Advocacy Operations Spared Amid Crash

By Nathaniel Popper

Published March 18, 2009, issue of March 27, 2009.
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The plunging stock market and the Bernard Madoff scandal have ensured that ‘Help Wanted’ signs are a rarity in the Jewish communal world these days. In the past few weeks, some of the largest charities have slashed their staffs – most recently, it was the Union for Reform Judaism and the UJA-Federation of New York.

But there are some exceptions. The J Street Project, the new liberal Israel advocacy organization in Washington, is looking to double its size by the end of the year, and it is currently considering candidates for four new positions.

Survival: Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street.
Survival: Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street.

Meanwhile, Reboot, which aims to increase Jewish identity among young unaffiliated Jews, is also looking to double its small ranks, thanks to new grant money.

The reasons for the growth of these organizations are manifold. J Street, for instance, was founded just last year and had only begun to tap the reservoir of like-minded donors when the economic downturn hit. It also came into its own just as President Obama came to office, bringing a new foreign policy team that seems to be in tune with J Street’s dovish message.

But J Street’s success shows that in this harsh economic climate, not all organizations are following the same path — or facing the same difficulties. While the American Jewish Congress laid off more than half its staff of 25, and the URJ cut a fifth of some 300 employees, there are communal organizations that have managed to avoid layoffs, and a few are even growing.

The current flux promises to shape what the Jewish communal world of tomorrow will look like. It also is testing which Jewish values will come out of the hard times intact.

“There is a real stripping down, and looking at the question of, what are our communal values,” said Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, director of the Jewish life and values program at the Nathan Cummings Foundation. “The decisions being made are intricately tied up with who we are as a Jewish community.”

Certainly one answer to the question appears to lie in Washington. While many national organizations have been cutting staff in their offices across the country, most of the lobbying operations in Washington have escaped relatively unharmed. At the Anti-Defamation League, for instance, where 10% of the organization’s employees were cut last year, the Washington staff was left untouched; the same was true at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Perhaps the biggest name in Washington, the American Israel Political Affairs Committee, has cut neither its budget nor its staff — and it has no plans to do so.

Rabbi David Saperstein, who runs the Washington-based Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said that Obama’s administration has inculcated a sense that politics and government are growth industries.

“At a time when there are such sweeping policy changes, the sense of importance in these Washington offices is clearer than ever,” Saperstein said. “It’s led to less cuts down here than has been the case in headquarters.”

In financial terms, Washington offices are often seen as good investments because they offer an opportunity to lobby for a slice of the increased government spending that is expected to come with Obama’s stimulus package — some of which will flow to Jewish social service agencies.

Many organizations that have remained stable in Washington and beyond also seem to be benefiting from the increasing sense of flux in the Middle East peace process, which puts political advocacy at the fore. J Street, a dovish group that is often critical of Israeli policies and seeks to expand the parameters of what it means to be pro-Israel, is one of those beneficiaries. But so are groups like Stand With Us, a young organization that has served as an unreserved defender of Israel on American college campuses. At its fundraising dinner last December, just as the Madoff scandal became public, Stand With Us raised $150,000 more than at its dinner the year before — and its yearly fundraising so far has remained stable.

“People understand that the situation in Israel and around the world has escalated,” said Roz Rothstein, international director of Stand With Us.

In contrast with upstart organizations like Stand With Us and J Street, many of the organizations that have been hit hardest are some of the longest standing and most venerable names in the Jewish world. The established Jewish federations in New York City, Atlanta and Cleveland have all made heavy cuts to their budgets and staff. So, too, have the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado and the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco.

In the current recession, the things that once provided some of these more established charities with a source of stability — namely, their million-dollar endowments — have actually proved to be sources of instability because of the precipitous drop in stock market prices. At Cleveland’s Jewish federation, while fundraising dropped 14% over the past year, the value of the endowment dropped 29%. Given that the endowment accounted for nearly two-thirds of the federation’s budget, layoffs became a necessity.

“The endowments are the Achilles’ heel at the moment,” said Stephen Hoffman, president of the Cleveland federation.

Gary Tobin, head of San Francisco’s Institute for Jewish & Community Research, said that many more established organizations have also become “bloated” over the years, due to institutional inertia. Tobin and other communal experts said that recessions often provide a healthy chance to become more efficient. At the URJ, leaders are optimistic that they will be able to cut 60 jobs without sacrificing much of the work the movement does.

“We were structure heavy — and we are going to have a more streamlined structure,” said Rabbi Stacy Offner, the union’s vice president. “We are optimistic about being nimbler and quicker and more effective.”

Just where the organizations choose to make the cuts has been a point of some disagreement and discord, given the wide array of causes that Jewish organizations, and particularly Jewish federations, take on, such as Jewish identity, intermarriage and immigration advocacy. In Ohio, Joyce Garver Keller, head of government relations for the state’s Jewish federations, says that the Jewish federations have come to a consensus that needy clients who are being hit by the economic downturn must be their top priority.

“What everyone talks about at meetings are the programs that deal with basic human needs,” Garver Keller said. “There shall be no hungry Jew — that keeps coming up.”

Marc Charendoff, head of the Jewish Funders Network, said he fears that the focus on the needy may push out organizations in the cultural and educational realm. But Charendoff said that the big decisions — and the big upheaval in the Jewish world — have only just begun, and many of the most lasting changes may be yet to come.

“There will be significant changes in the Jewish world,” Charendoff said, “but I don’t think we’ve seen them yet.”

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