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Focus on Issues: Jewish Agency Seeks New Form in Bid to Hold on to Federations

March 12, 1997
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The Jewish Agency for Israel is trying to transform itself in a way that finds favor with local federations, which are a lifeline for the organization but which are re-examining that role.

Federations across the United States provide half the agency’s $400 million annual budget.

In an important signal of reform, the agency unveiled a new restructuring plan at a meeting of its Board of Governors here late last month.

In a strike for efficiency, the agency would take over the bulk of the operations of its organizational partner, the World Zionist Organization.

And in a big step toward depoliticization, it would rein in its vast Jewish education authority. A more systematic authority would help the agency “make Jewish identity-building a top priority,” said Avraham Burg, chairman of the Jewish Agency.

The aim of the plan is as clear as the stakes are high.

In September, the federation system’s so-called exclusivity contract with the agency expires.

That contract obliges the federations to funnel the Israel allocations from their local fund-raising campaigns to the agency via the United Jewish Appeal and the United Israel Appeal.

The agency, therefore, is under intense pressure to demonstrate to federation leadership that it is an efficient operation performing a meaningful mission. Under Burg’s leadership, it has undertaken a dramatic fiscal recovery plan that has already eliminated the annual deficit.

“The question is,” said one insider who asked not to be named, “will communities and major contributors have the patience to see this through? Some think it’s too late.”

The Jewish Agency probably is best known as the entity responsible for the “ingathering of exiles” from all corners of the earth and their absorption in Israel.

That is the historical mandate assigned it on behalf of world Jewry by the government of Israel shortly after the founding of the state.

In recent years, the agency has brought more than 700,000 immigrants to Israel, mostly from the former Soviet Union.

But the end of mass aliyah is now in sight, with the influx from the former Soviet Union expected to taper off in the next five to 10 years.

At the same time, priorities among Diaspora donors are changing as they repeatedly hear reports of Israel’s robust economy from the prime minister himself.

They and their dollars are more urgently occupied by local needs intensified by both welfare cuts and the realization that better jewish education is the best antidote to assimilation.

These developments are reflected in a decline in overseas allocations from the annual campaigns run by federations in concert with UJA.

While the figure varies from one community to another, the total allocation overseas has dropped from about 51 percent of the gross campaign 12 years ago to less than 42 percent today.

That trend is being further fueled by protest in some quarters that the Jewish Agency is not giving enough money to non-Orthodox streams of Judaism in Israel. It allocates about $1 million annually each to Reform, Conservative and Orthodox institutions and programs.

All these changes have left the agency’s leaders scrambling to redefine their long-term mission and to debate the long-awaited proposal for restructuring. The plan is slated for action by the full agency assembly in June in Jerusalem.

In an apparent indication of the high stakes, members retreated to the Dead Sea, away from the distractions of Jerusalem, their usual meeting place.

Indeed, agency defenders say that if the latest salesmanship efforts fail among federations, centralized philanthropy to Israel could splinter into myriad donor-directed grants to other causes and institutions.

And that, they say, would place at risk the only forum where a diverse world Jewry can meet and decide policy for common concerns.

Joel Tauber, immediate past president of UJA, was upbeat about developments at the Dead Sea. “A process like this moves us closer to what the federations would like to see happen,” he said. It “provides more say for the Diaspora than before,” especially in the area of education.

But the president of the Council of Jewish Federations, Dr. Conrad Giles, sounded a more cautious note.

“It is important to realize that this is only part of the process required to convince the federation system that JAFI should be their exclusive address for answering Israel’s needs.”

He said he could not anticipate the response of the federations until they discuss the matter at their quarterly meetings in April.

Meanwhile, he said he believed the agency could be “repaired and redirected” to continue serving the system.

“The alternative is frightening.” he said, referring to the possibility that “the Diaspora would give up its ability to collectively impact Israeli society.”

At the meetings, communal affairs scholar Gerald Bubis underscored the urgency of the delegates’ task.

“The future of JAFI will be decided in the marketplace of Jewish life. If change, where and when it is appropriate, is not forthcoming, JAFI will wither from lack of support and use.”

Members took up Bubis’ challenge and passionately debated their visions of the agency’s future in daylong strategic planning sessions.

There was broad consensus that the agency must continue to be responsible for aliyah and the physical rescue of Jews, at the same time that it should expand its mission of “spiritual rescue.”

In that vein, delegates said the agency should play the central role in preserving the Israel-Diaspora bond and strengthening worldwide Jewish identity and peoplehood.

To that end, they called for the agency to make education an even higher priority.

Above all, it was clear the Jewish Agency no longer wants to be viewed as a Diaspora “charity” for Israel, but as a unique vehicle for partnership in service to all Jewry.

Such brainstorming, however, was clearly for the long term.

The restructuring plan is the agency’s attempt to prove immediately that it is rationalizing its system so that it can effectively implement its objectives.

Highlights of the proposal include:

Folding the bulk of operations of the WZO into the agency, consolidating the two administrations and stopping agency funding of the WZO in two years.

The WZO long has been a partner organization funded by the agency, with a separate administration and budget. Only a few WZO functions are slated to remain.

Taking over the Joint Authority for Jewish and Zionist education.

The authority has been a semi-autonomous joint venture of the agency and the WZO, fraught with politics that have been a source of frustration for many federations.

Setting up four departments or “pillars” around immigration and absorption, education, Israel and the former Soviet Union.

Giving the director general of the agency control over all departments rather than have each department be semi-autonomous.

Eliminating paid politically appointed Israeli heads of departments, long viewed by the fund-raising establishment as wasteful political patronage jobs.

Some critics felt that the plan did not go far enough to reform the agency and that the changes were only cosmetic.

But one highly placed U.S. fund-raiser said the plan would strike a positive chord back home.

“What the Jewish Agency had to create was visible, demonstrable change” that indicates that “it understands the pressures on the ground in the federation system,” he said.

“What it achieved was a significant step in that direction,” he said.

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