World ORT joins the overseas funding fray


We’ve paid much attention recently to the struggle between the two primary overseas arms of the Jewish federation system — the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee — as the two squabble with each other, and to varying degrees try to pressure the federations into giving them more money.

Often forgotten in the brouhaha is that the federations actually have a third, albeit relatively minor partner in World ORT. While JDC and the Jewish Agency jockey over the approximately $130 million the federations will divide between them for core unrestricted dollars this year, World ORT recently made it known that it also was displeased with the way money is disbursed.

World ORT, which runs Jewish vocational schools in some 60 countries, experienced something of a windfall when it raised $2.7 million at its annual gala in late April. Since then its director general, Robert Singer, has been making the rounds saying that the money is necessary because the Jewish Federations of North America will be cutting its allocation to World ORT from $3.6 million in 2009 to $3.1 million in 2010 to $2.6 million in 2011.

Singer, who reached out to The Fundermentalist, was especially ticked at the move because, he said, the JFNA made its cut without ever meeting with his organization. The JFNA’s CEO, Jerry Silverman, recently agreed to Singer’s request for a meeting.

But Singer still sounded as if he felt like the forgotten man.

“We understand the financial difficulty in raising money in this financial environment,” he told us via telephone from Helsinki. “But we are part of the family, and when there is a financial shortfall, the family sits together and decides about the priorities. Just have to sit together and decide about the priorities.”

Singer had two requests:

  1. “As we are a member of family, people have to sit with us at the senior level on the level of parents. This discussion has not taken place,” he said. “We are looking forward to it happening.” 
  2. “We think that once funds are up — and even when funds are down — a global review of the funding should take place,” he said. “We are extremely happy for any review. The last two reviews, every time there was a review, our funding was increased. We are asking for fair treatment.”

The total core overseas allocation from federations decreased by more than 28 percent from 2004 to 2009, but the World ORT allocation remained the same at more than $3.6 million, according to the JFNA. Therefore, it was necessary to make an "equitable adjustment" to the World ORT allocation, in line with other adjustments, according to the JFNA.

Silverman said he would be happy to meet with World ORT to discuss overseas allocations.

"In fact, we are already in dialogue about a needs assessment process, and I am going to be meeting with their leadership soon," Silverman said in a statement to The Fundermentalist.

Fundermentalist’s take: World ORT’s argument for federation dollars is almost exactly the same as that of JDC — the organization has a global budget of about $42 million, the vast majority of which comes from designated funding for specific projects. It has a core budget of $8 million, of which the federation money makes up nearly half. That money is the hardest to raise, and the organization relies on the federation to provide the funding that is essentially its lifeline — and that it can leverage for tens of millions of dollars more from entities such as the Israeli government for specific projects.

The money “is critical, and cutting it will bring the closure of many of our operations,” Singer said.

About three quarters of the students at the schools are Jewish — a figure that drops significantly when looking at the schools outside of Israel. World ORT schools dedicate eight to 10 hours per week to Jewish studies.

The conspiracy theorist in me wonders if World ORT and JDC had coordinated in some way on their respective pitches. After all, the two organizations already are closely aligned: The JDC will be giving World ORT about $400,000 raised by the federations for Haiti relief, allowing World ORT to build a youth village and school outside of Port-au-Prince. At one point, the JFNA had even suggested that World ORT’s funding come out of JDC’s portion — a proposal shot down by the JDC.

Singer denied that his plea was planned with the JDC.

“We are not partial from this point of view,” he said. “I even did not discuss this with Steve Schwager in the last five to six weeks. A discussion like this did not take place between us and JDC or JAFI.”

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