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Sudden Firing of Wujs Chair Raises Questions of Coordination

July 11, 2006
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Peleg Reshef is sure the World Union of Jewish Students will pick up the pieces after suddenly axing its leader. But the sudden firing of Victoria Dolburd on June 30 may be emblematic of a general lack of coordination between Jewish organizations and the younger generation of leaders.

The union fired Dolburd six months short of her two-year term. Following an executive board meeting, the six international chairs delivered a vote of no confidence, forcing Dolburd to leave her post immediately.

There was no suspicion of wrongdoing, only dissatisfaction with Dolburd’s management and vision, said Olga Israel, chairwoman of the Brussels-based European Union of Jewish Students.

Dolburd has retained an attorney.

Reshef, a former WUJS chairman, said he understood that the situation could be painful for all involved, but considered it a “minor setback. I think they will learn from it and move on.”

He said he respected Dolburd “for what she has done, and I am sure it is a very difficult experience for her, but sometimes one learns the hard way and sometimes the easy way. WUJS is really a lifetime experience. It is the best university for future Jewish leadership.”

That “university” may be lacking in support from mainstream Jewish organizations, suggested Uriel Kashi, former director of the Federal Union of Jewish Students in Germany and currently a Legacy Heritage Fellow with the American Jewish Committee office in Berlin. More young Jewish leaders should have the chance to learn skills from experienced leaders, he said.

Legacy is one of the few programs that actively seeks to prepare young Jewish leaders for future involvement in their communities, by arranging fellowships with major Jewish organizations, Kashi said.

“There is a lack of trust and help or investment in Jewish student organizations by the other organizations,” Kashi said. “You have a bunch of very motivated and very dedicated people who are investing a lot of time there. Sometimes there is a lack of professionalism, but that is the right place to learn it.”

Michael Jankelowitz, a Jewish Agency for Israel spokesman, told JTA that there are plenty of leadership training programs geared to students — but WUJS executives think they’re past the age of training.

“When things go well they say they’re on a level with world leadership — and when things go badly they say, ‘we’re only students,’ ” said Jankelowitz, himself a former student leader.

“These leaders who kicked out Vicka Dolburd are not naive,” he added. “They are 27-28 years old. This is a political organization, and it is a matter of someone else wanting her job.”

Israel, who ran against Dolburd in the last election, told JTA that the board had agreed, after much consideration, that Dolburd’s “vision” for the organization was not shared by others. Israel also said the board was concerned about a lack of fiscal transparency, though she stressed that there was no suspicion of wrongdoing.

“We don’t suspect misuse of money. It is more mismanagement,” she said.

She added that Dolburd had done some good work for the union, including establishing contacts with Latin American Jewish students and signing a strategic agreement with Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. But, she said, the union should be “helping students around the world network much better, to better exchange ideas and experiences, and to launch global joint campaigns.”

Dolburd, who was president of the German Jewish Student Association before immigrating to Israel, said she had not been warned that she was in danger of losing her position. Even the day she was fired, she helped two board members prepare the agenda for the meeting, and “there was no comment that we need to discuss this special point.”

The union’s executive director, Jonny Cline, told the Jerusalem Post that Dolburd had started doing some good things for the organization but had withheld important financial information. He said the budget shrank from $500,000 in 2003 to $200,000 in 2006 due to reduced aid from the Jewish Agency, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the World Jewish Congress.

Dolburd, who was elected in 2005, said more money was expected to come in by the end of the year, and said she had been trying to achieve charitable status for the Jerusalem-based organization to encourage more tax-deductible donations.

She added that her supposed shortcomings were taken out of context.

“Even if they had been looking very carefully and deeply,” they could not have found any wrongdoing, Dolburd told JTA.

Israel described the decision to remove Dolburd as “an unfortunate event, and obviously an unpleasant one for Vika.” But she added that it came from the necessity to strengthen “the worldwide Jewish student body and take ownership of the organization.”

Dolburd disagreed.

“They just did not think enough about it,” she said. “For them, it was important to show the power of the executive.”

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