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Jewish Agency Report Suggests Changes in Former Soviet Union

February 22, 1996
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A new report about the Jewish Agency for Israel’s activities in the former Soviet Union could change the way the agency functions in Russia, Ukraine and elsewhere.

The report received a mixed response this week when the agency’s Board of Governors’ Committee on the FSU and Eastern Europe met during the quarterly meetings of the full board.

Board members formed a subcommittee to study the report and determine how – or whether – the recommendations should be implemented.

While acknowledging the difficult conditions under which “dedicated employees [work] day and night to rescue Jews,” the report is critical of some of the agency’s methodology.

It calls on the body to decentralize its activities in the former Soviet Union and at the same time to unify all the units’ operational budgets.

A primary task of the Jewish Agency in the former Soviet Union is to help Jews immigrate to Israel. It is also involved in Jewish educational and cultural programs, which are intended to strengthen Jewish identity and connection with Israel.

The report, commissioned by the agency, reflects the efforts by Jewish Agency Chairman Avraham Burg to reform and consolidate the financially strapped entity.

Another of Burg’s reform plans, which was approved “in principle” by the board’s plenum, calls for the establishment of an Israeli fund-raising campaign and an international endowment fund “to ensure the future of the Jewish people.”

Since he took over the helm of the agency a year ago, Burg has made it his trademark to advocate for a more balanced partnership between Israeli and Diaspora Jews.

The Israeli campaign would seek to raise more than $40 million within five years.

According to a Jewish Agency statement, the campaign is aimed at “developing Israelis’ personal – rather than governmental – responsibility for the needs of the less fortunate, development of communal identification and broadening the circle of Israelis involved in Jewish Agency activities.”

During its quarterly meetings, the Board of Governors refrained from making further cuts in the agency, which is in the first two years of a five-year austerity plan aimed at cutting $500 million.

Cuts of $110 million in the first two years are now being implemented.

As part of the plan, agency leaders are conducting negotiations with the Israeli government, which has agreed to take over most of the Youth Aliyah program in exchange for the agency taking over the Student Authority and other responsibilities, for an estimated savings of about $60 million.

Meanwhile, members of the FSU and Eastern Europe committee agreed that regionalizing the Jewish Agency’s work into four separate missions – Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia and the Southern Caucasus – would streamline the bureaucracy.

Until now, all of the agency’s former Soviet Union-related decisions have been made in Moscow.

According to Dan Eldar, a researcher who wrote the report, “Given the present scope of the activity, it is difficult to manage all activities from a single center in Moscow through one central FSU delegation.”

In the committee meeting Monday, Burg said of the agency’s task to bring Jews to Israel: “The Central question is how best to change with changing realities, and bring as many as possible as quickly as possible.”

Since 1989, more than 600,000 Jews have immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union. Estimates of the current Jewish population vary widely, with numbers ranging from 500,000 to 2 million.

While committee members concurred that more needs to be done on a regional level, especially in the area of Jewish education and culture, many had reservations about the report.

Summing up the committee’s overall view, Shoshana Cardin, chairwoman of the United Israel Appeal, said, “We believe that regionalization makes sense, given the current structure of the republics.

But, she added, the Russian elections in June “could change this geopolitical reality. The situation could change rapidly, and we must proceed with caution.”

Some committee members, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, questioned the report’s proposed restructuring.

If the plan is approved, the four regional agency heads would report directly to Jerusalem. In addition, the central delegation in Moscow, which until now has overseen all activities in the former Soviet Union, would either be eliminated or lost its decision-making authority.

At least one committee member wondered whether Jerusalem was the “right address” to make all the decisions.

Because the report’s conclusions are complex, Cardin said, it would be “unrealistic to expect them to be implemented by September, as the report suggests.

Meanwhile, Jewish Agency officials publicly said they supported the report.

Chaim Chesler, whose position as head of the central delegation would likely be abolished if the recommendations are implemented, said, “Decentralizing the agency’s activities is the right thing to do at the right time.”

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