A Funding Clash Forces Choice: Food or Identity?

JDC Weighs Departing From Historic Agreement

By Gal Beckerman and Jane Eisner

Published April 29, 2010, issue of May 07, 2010.
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A prolonged standoff over how to direct American Jewish funds overseas has led to a serious conflict over the community’s priorities: sustaining poor Jews around the world, or strengthening Jewish identities and ties to Israel?

The debate over which of these two needs is more deserving of the dwindling dollars collected by the large umbrella group representing American Jews, The Jewish Federations of North America, has been slowly building over the past two years. In that time, the organization has struggled to renegotiate its historic arrangement, now over half a century old, with the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

The two agencies have divided the pool of unrestricted overseas funding, with 75% going to the Jewish Agency and 25% going to the JDC.

After months during which the head of the JDC, Steven Schwager, described the negotiations as having arrived at an impasse, he is now ratcheting up the rhetoric and making a case for why the work of his organization — providing for the needs of poor and hungry Jews — is no less important than that of the Jewish Agency.

“The Jewish Agency has received the largest share of funding since 1952,” Schwager said in an interview with the Forward. “Fifty-eight years later, aliyah has slowed significantly. There’s no rationale for the 1952 formula. There just isn’t.”

Sources inside the JDC said that the organization has gone even further, forming a task force to imagine what might happen if the negotiations conclude with no new resolution; the task force’s recommendations will be made to the JDC board in May.

The Forward has obtained an early copy of the report, now circulating among JDC board members, in which the task force recommends making what would effectively be an end run around the current system.

“In the absence of a new and acceptable national agreement on overseas funding, JDC relationships with Federations should fully transition to bilateral understandings that allow for different funding strategies for each Federation,” reads the report.

But just as the JDC has felt the need to dramatize the importance of its mission, so, too, has the Jewish Agency been making an argument that it is evolving into a force that will be essential for sustaining the Jewish people. Though the quasi-governmental body has been focused since its founding on increasing and facilitating immigration to Israel, it is now undergoing a massive transformation under the leadership of Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident and government minister who has been the agency’s chairman since last summer.

Sharansky was in New York in late April to try to convince members of the agency’s governing body to sign on to a first draft of a plan to mold the agency into a promoter of Jewish identity all over the world, including Israel. It would be a dramatic break with its past function, but also would serve to renew the agency’s relevance at a time when there no longer seems to be mass immigration to Israel.

“The challenge is how to strengthen commitment to Jewish identity,” Sharansky said in an interview with the Forward. “How to deepen among Diaspora Jews their feeling of belonging, their desire to belong, their desire to work to strengthen Jewish community and Israel.” Sharansky is also aware that he has to articulate and justify what he calls his “abstract concept of Jewish identity,” explaining its significance in light of the concrete needs that the JDC serves.

“The Joint has a very clear-cut mission: to help Jews in distress economically, to feed people,” Sharansky said. “If there are hungry Jews, you have to feed them. But if you’re only thinking about how to feed old people and not to make sure that there are committed Jewish people, then there will be no Jews, nobody to feed and nobody who can help.” Sharansky implied that his own agency’s mission was more essential than the JDC’s: “Is there any leader who will agree to close summer camps or to close Jewish schools or to close ulpanim which we are running to bring more food? Of course not. Because that is the most important bread for the survival of the Jewish community as a whole…. There are no people dying from hunger.”

Leaders of the JDC argue, however, that its work needs to be made a priority and is suffering from a decrease in funding. Not only is the share it gets from the federations three times smaller than what is allotted to the Jewish Agency, but that amount has dropped over the past few years because of the economic crisis and a reluctance on the part of some federations to give as much to overseas spending.

Sources in the JDC said that in 2001 it received $45.1 million in unrestricted funds from the federations; that number was down to $32.4 million in 2009. Even though the JDC has managed to reduce the amount of its budget that comes from the federations to only 20% from 100%, those funds are considered “core money”; they are not designated to a particular project and are a necessary source of money for charitable organizations.

“We urgently need more money to take care of poor Jews and the elderly and children, especially in the former Soviet Union,” Schwager said. “In last three years, because of inflation and the devaluation of the dollar, we lost about 30% of our buying power in the FSU [former Soviet Union]. We’ve taken 70,000 people off our caseload. It used to be 225,000; now it’s about 160,000. We give them the basic necessities of life: food, clothing, heat in winter. But there is no safety net in the FSU at all. The majority of these people have no living relations elsewhere in the world.”

According to Schwager, he and the Jewish Agency have arrived at a tentative agreement three times over the past two years, but each time, the Jewish Federations of North America rejected it. The sticking point, according to Schwager, was a fixed amount of money — $3 million — allocated to World ORT from the JDC share. Schwager said that this amount has not fluctuated over the past 10 years, even as the funds the JDC has received have shrunk. But, he said, a proposal to make the ORT money proportionate to the funds collected, was rejected.

Jerry Silverman, CEO and president of JFNA since last fall, did not acknowledge a crisis in the negotiations, nor was he willing to distinguish which needs are more of a priority.

“We are looking at the federation dollars and thinking about how best to deploy them,” Silverman said. “That’s why we have a process. Sometimes people get frustrated with the process. Sometimes people can get nervous about a process. I’m a big believer that we are going to stay focused on being thoughtful and doing it the right way and as a federation movement.”

For many observers and heads of federations, though, the bigger problem is the general decrease in funds. Over the past two years, the total amount of money allocated by the federations overseas dropped altogether by $44 million. The real challenge, they said, is not to figure out what is more important — food or identity — but to find other means of funding all these priorities.

“The issue is not how to divide the money,” said Misha Galperin, who is the head of the Washington federation and will soon start working for the Jewish Agency, taking charge of its North American office. “The issue is how to raise more of it.”

Added Steven Nasatir, president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago: “I don’t think we’re filling our overseas commitment as we should. This is a strategic error. We’ll lose what makes us special.”

Contact Gal Beckerman at beckerman@forward.com and Jane Eisner at eisner@forward.com

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