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Federations Trimming Local Services As They Raise Millions for Soviet Jews

January 1, 1991
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Across the United States, from San Francisco to New York, from Buffalo to Phoenix, the accents of Jewish federation officials may be different, but the words they use are the same: Retrench. Restructure. Merge. Maximize resources. Avoid duplication.

In other words, cut back on services and staff.

For Jewish communities, money is suddenly tight, thanks to a widening recession, growing demand for local services and the pressing needs of tens of thousands of Jews emigrating each month from the Soviet Union.

As the proceeds are tallied up from the United Jewish Appeal’s enormously successful Operation Exodus campaign, which set out to raise a whopping $420 million in 1990 to resettle Soviet Jews in Israel, some federation officials are finding there is little money left to raise for their regular campaigns.

People who contributed generously to what was billed as an emergency campaign for Soviet Jewry are not increasing — and in some cases decreasing — their contributions to their federation general campaigns.

This is particularly worrisome to federation officials, because they know that Operation Exodus will soon be replaced by an even more ambitious campaign to aid the Soviet Jews streaming into Israel, whose migration is accelerating, not slowing down.

At the same time, many federations are having to come up with funds from their local budgets to resettle the 40,000 Soviet Jews who are arriving each year in the United States.


“A lot of us are worried that we will meet the needs of the Soviet Jewish goals and turn around and find that we’ve rendered insecure the domestic Jewish needs,” said Mark Talisman, director of the Washington Action Office of the Council of Jewish Federations.

“What some communities are doing because of their (financial) problems, I’m afraid, is taking from the domestic ledger to meet the Soviet Jewry needs,” he said.

“But what’s the answer? Not to respond to Soviet Jews? That’s a ridiculous concept. It has to happen, and so does everything else.”

In interviews with over a dozen federation directors and financial planners from the 34 largest federations, the massive effort to raise money for Soviet resettlement was described over and over again as a monumental historic opportunity.

But when it came to talk of budgets and local campaigns, the tone changed.

Federations in Boston, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Phoenix and San Francisco, to name a few, raised less money for their general campaigns in 1990 than they did in 1989. In many cases, this followed equally weak campaigns for 1989.

Federations fund a variety of local agencies and institutions designed to aid and strengthen the Jewish community, including Hebrew schools and old age homes, counseling services and hospitals, cultural projects and community centers.

Such projects have been imperiled by many federations’ flat, or in some cases reduced, general campaigns over the past two years.

“Most of our leaders would be pleased just to break even, given the money needed for Soviet Jews,” said Rick Meyer, executive director of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, which eliminated two staff positions in the last year because of shrinking campaigns.


While Milwaukee raised an impressive $7 million for Soviet resettlement, the $9 million it raised in its 1990 regular campaign was 2.1 percent less than it raised the year before. That put a squeeze on local recipients of campaign dollars.

“Local agencies worked very hard to find alternative sources of revenue,” said Meyer. “But if this happens another year or so, you will see agencies cutting back directly on services.”

In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the federation set out to raise $4 million for Operation Exodus and another $600,000 for local resettlement of Soviet Jews, officials said. While most of this has been raised, local agencies had their 1990 budgets slashed by 18 percent below the 1989 figures.

In Hartford, Conn., the federation closed an office that provided counseling to teen-agers and families in the eastern suburbs. Those providing the services agreed to continue working on a volunteer basis, but the office had to remain shut for lack of money, explained Cindy Chazan, assistant executive director for the Greater Hartford Jewish Federation.

As of February, all Jewish agencies in Hartford will have to take a 10 percent cut in their budgets. And as to what will happen the following year, “that’s between you, me and God,” said Chazan.

As Hartford federation officials take stock after three years of basically reduced campaigns once inflation is taken into account, their goal is to make cuts in such a way that the community remains intact.

“We don’t want to create shells of institutions,” said Chazan. “We don’t want to dissolve the community. So when things come back, we’ll have something to come back to.”

In New York, the Board of Jewish Education, funded by the UJA-Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, has had to close part of a library serving both Jewish and non-Jewish teachers, along with eliminating some staff positions in the agency.

“We are straining to keep our head above water,” said Alvin Schiff, executive vice president. The Board of Jewish Education has also had to reduce the number of days its five teacher centers throughout the city are open.


Such restrictions come at a time when demands for better and wider Jewish educational programs are being heard from all sections of the Jewish community, Schiff pointed out.

Many federations, as a way to ease pressure on their own agencies, have cut back drastically on what they allocate to national Jewish agencies.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Fort Lauderdale decreased its allocations to national agencies by 20 percent, while the Jewish Federation of South Broward, also in Florida, chopped its portion by 64.5 percent, according to figures provided by CJF.

The effect on national agencies is hard to measure, as many of these agencies have other sources of revenue, such as their own fund-raising campaigns or federal grants.

But there have been at least some cutbacks. The American Jewish Committee reduced its 300-strong staff by 40 positions last year, and American Jewish Congress lost four positions, officials of those agencies said.

Still, there is no talk of forgoing the responsibility to aid Soviet Jews so as to save money for local or national needs.

If asked to raise more money for Soviet Jews, “we don’t have a choice, we have to do what we have to do,” said Kenneth Bierman, executive director for the Jewish Federation of Greater Fort Lauderdale.

“It’s going to be a bitch, real hard, but we’ve got to rise to the occasion,” said an official from another major federation. “We have to impress upon people that we have no choice.”

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