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Ujc Moves to Raise $160 Million for Falash Mura and Jews in FSU

June 8, 2005
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The Jewish federation system has launched a major fund-raising campaign to assist the Jews of Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union. At a meeting Sunday in New York, the board of trustees of the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group for the North American federation system, approved a motion to raise $160 million for two initiatives.

Criticisms and doubts were raised about the proposal, but the final vote was unanimous.

Most of the money, $100 million, will go toward expediting aliyah and absorption in Israel of some 20,000 Falash Mura, Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity, and for the integration of Ethiopians already in Israel. The funds will be raised in three to five years.

The remaining $60 million, to be raised within three years, will go to help Jews in the former Soviet Union through identity-building programs for youth and caring for the elderly poor.

The campaign comes as Israel prepares to double the monthly rate of Falash Mura immigration, from 300 to 600.

Transportation, initial education and welfare costs will run to some $23 million over three years, and will be managed by the UJC’s overseas partners, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. About $40 million will go toward absorbing the Falash Mura, and $37 million to integrate Ethiopians in Israel through improved education.

The Ethiopian initiative was framed as the completion of previous mass immigrations from Ethiopia, namely Operation Moses in 1984-85 and Operation Solomon in 1991.

“Fourteen years ago, I was privileged to stand on the airport tarmac in Israel and be an eyewitness to a miracle and welcome more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews rescued in Operation Solomon,” said Susan Stern, chairwoman of the board of directors of UJA-Federation of New York and outgoing chair of the UJC National Women’s Philanthropy. “What an extraordinary experience that was, seeing the great pride of the Jewish community and feeling the great hope of that day. We have accomplished much since then, but we have not yet completed the promise.”

The new campaign was met with praise but also some consternation at the UJC’s board meeting Sunday, as the group became momentarily gridlocked over whether to place binding terms on the proposal, requiring federations to allocate a “fair share” of funds based on the overall funds each federation raises.

Binding language ultimately was left out of the resolution, but the debate underscored the urgency of effectively funding Falash Mura aliyah.

Shortly after the initiative was raised, Batia Eyob, executive director of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, sent an angry letter to UJC officials, claiming the association wasn’t consulted about the project.

“You know very well how hard we all have worked to have the Ethiopian community be seen as part of the solution and not only the problem. You can, then, understand why we are so alarmed about this ‘Ethiopian Initiative’ carried out by one of our partners excluding us,” she wrote.

Ethiopian-Israeli representatives in Israel “provided a portrait of the community that is not made of misery and despair but of strength and success. This effort of ensuring to have a balanced portrayal of the Ethiopian community in Israel, which we believe is extremely crucial in any campaign, does not seem to be conveyed in the initial material presented to us by UJC’s ‘Ethiopian Initiative,’ ” she wrote.

Federation leaders say the plan to expedite Falash Mura immigration has been public for a long time.

The resolution states that UJC’s executive committee, a body of lay leaders, will develop a campaign plan. But some community leaders raised concerns about separating the initiative from the annual federation campaign.

“How is this going to resonate with the donors?” asked Etta Zimmerman, general campaign chair for the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County, Fla. She told the board that the campaign sends a mixed message to donors, who assume such services already are addressed through the annual campaign.

“It shows the failure of what ONAD was meant to do,” Gary Weinstein, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas, told JTA. Weinstein was referring to UJC’s Overseas Needs Assessment and Distribution committee, which is being revamped due to complaints that the committee was plagued by politics and red tape. “ONAD was meant to prioritize overseas needs for us.”

Combining both initiatives into one campaign could confuse donors, Weinstein said.

While the Ethiopian issue may motivate donors, additional funding for identity building in the former Soviet Union will compete with fund-raising efforts for local identity-building programs, he said.

“If they want to be successful, I think they are going to have to prioritize these appeals and have different strategies for us,” Weinstein said. “You put it all together, the three appeals are going to be diluted.”

But many are optimistic.

“I don’t think this is any more complicated or difficult than any other challenge that the federation system has met,” said Andy Groveman, a member UJC’s board of trustees from Memphis who also chairs the Jewish Agency’s finance and administration committee. “In the end, we all came together, voted and recognized that there was an unmet need and responsibility that we’re all going to step up to the plate and try to meet.”

Stephen Hoffman, president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland and former CEO of the UJC, agrees.

“We have a great historic opportunity to participate in this next stage of bringing the Ethiopian Jewish community home, as well as providing some really essential extra help in the former Soviet Union, and I’m pretty confident that people will rally to this,” he said.

Hoffman was involved in the creation of the Ethiopian National Project, a UJC initiative begun five years ago in partnership with the Jewish Agency, JDC and Ethiopian Israelis, to help integrate Ethiopian Jews in Israel.

According to Hoffman, that project was stymied by technical challenges and then was overwhelmed by the need to respond to the Palestinian intifada, which began in late 2000.

By contrast, the newest initiative “has a historical turning point. It is the doubling of the flow of people from Ethiopia, so there’s a very clear marker. If UJC does what it should, which is to rapidly develop an approach that communities can adapt for their own responses to this challenge, this call for action, I think we have a very good chance of succeeding,” he said.

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