JDC, JAFI Step Back From the Brink

By Gal Beckerman

Published May 17, 2010, issue of May 28, 2010.
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A confrontation between the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has been averted, though no one is exactly saying how or why.

For weeks, the JDC was threatening to opt out of the current overseas funding structure, in which it gets 25% of funds collected by The Jewish Federations of North America, with the rest going to the Jewish Agency. But after a meeting between the two agencies and JFNA on May 17, the principle of collective funding was reaffirmed.

“We came together in a collaborative process, and we are going to move ahead in a positive and constructive manner,” said JFNA Chairwoman Kathy Manning and President and CEO Jerry Silverman in a statement issued after the meeting. “We will continue our discussions, and ultimately we remain unified in our goal of more effectively meeting Jewish needs worldwide.”

The two agencies had met periodically with JFNA since last year, to try to reconfigure the funding status quo that has been in place for more than half a century. In the past few months, the leadership of the JDC had described the negotiations as having reached a stalemate. In May, a special taskforce established by the welfare agency recommended that it find alternatives to the collective funding model, including approaching the federations individually. Such a move would effectively constitute an end run around the current system.

But the results of this most recent meeting indicate that the negotiations will continue. None of the three sides believe that the status quo will remain intact, but for the time being, they seem to have agreed on the general principle of collectively distributing American Jewry’s charity abroad.

“Today we reaffirmed our joint commitment to increase fundraising to meet critical needs in Israel and around the world,” said JDC’s president, Irving Smokler, and Steven Schwager, JDC’s executive vice president and CEO, in the statement.

Echoing a theme newly adopted by the Jewish Agency, the statement also included the following quote from Richard Pearlstone, chairman of the board, and chairman Natan Sharansky: “Through our efforts together, we will continue to build Jewish identity — and ultimately our community — around the world.”

None of the meeting’s participants would speak on the record about the deliberations or what was done to get the JDC to step back from the brink.

Observers who had spoken with those present described amicable interactions between representatives of the three groups. The meeting was almost canceled by Silverman and Manning, who demanded that the JDC first drop the two recommendations from its taskforce’s report that suggested the JDC go it alone. So the presence of all three groups was in itself a concession.

“I think it’s very good news for the system and for the two agencies,” said Misha Galperin, who is currently executive vice president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and will be the Jewish Agency’s senior officer in North America as of June 1. “Everybody needs more money to do what they want to do. They made a decision to try and look together at how to enlarge the pie, as opposed to everybody pulling the blanket their way.”

Others were skeptical that the meeting went as positively as the press release indicated. A few noted that no date was set for the next meeting and that no new compromises were reached.

Richard Wexler, most recently chairman of United Israel Appeal and an architect of the umbrella organization that has become known as the Jewish Federations of North America, has been a critic of JFNA’s role in the negotiations between the two agencies. He feels that the organization has not done enough to encourage federations to increase their fundraising for overseas. If this were done properly, he contends, there would be no need for the fight now taking place over dwindling funds.

If the meeting reaffirmed a belief in the system and its ability to support the two agencies, that would be positive, he said. But if its results were more ambiguous, it could be detrimental to the future of the federation structure.

“If JDC stepped back from the brink, that would be a good thing,” Wexler said. “On the other hand, if JDC left the meeting upset at the results or lack of results, that would be a treacherous thing. I think everyone agrees that the JDC threat is a threat to the entire federation system and therefore to JFNA itself.”

Contact Gal Beckerman at beckerman@forward.com

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