Emergency fund to respond to crises


CHICAGO, Nov. 21 (JTA) – Spurred by Israeli requests for financial assistance, the North American federation system is creating a $10 million emergency fund so that it can promptly respond to crises and catastrophes around the Jewish world.

The proposal for an emergency fund grew out of frustration that the United Jewish Communities could not quickly help Israel after its earlier-than- anticipated withdrawal from Lebanon in May, said Charles Bronfman, UJC’s chairman of the board.

At the time, Israeli officials asked Jewish leaders, “Please send missions over and please be prepared to send money,” said Bronfman.

The funds were requested to help provide humanitarian and social services for Israel’s northern border communities.

“It would’ve been wonderful to be able to say, here’s $5 million to keep you going,” said Bronfman.

The creation of the emergency fund – which will also be used for domestic needs and will collected from individual federations – was one of several decisions approved at the UJC’s board of trustees meeting at the General Assembly in Chicago last week.

Also decided at the G.A.:

• The UJC will borrow $500,000 from its endowment to develop comprehensive Web sites for Jewish federations. The effort, called FedWeb, will pilot in four cites – San Francisco, Las Vegas, Atlanta and Tidewater, Va. – and will enable federations to provide Internet content more efficiently.

• The UJC will launch weekly solidarity missions to Israel, beginning after Thanksgiving and lasting indefinitely. The missions are intended to show support for Israel at a time of isolation and major loss of tourism dollars.

• The UJC delegate assembly approved nine resolutions on topics ranging from the Middle East to support for Jews in the former Soviet Union and a call for Jewish organizations to offer more services for the growing number of Jews who adopt children.

When Israel made its request to North American Jewry around the world after its withdrawal from Lebanon, the UJC did send missions over, and is raising $500,000 to provide programs next summer for Israeli children living near the border.

Had the planned fund existed in May, it is unclear whether the border needs would have qualified as an emergency, but “we would like to be in position to consider such a request,” said Stephen Solender, the UJC’s president and chief executive officer.

The now-defunct Council of Jewish Federations, which merged with the United Jewish Appeal and the United Israel Appeal to form the UJC, had an emergency fund for domestic needs.

But the new fund will be the first such reserve to also include overseas needs, said Solender.

The UJC is defining catastrophic events as incidents impacting the security of Israel, imminent danger for Jewish populations around the world and natural or man-made emergencies that adversely impact a Jewish community.

A special UJC committee will be created to assess emergency situations as they arise. UJC officials will meet with local federation leaders in the coming weeks to determine how much each federation will contribute.

Of the reserves, $1.2 million will be earmarked for disasters and emergencies in North America.

While the emergency fund and FedWeb proposals both passed, the debate over these decisions illustrated an emerging split between the UJC’s large and small member federations.

Large-city federations and smaller ones have vastly different resources available and disparate expectations of the year-old UJC.

Under the merger, the federations are the “owners” of the UJC and control its agenda and major decisions.

In recent months, the differences between small and large federations have also come to the fore in discussions over the UJC’s budget.

In general, the large federations, which rely far less on services from the umbrella organization, have urged the UJC to cut its budget, whereas smaller federations have expressed concerns that such cuts would diminish the services upon which they depend.

With the emergency fund, several large federations – including Detroit, Baltimore and New York – initially opposed it, complaining that the proposal was too vague, particularly in how the money would be collected.

“If I went to my board at home and said we have to set up a fund but we don’t know where the money is coming from, they would laugh me out of the room,” said Penny Blumenstein, president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.

The large federations are expected to contribute the bulk of the money for the fund.

In response to the large federations’ concerns, Bronfman said the resolution will not be implemented until it meets with individual federations and gets financial commitments from them.

But he made clear his desire to make it happen.

“When we announce to the world that we have $7 billion in assets, and we sit around and say in an emergency we can’t afford to give $3 million to $4 million, I think we look pretty stupid,” he said.

While the large federations almost balked at the emergency fund, the small federations threatened to block the FedWeb, complaining that the fees charged for the proposed service – $250 to $500 for small federations – would be out of their reach.

FedWeb is a system being designed by UJC that will provide federation Web sites with easy-to-use site development tools, a wide range of news and feature content, and software modules that will enable federations to collect donations online, register people for events, distribute publications and provide various interactive features on the Internet, such as message boards and discussion groups.

The smaller federations, while eager to have Web sites, expressed concern that the FedWeb project is too extravagant and will cost more than they can afford.

Howard Ross, executive director of the Northern Louisiana Jewish Federation, said, “I question whether we need a Rolls Royce when a Chevrolet will do the job.”

In the end, the small federations agreed to approve the plan, on the condition that the UJC consider lowering the fees for small federations.

As for the positions passed by the UJC board of delegates, the following are some highlights from those related to the Middle East:

• In an “expression of solidarity,” the UJC resolved to demonstrate solidarity with Israel through national and local programming, to use funds to “provide the resources required in Israel to address ongoing social service needs, particularly as that country is required to redeploy its own resources to meet the current crisis,” and to continue to develop Birthright Israel and other Israel Experience programs.

• On the Middle East crisis, the UJC adopted a statement declaring that “responsibility for the violence falls squarely on the shoulders of Chairman Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority.” It also rejects the recent United Nations resolutions condemning Israel, praises Prime Minister Ehud Barak for his peacemaking efforts and calls upon the next U.S. president and Congress to “continue to view Israel’s security and the achievement of peace in the Middle East as matters of high American national interest.”

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