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Israel Will Be Front and Center at Federations’ Annual Gathering

October 28, 2003
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In a few weeks, Israel will see one of its largest influxes of Jewish visitors since the intifada started three years ago.

An estimated 3,800 North American visitors have sold out Jerusalem’s hotels for mid-November, when the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group of the North American federation system, will hold its annual General Assembly.

Israel itself will be the main attraction of the three-day event, beginning Nov. 16 — with plenaries and chit-chat likely to center on the state of the Jewish state amid continuing terrorist attacks and economic hardship.

Called “With Israel, In Israel: Shaping Our Common Future,” the 2003 General Assembly will feature a welcome by Israel’s president and prime minister, as well as site visits throughout the country.

Participants will visit programs linked to the Jewish religious denominations, meet with Israeli children in poverty- stricken areas and visit Palestinian and Israeli women coming together to cope with breast cancer.

Also planned are a Jerusalem solidarity march, Jewish text study, a lecture on hatred of America, Israel and Jews, and a Partnership 2000 fair, showcasing sister communities between North America and Israel.

Because of an “extraordinary powerful” 1998 General Assembly in Israel, federation officials decided they would hold the annual event in Israel every few years, said John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of the UJA- Federation of New York.

“It’s galvanizing, it’s inspiring, it’s motivating,” he said. “The downside is that policy issues need to be dealt with elsewhere.”

For the UJC, that means that for the time being its own struggles will shift to the back burner.

Since its inception, the four-year old merger of the Council of Jewish Federations, the United Jewish Appeal and the United Israel Appeal has wrestled with a surfeit of complaints from local federations, which have criticized the UJC for failing to provide “value-added” services or a clear direction, and for its inability to drum up sufficient funding from individual federations for the UJC’s overseas partners.

Now, the system is further strained by a search process to find a successor for CEO Stephen Hoffman, whose three- year tenure is up next fall.

While such issues are not expressly found on the G.A. agenda, they remain a backdrop for discussion and figure prominently in the minds of federation leaders on the eve of the annual convention.

Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies and the former top official of the UJA-Federation of New York, echoed the views of many in the system when he outlined three key issues UJC faces:

A trend in which Americans have doubled their philanthropic gifts over the last decade, while donations to major Jewish institutions, including the federation system, have remained fairly stagnant. Jewish organizations are no longer on the “leading edge” of philanthropic growth, he said.

The “reshtetlization” of Jewish philanthropy — that is, communities are focusing on their local needs as opposed to what Solomon calls “our historic collective responsibility commitment” to funding Jewish needs abroad.

The “recruitment and retention of the best and brightest professionals.”

“These three issues are among the compelling measures of the system’s success,” Solomon said.

Jacob Solomon, executive vice president of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, who bears no relation to Jeffrey Solomon, said the UJC is already “tracking toward the positive.”

“I think everybody underestimated the challenges of merging the UJA and CJF,” he said. The UJC is “beginning to have its own identity,” improve its services to local federations and “develop a new consolidated organizational culture.”

Solomon said the UJC has become a “convenient scapegoat” for “a lot of angst” among Jewish communities and UJC’s overseas partners amid a “very frightening time in Jewish history.”

But in the face of that history, many federation leaders lament a lack of “collectivity” — a buzzword for two of the federation system’s prevailing struggles:

One is what many have called the “unsolvable” issue of uniting federation leaders around priorities. That ranges from funding priorities to the role and responsibility of the umbrella group in the wider federation system.

The second is what many cite as a lack of understanding and urgency about funding the UJC’s overseas beneficiaries — the Jewish Agency for Israel, which runs aliyah and absorption, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which provides relief and welfare to Jews abroad.

The UJC has just begun to form an overseas advocacy committee to persuade federations to disburse more dollars overseas, according to Robert Schrayer of Chicago, UJC’s vice chairman.

The UJC planned to form the committee 10 months ago to help spur giving among the federations, which have increasingly chosen over the past decade to allocate more funds to local needs such as care for the elderly and Jewish identity-building programs.

A long-awaited decision to determine allocations between the JDC and the Jewish Agency was postponed from September to December.

Without the connection among Jewish communities here and abroad, the system risks losing its relevance, say federation leaders.

While sufficiently funding UJC’s overseas partners has been a longtime federation concern — the UJC was formed, in part, to boost overseas funding — many say the merger only exacerbated the problem.

Federation leaders, which now own the entire system, never fully absorbed the UJA mentality, which was charged with soliciting for and allocating funding overseas. The merger, they say, instead highlighted divergent mentalities between those who support bolstering overseas needs and those more concerned with local needs.

Meanwhile, some say they hope that holding the conference in Israel will help pull the delegates’ heartstrings — and purse-strings — for overseas needs.

In fact, the UJC is subsidizing the trip for participants from the 100 federated communities sending a mission to the General Assembly, in exchange for a commitment by those participants to join their mission’s fund-raiser at the event.

The conference will be “one of the largest fund-raising efforts in one place that I’ve been aware of,” said Jay Sarver, former president of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis and chairman of budget and finance for the Jewish Agency. “I see this as a key opportunity for the broad-based leadership of American Jewry to see first-hand the needs of the Jewish Agency and JDC in Israel.”

Marlene Post, chairwoman of birthright israel USA, agreed. Investing in Israel should be the paramount point of the conference, Post said, and if the event inspires federations to shift their funds overseas, “then the G.A. was a success.”

But Miami’s Solomon rejected the idea that the UJC is failing its overseas partners.

“How can you say that we’re not adequately focused on overseas when the system generated $350 million for an emergency campaign?” he said, referring to the special campaign launched in response to the intifada.

Others say the UJC’s emergency campaign came up short.

While proud of the “significant money,” that was raised, said Steven Terner, executive director of South Carolina’s Columbia Jewish Federation, “I don’t think we can rest because there was so much more that could have been done, should have been done, and I wish was done.”

Terner said his comments are representative of the group of more than 60 small-city federations, which he heads.

“As terrible as things are in Israel, the American Jewish community has not totally embraced the importance of what’s going on,” Terner said.

And that seems to be the aim of those attending this year’s General Assembly.

“Most of the people aren’t going to engage in internal workings of the federation,” said Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella group of national organizations and local community relations councils.

“They’re there to show solidarity with Israel and visit their sister communities,” she said, and to “be briefed on what’s going on at close range.”

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