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Dispute on Ujc’s Overseas Funding Reopened As N.Y. Federation Balks

January 21, 2004
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

A controversial decision on funds for the North American Jewish federation system’s overseas partners, which appeared to have been settled last month, has been reopened after a major federation had second thoughts.

After an intensive two-year review, the United Jewish Communities’ Overseas Needs Assessment and Distribution Committee, known as ONAD, agreed Dec. 8 to maintain the current split in funding between the Jewish Agency for Israel, which runs immigration and absorption in Israel and Zionist education worldwide, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which operates relief and welfare programs.

Under a compromise agreement, the federation system agreed to transfer $144 million — or 75 percent — of an expected $187 million to be raised next year for overseas needs to the Jewish Agency. The remaining $43 million would go to the JDC.

The committee also agreed to raise an additional $20 million to divide evenly between the two groups. Some $6 million of that would come out of an “elective” reserve that federations can give to overseas programs of their choosing.

But now the UJC has decided to remove a resolution approving the ONAD decision from the agenda when the organization’s board of trustees holds its winter meeting next week, following opposition from the UJA- Federation of New York.

The New York federation’s move threatens to upset the Dec. 8 agreement.

The Jewish Agency and the JDC have been battling over a shrinking pot of overseas funds in recent years, as some federations have ignored ONAD funding recommendations to fund their own overseas projects or spend more dollars locally.

The creation of the UJC umbrella organization, formed in 1999 from a merger of the United Jewish Appeal, Council of Jewish Federations and United Israel Appeal, was designed in large part to reverse declining overseas allocations.

The New York federation’s opposition will test the UJC’s effectiveness as ONAD seeks to resolve the issue.

UJC’s CEO and president, Stephen Hoffman, sought to downplay the move.

“We’re not finished processing ONAD,” he told JTA. “On the 8th we had agreement on the outline of the declaration. We’re putting words to it, and we’re not finished. That’s all.”

A letter drafted Jan. 9 by New York federation leaders, but never sent, said more analysis was needed on the issue. JTA obtained a copy of the draft.

The draft letter criticized the popular argument that moving money away from Israel weakens federations’ commitment to the Jewish state. It also criticized the proposal to reduce federations’ elective funding for their preferred overseas projects and the promise to boost overall overseas funding — a goal New York finds unrealistic.

“We intend to move to table the ONAD resolution at the meeting of the board. If such a motion is judged to be ‘out of order’ because of the UJC bylaws regarding ONAD, we will cast a negative vote and encourage other Federations to join with us,” said the draft letter from New York’s federation president, Larry Zicklin, Board Chairman Morris Offit and Executive Vice President and CEO John Ruskay.

It’s unclear how many communities back New York’s move.

Of the 18 communities represented on ONAD, only Boston opposed the Dec. 8 vote. The four “large-intermediate” communities represented — Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Columbus and Phoenix — abstained.

“Preserving and expanding the electives is important,” said Barry Shrage, president of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies. “I think we needed to have a real discussion, a more thorough discussion of the issues.”

The size and sway of the New York federation are sure to influence the process.

“I think that New York’s input is extremely significant, and I think the ONAD committee has to discuss New York’s concerns,” said Max Kleinman, executive vice president of United Jewish Communities of Metrowest, in New Jersey.

Some say that federation leaders’ hesitation on such a major decision reflects the system’s weakness.

“The only way UJC can be successful is if the best federations, having voted for a resolution, support their vote with their actions,” said Richard Wexler, vice chairman of UJC and chairman of the North American council of the Jewish Agency. “The best way to assure failure is to walk away from the votes you’ve made.”

Others call the process normal and healthy.

“There’s never been any decision made in the federation system that somebody doesn’t have another thought about later,” Hoffman told JTA.

In any case, the debate over overseas allocations remains one of the most persistent in the federation system. The latest development only underscores the protracted politics over the dollars and programs at stake.

“Round 1 to Ruskay,” one federation insider said.

For many federation officials and activists, the ability to raise funds from federations throughout North America for needy Jews abroad represents the common goal of a system that, after four years, still is seeking to establish itself.

“One of the promises of the new UJC was that it would be the forum in which overseas needs were assessed and then funds allocated based on those needs,” said Sam Salkin, CEO of the Jewish community federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties. “Consensus in the ONAD context becomes very important because it’s the glue that holds us together, and we need to be held together.”

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