft a new process for funding overseas needs, the two agencies that traditionally receive those funds are worried how they will fare under the new system.
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which provides services to needy Jews around the world, has issued a cry of alarm that the new system under consideration would “destabilize” the JDC and weaken its worldwide humanitarian efforts, including its hunger relief project for elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union.
The larger recipient of federation funds, the Jewish Agency for Israel which rescues refugees and resettles them in Israel is not talking of crises and destabilization, but has launched an aggressive public relations campaign among federation leaders to tout the importance of its work.
The JDC’s skittishness and the Jewish Agency’s public relations efforts come as the federations’ umbrella organization, the newly formed United Jewish Communities, struggles with the final stages of its merger from the United Jewish Appeal and the Council of Jewish Federations.
A key reason for the merger and a sticking point in hammering out the final details was the federations’ desire to have greater control over how overseas funds which this year totaled almost $300 million are spent.
Federation leaders from around the country will be meeting in early April for an “owners’ retreat” to decide on various governing policies for the new entity.
Originally, they were also slated to decide on the most contentious issue: whether federations share a collective responsibility to fund overseas needs, and if so, how that should be enforced.
But that decision has now been postponed indefinitely, in part because it is so divisive.
Whatever the outcome of the current process, the way funds raised by American Jews are distributed to help Jews in Israel and around the world will look very different.
Until the merger, which became official in November, federations set aside a percentage of their annual campaign revenues and sent it to the UJA, with the bulk of the funds ending up with the Jewish Agency and the JDC.
But in recent years, allocations flowing from federations through the overseas channel have dropped and federations have expressed a desire to have greater control over how overseas funds are spent. Some are also directly funding other groups, such as the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel and the New Israel Fund.
Local Jewish communities have sharply different views on what sorts of overseas programs American Jews should fund, the extent to which federations have “collective responsibility” for funding them and, if there is collective responsibility, whether the UJC should penalize federations that do not contribute an agreed-upon minimum for overseas needs.
Now a committee composed of representatives from 18 federations, the JDC and the Jewish Agency is charged with prioritizing overseas needs and determining which programs should be “core” those the federations collectively fund and which should be “elective,” projects individual federations will opt to fund.
Leaders of the Overseas Needs Assessment and Distribution Committee, known as ONAD, say no recommendation decisions have yet been made and they stress they do not wish to destabilize either the JDC or the Jewish Agency.
But concerns about the way the process was moving prompted the JDC to submit a resolution to ONAD urging it to provide the same base allocation for the next two years $58.6 million and $4.7 million of hunger relief funding as it received in 1999.
JDC board members drafted the resolution after learning that “federation members on the Committee are considering a freeze” at the 1998 level of basic funding of $57.3 million for JDC and “discontinuing the Hunger Relief Allocation,” which that year totaled $7.2 million, according to a JDC board report obtained by JTA.
The hunger relief allocation was created a few years ago to feed elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union. But many in the federation system have been pressing for the agency to integrate the hunger relief into its regular budget, possibly cutting other programs to free up the money.
JDC’s executive vice president, Michael Schneider, was hesitant about discussing his concerns with JTA, saying the matter was “still in committee” and “we’re not mounting the ramparts yet.”
Alan Jaffe of New York, the chairman of the ONAD committee, described the JDC’s concerns as “premature.”
“There have been a lot of things discussed,” he said. “We’re trying to deal with federations’ desire for change while at the same time trying not to destabilize major service providers.”
One of the key architects of the ONAD process, committee member Robert Aronson, compared the JDC’s anxiety to that of local agencies in his community who “if they think their budget’s being cut, they’ll fight to retain it.”
However Aronson, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, said that instead of leading to budget cuts for the JDC, ONAD by giving communities more say over and thus a greater feeling of connection to international projects is “an opportunity to stop the bleeding in the allocations.”
The Jewish Agency, at least publicly, is expressing confidence that the support it’s “received in the past from the Jews of the world will continue,” said Michael Jankelowitz, a spokesman for the agency.
But the agency has been engaged in a direct public relations effort to individual federations to publicize its activities.
It has launched a weekly e-mail report to promote the agency’s work and been going on the road from federation to federation to boost support for its role.