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Federation System Retains Status Quo in Allocating Bulk of Overseas Dollars

December 10, 2003
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One of the most heated battles within the North American federation system — how to fund Jewish needs abroad — has ended for now.

But the struggle to raise those funds is not over.

In a meeting in New York on Monday, members of the United Jewish Communities’ committee charged with recommending the distribution of funds for Jewish needs overseas decided to maintain the current split in allocations between its two chief overseas partners.

Now, it’s up to the federations to implement the committee’s decision.

The Overseas Needs Assessment and Distribution Committee, known as ONAD, decided to allocate $144 million — or 75 percent — of an expected $187 million to be raised next year for overseas needs to the Jewish Agency for Israel, which runs immigration, absorption and Zionist education programs, according to the UJC.

The other 25 percent — or $43 million — will go to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which runs Jewish relief and welfare programs abroad, primarily in Israel, the former Soviet Union and Argentina.

In addition, the committee called for an extra $20 million to be split evenly between the two groups.

The long-awaited decision by ONAD was a compromise proposal put forth by Steven Nasatir, president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

Intended to cover two years, the decision is expected to be approved next month by the UJC’s board of trustees.

But the key question facing the federation system remains: Will the individual federations comply with the recommendations or ignore them?

The compromise decision comes amid increased scrutiny of the ONAD process, which was launched with the inception of the UJC four years ago and is considered a bellwether of the federation system’s success and efficiency.

It also caps a two-year process that sought to consider whether the changing situation of Jewish needs abroad warranted a change in the allocation of resources that has held steady since the beginning of the 1990s.

One proposal offered in the committee sought an increase in funds to the JDC.

Advocates of the JDC had argued that with decreasing aliyah, or immigration to Israel, and increasing economic needs among Jews around the world, it was time to reassess spending priorities.

For its part, the Jewish Agency says it has decreased its budget and is hard-pressed to address the many absorption needs of new immigrants, which has become a major focus of the Jewish Agency.

Pressure to keep the status quo came from Israeli officials, including Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Labor Party leader Shimon Peres.

The allocations decision has pleased some federation players and left others frustrated. It also has raised questions about whether the ONAD system will live on.

“I think, based on yesterday’s actions, the future of ONAD is in doubt,” said the chairman of the ONAD committee, Steven Klinghoffer.

Others disagreed. Larry Jackier, president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit and co-chairman of an ONAD committee on social welfare outside of Israel said, “I don’t think it’s in doubt. I do think that it’s an evolving process and I think the people of ONAD recognize that.”

“You have to make painful, difficult decisions all the time about valid, competing, important needs throughout the Jewish world. That requires you to make compromises and do the best you can under the circumstances,” Jackier said.

ONAD is made up of 18 communities and representatives from the Jewish Agency and the JDC. Among committee members, 13 communities voted for the compromise proposal, along with the representatives of the Jewish Agency and the JDC.

Boston was the only federation to oppose the proposal. The four “large-intermediate” communities represented on ONAD — Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Columbus and Phoenix — abstained.

Monday’s meeting followed a lengthy process that included intense lobbying by the two agencies, a mountain of paperwork and a series of overseas fact-finding missions during which both agencies demonstrated their particular needs to the ONAD committee.

The UJC was created in part to reverse a trend that saw fewer federation dollars going overseas and ONAD was the channel to do it. The UJC’s creation also was meant to democratize the process by employing a cross-section of North American federations to review agency requests.

Instead, it has failed to boost actual dollars overseas, with several federations ignoring ONAD’s recommendations. And UJC’s overseas partners have become embroiled in a maze of hostile politics, pitted against each other for dwindling resources.

While the UJC touted the decision in a news release Monday as an overall increase in overseas allocations, each individual federation has the power to determine its own overseas allocations.

At least one federation that abstained from the vote said it had done so because it was not ready to commit to an increase in overseas funding.

Marsha Hurwitz, president and CEO of the Columbus Jewish Federation in Ohio, said her community supports the principle of generating more funds for overseas needs, but, she said, without consulting others in the community, “we felt we were not in a position to make the commitment that we could achieve that goal.”

The UJC also has taken heat from federation leaders for its failure to create a mechanism to lobby federations for overseas funding, despite a decision to do so nearly a year ago.

Stephen Hoffman, president and CEO of the UJC, told JTA after Monday’s meeting that the UJC has a plan to promote the need for more overseas funding.

“We intend to map out a very personal tailored discussion with each community over the next 120 days,” he said.

Hoffman said he thinks it’s a sound strategy because the overseas picture is “driving campaign growth in this particular moment.”

Apart from the $187 million, known as core funding, the system expects to allocate an additional $32 million in elective funds, which each individual community decides how to spend overseas.

Of the $20 million additional funds ONAD decided to seek to split between the two groups, $6 million will be transferred from the elective funds and an additional $14 million will be raised from the federations, according to UJC officials.

Many view that prospect with skepticism, considering the fact that federations have fallen short even of core recommendations in the past.

But officials from both the JDC and the Jewish Agency praised the effort and the system.

“It was as good and as fair a decision as it can be,” said Carole Solomon, chairman of the board of the governors of the Jewish Agency.

“They’ve responded to the Israelis by their decision today,” she said. “The decision that was reached was not a ceiling; it was a floor.”

“JDC heartily endorses the ONAD committee decision,” said the JDC’s executive vice president, Steven Schwager. “The system produced a solution which deals with needs in Israel, Argentina and the former Soviet Union.”

Many praised the capacity of the relatively new system to come to a compromise. Some others, however, seemed disgruntled — especially those who had supported a boost in funds for the JDC.

One member of the ONAD committee said the analysis and work that went into the decision largely was ignored in response to political pressure from the Jewish Agency.

But, the member allowed, “Sometimes political compromise is necessary to allow you to take the next step.”

Nasatir, whose federation in Chicago is heavily oriented toward the Jewish Agency, rejected the idea that the compromise came as a response to political pressure.

“What I’m feeling is needs,” he said. “I think we’re not providing enough money overseas in general.”

He said Jews are telling federations they want to send their money to Israel.

“So how can we come up with any decision that doesn’t result in more dollars for Israel? And by the same token, how can we come up with any decision that doesn’t recognize the hunger in the former Soviet Union and the breakdown in Argentina?”

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