Service Groups Gripe as Charity Focuses on Israel

By Rebecca Spence

Published November 17, 2006, issue of November 17, 2006.
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LOS ANGELES - The annual convention of American Jewish charitable federations, meeting here this week, spent most of its time examining the fate of Israel, pleasing the Israeli politicians in attendance but angering a broad swath of social service providers and federation leaders who decried the lack of attention to pressing domestic concerns confronting North American Jewry.

While Jewish federations raised a record-breaking $348 million through the recent emergency campaign for Israel, widespread dissatisfaction emerged at the 75th annual General Assembly of United Jewish Communities — the umbrella body of Jewish federations — amid complaints in lobbies and hallways that the mid-November meeting had too narrow an agenda. Following this summer’s war with Hezbollah, UJC tore up the agenda of its three-day annual meeting, which had focused on Hollywood stars, and shifted in a matter of 10 weeks to the challenges confronting the Jewish state.

“An emphasis on Israel is certainly important, but to have a G.A. that ignores all the other issues is a mistake,” said Barry Shrage, president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston. “We need to be able to speak the language of Jewish renaissance as well as emergency campaigns.”

Shrage said that UJC is “more comfortable” dealing with Israel because Americans give easily in support of the Jewish state.

Howard Rieger, president and CEO of UJC, seemed to concur that the recent crisis in Israel offered a vehicle for strengthening the charity’s fundraising, and was therefore emphasized in the plenum’s agenda. “It’s a way to grow our donor base,” Rieger said at a press briefing, adding that events like the month-long war with Hezbollah are what “bring people together.”

Still, Rieger contended that this year’s focus on Israel in no way trumped the federations’ ongoing work of funding and operating social service programs. “I don’t see it as competitive,” he said. “I see it as a collaborative effort.”

Jewish federations raise millions of charitable dollars in annual campaigns and operate programs that serve needy populations, including the poor, aged and disabled. Typically, federations spend about two-thirds of their annual donations on local needs and send about one-third to Israel and to needy overseas Jewish communities.

UJC’s yearly assembly — which drew some 5,000 participants this year — traditionally serves as a forum for federation professionals and volunteers to attend panel discussions and workshops on an array of topics on the community agenda, from day school education to caring for the elderly. This year, with the emphasis squarely on the Jewish state, many of those programs never took place.

In session after session, with such titles as “The Impact of the War on Jewish-Arab Relations in Israel” and “We Are Not Alone: Allies in Making the Case for Israel,” delegates were given no shortage of Israel-related education, while forums on all other topics were given short shrift, many participants said.

Sally Weber, a social service professional who works for Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, expressed disappointment that the gathering failed to address issues of poverty, hunger and the funding of Jewish education. “I do feel those issues have been somewhat slighted,” she said. “I would have liked to have seen more balance in the program with as much weight on domestic issues.”

While rumblings of dissatisfaction could be heard all around, some people said they understood the need to highlight Israel. Fredi Rembaum, Western region director of development at Hebrew Union College, said that while some social service providers were hoping to have more “best-practices sessions,” there were other avenues outside of the G.A. to address their needs. After all, Rembaum said, it is support for Israel that largely drives federation campaigns.

In interviews with the Forward, some federation executives and volunteer leaders expressed palpable excitement about this year’s focus on affairs of the Jewish state. Steven Nasatir, president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, lauded the emphasis, calling it “well placed.”

Volunteer leader Michael Koss, chairman of the board of the Jewish Federation Council of Los Angeles, called supporting Israel “a big part” of the federations’ mandate.

And while some American Jews may have been frustrated with the slant, Israeli leaders turned out in droves to express their gratitude for the North American Jewish community’s commitment to Israel’s needs. At least six Israeli Cabinet ministers were in attendance.

In a speech at Sunday evening’s opening plenary, Galia Maor, president and CEO of Bank Leumi, called Israelis “eternally grateful” for the influx of donations both during and after the month-long war in Lebanon.

As leader after leader heaped praise on Diaspora Jews for their contributions, they also made sure to drive home the looming threat of a nuclear Iran.

The heightened interest in Middle East affairs also could be seen in the turnout at individual sessions. During one Monday afternoon time slot, more than 130 attendees packed into a room with standing room only to hear from experts on the Iranian threat. At a concurrent panel, some 100 participants gathered for a session titled “What’s Next for Israel and the Palestinians?” Meanwhile, a session focusing on strategies for sustaining domestic social programs when funding dollars dry up, titled “What to Do When the Bucks Stop” — one of a handful not related to international affairs — attracted fewer than 40 people . One participant, Simha Rosenberg, executive director of the New York-based volunteer recruitment agency the Jewish Coalition for Service, seemed to take the middle road when assessing the plenum’s heavy tilt toward Israel.

“The agenda is so important,” Rosenberg said, referring to the prominent role of the Jewish state. But at the same time, she expressed disappointment that “there haven’t been other kinds of sessions.”

Summing it up succinctly, Rosenberg said, “It’s a different kind of G.A.”

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