Will the federations buy into the Jewish Agency shift?


Will the federations buy into the Jewish Agency shift? Natan Sharansky, the new chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, made some waves earlier this month when he formally announced that he would be shifting the focus of the agency from promoting immigration to Israel toward building Jewish identity worldwide.

The plan, which was devised in part with Dellouite consulting, will go into full effect in 2011 and will be reflected in next year’s budget. But Sharansky wants to start pushing the agency in the direction of identity building now, whether it means beefing up its MASA program or becoming more active in Israel advocacy on American college campuses. 

“We are talking about building bridges between Israel and the Diaspora, strengthening the Jewish community in the Diaspora and strengthening the Jewish identity in Israel,” Sharansky said in his state of the agency address in Jerusalem at the organization’s board of governor’s meetings last week.

Gal Beckerman at the Forward has an excellent look into why Sharansky is pushing this change.

And I think that the situation can be summed up in these two paragraphs:

"Ever since the establishment of Israel in 1948, the agency has been financed through a combination of Israeli government funds and money from the Diaspora. In the Agency’s heyday, North American Jewish federations regularly contributed between 50% and 70% of the money they raised every year to fund it. But as the large-scale immigration to Israel began to ebb, so, too, did this source of money. By 2004, the last year for which the Jewish Agency provided this statistic, only 23% of combined Jewish federation money was being sent overseas, to be split by the agency, which received 75%, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which got the remaining 25%.

"By now it is clear that this source of money has long since dried up. Whereas in 1989, the Jewish Agency received $275 million from the North American federations, last year it received only $130 million, and the projected intake for 2010 is $110 million. Given that Diaspora money makes up one-third of the agency’s budget, the drop has been catastrophic for the large bureaucracy."

Read Beckerman’s full story.

Fundermentalist’s take: The two main questions are whether the Jewish agency’s main funder — the federation system — is buying into the new approach and how much money is the system willing to pay for it.

As it stands now, each federation is obligated to give a set portion of its annual campaign to the Jewish Federations of North America for overseas needs. The JFNA then splits the money according to a set formula, with 75 percent of the funding going to the Jewish Agency and 25 percent to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

This year, because of cuts related to the economy, the federations’ collective allocation to the Jewish Agency will dip to somewhere between $110 million and $120 million.

Some major federations in recent years have started to ignore the split, refusing to hand over such a high proportion to the Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental agency that served as the Jewish government in Palestine prior to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. Historically the federations have been tied to the agency in large part based on the work that it did and does in terms of settling the State of Israel, bringing in new immigrants and helping integrate them into the country. For many decades the connection to the Jewish Agency was a key selling point for federations as they raised money in their local communities.

For many of the big guns in the federation system, this shared history creates a moral obligation for the system to keep the agency afloat, even if the organization is more of a hindrance than a boost in some funding circles these days.

How will this sense of allegiance and obligation be impacted if the Jewish Agency adopts such a major shift in focus? Will federations continue to set aside 75 percent of overseas dollars for the new focus, with only 25 percent going to JDC, which is still heavily engaged in feeding poor and elderly Jews in the far-flung Jewish world? (It is important to note that a similar debate has been taking place within the JDC over whether the organization should continue to focus on social service needs or identity- and community-building efforts, with proponents of the latter option often carrying the day.)

Some major players in the federation system seem to be standing behind Sharansky. Jerry Silverman, the CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, which serves as the pass-through for federation money to the Jewish Agency, declined to be interviewed regarding the matter. But he issued a statement in support of the agency’s new direction.

"The Jewish Federations of North America were privileged to participate in a strategic planning process with our historic partner, the Jewish Agency for Israel, at the recent Board of Governors meeting in Israel, and we are closely aligned with the strategy to drive Jewish identity into all areas of JAFI’s agenda," Silverman said in the statement. "We look forward to working in partnership with JAFI on this new bold plan."

John Ruskay, the CEO of the system’s largest federation, the UJA-Federation of New York — and one federation that has traditionally stood by the agency — said he felt the shift was “overstated,” arguing that Sharansky’s new direction was still really aimed at promoting aliyah, albeit from a backhanded direction.

“Natan Sharansky fully recognizes the abiding responsibility of the Jewish Agency in terms of both promoting and encouraging and facilitating aliyah,” Ruskay said. “However, his conceptual breakthrough is a recognition that identity is now the driving factor for everything we care about. If one does not identify as a Jew, who will consider aliyah? Who will be concerned about feeding hungry Jews in the former Soviet Union or in our own communities? Who will care about securing the Jewish state?”  

The federations will help the agency turn Sharansky’s plan into action, Ruskay said, but he doubted whether the federations would allow the agency to stray too far from its original purpose.

“Let me emphasize I have no doubt the Jewish Agency will continue its commitment to promote and facilitate aliyah,” he said. “Jewish education may be the most effective way to promote aliyah. Even so, we are in a time when pitting aliyah against identity against education against welfare may be anachronistic.” 

Interestingly, the head of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston, Barry Shrage, seemed intrigued by the idea of a paradigm shift for the agency.

Shrage’s federation is among a growing number that is actually not abiding by the 75-25 split. In fact, Shrage said, his federation gives “real close to nothing for the Jewish Agency,” unless it can designate the funding toward a specific project.

“The new direction can be interesting,” he said. “At end of the day aliyah is about relationships and identity. So that makes sense. And a lot of the identity work they are doing is valuable. Their investment in Birthright is valuable. The general idea of MASA is OK. This is sort of an interesting step, particularly if they can free themselves of past viruses and focus. If they want to focus on identity on campus — and I trust Sharansky can do it — he needs to laser light focus on Birthright returnees. 

For instance, Shrage said, the agency would need to “fine tune” MASA to make sure it is geared toward recruiting Birthright alumni for its long-term programs in Israel. But even if such steps are taken, Shrage said, he will not be convinced to buy back into the 75-25 split without the re-establishment of some sort of planning process. “I think the communities that like that idea should follow that idea," he said. "Some like the stability. That will not be us."

The move got a nod of confidence from Steve Hoffman, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Cleveland, and the former CEO of the JFNA’s predecessor, the UJC. But it came with a warning: The Jewish Agency must produce.

“The federations already supported this direction in the past. I think what Sharansky is doing is giving more voice to something that hasn’t been given voice to in the past by the  top because the leadership in the past hasn’t given voice to much of anything,” Hoffman said.

Still, he added, it is up to the agency to prove that it can change and be an effective organization.

Hoffman does believe the federations should fund the agency while it attempts to transition, because it needs stability to do implement the changes. At the same time, he said, the federation system is not necessarily obligated to maintain support for the Jewish Agency if it does not work in its new incarnation. 

“I don’t think we should be bound to anyone who can’t show us how they will make a difference in our world,” Hoffman said, adding “I believe they will. I think Sharansky will articulate the idea and I think their new director general is capable of putting the plan into place. But nobody should take anything for granted.”

Recommended from JTA