Conservative Leaders Blast Jewish Agency’s Funding of School

By Nacha Cattan

Published January 24, 2003, issue of January 24, 2003.
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Already angry at the Jewish Agency for Israel for deep budget cuts to non-Orthodox streams in Israel, Conservative movement leaders are protesting a $250,000 agency grant to an Orthodox school in Jerusalem.

Top leaders of Conservative Judaism are calling for a reevaluation of the funding to Beit Morasha of Jerusalem: The Academic Center for Jewish Studies and Leadership. While the grant for Beit Morasha is doled out from a separate budget line than the funding to religious streams, Conservative leaders say the Jewish Agency grant favors an Orthodox program at the expense of non-Orthodox institutions.

“I’m not critical of Beit Morasha,” said the executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism, Rabbi Joel Meyers. “I’m being critical of a process which funds Beit Morasha but therefore doesn’t fund adequately the Conservative movement programs…That money has gone directly to an institution in a way that doesn’t permit other institutions doing the same kind of work to compete openly for the funds.”

While Beit Morasha appoints some non-Orthodox faculty members and lay leaders, the institute is widely described as an affiliate of Modern Orthodoxy and several Conservative officials say the institution is not as pluralistic as it appears. Others claim non-Orthodox institutions with leadership-training programs similar to Beit Morasha never had a fair shot at the sizable allocation from the Jewish Agency.

The Jewish Agency’s entire budget has come under increased scrutiny since the agency slashed what leaders of Conservative and Reform Judaism say is 18% of their funding last fall, and without prior consultation.

Jewish Agency representatives countered that Beit Morasha received the grant from a special allocation for strictly non-sectarian programs aimed at promoting “Jewish peoplehood” among Israelis. Agency representatives also said they would consider any comparable program presented to them by non-Orthodox institutions, but that they were not required to do so.

Jewish Agency officials claim the recent cuts to non-Orthodox streams are closer to 7% than 18%. While Jewish Agency leaders have pledged to “revisit” the cuts at a meeting of its Board of Governors February 23 in Jerusalem, it is not certain how much, or whether any, of the funds will be restored.

“The Jewish Agency, more than any other Jewish organization, is open to the streams and works with them,” said the agency’s secretary general, Josh Schwarcz. “But just because this one instance we chose to work with an organization that is primarily Orthodox, I don’t think automatically an organization from another stream needs to get funding.”

Beit Morasha officials say that their institution is not officially Orthodox.

Leaders of the Conservative movement in Israel, or Masorti, also pointed out the lack of Israeli government funding to non-Orthodox institutions. Before the agency cuts were made, the agency allotted $2 million each to the Reform and Conservative streams out of the agency’s $320 million annual budget. This distribution was established as an affirmative action to offset what American donors saw as Israeli government discrimination against non-Orthodox streams in funding decisions. A smaller amount is also allocated to Modern Orthodox institutions.

The agency grant to Beit Morasha alone, now in its third year, totals almost as much as the agency’s 18% cut to the entire Masorti movement.

“If they’re going to give that kind of money to Beit Morasha they should give it to our institutions as well,” said Rabbi Reuven Hammer, president of the Conservative movement’s International Rabbinical Assembly. Hammer said he is not against the grant to Beit Morasha, but wanted the agency’s allocations to be “equitable.”

A Conservative representative at the Jewish Agency, David Breakstone, said the allocation to Beit Morasha was problematic because the institution does not set aside automatic slots for non-Orthodox faculty and lay leaders.

“We are not interested in an institution preparing Orthodox leadership for the entire Jewish world,” said Breakstone, who heads the World Zionist Organization’s Department of Zionist Activities and is a member of the executive of the Jewish Agency and WZO.

An ad-hoc committee to review the Beit Morasha grant was formed a year ago by agency officials, including Breakstone. Breakstone said that he would request at a committee meeting in February that the institution create official non-Orthodox slots or that the Jewish Agency support similar programs at non-Orthodox institutions. Breakstone said the ad-hoc committee has not convened frequently enough to adequately deal with the issue. But he expressed confidence that his concerns would be properly addressed by its five members, including the chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive, Sallai Meridor.

But a Jewish Agency official, who also serves as a member of the ad-hoc committee, defended the grant to Beit Morasha and dismissed Breakstone’s suggestions.

“I’m not sure I’d support a kind of tokenism of putting people on the faculty not because they have the best qualifications but as representatives of the Conservative and Reform movement,” said Alan Hoffman, director general of the agency’s Department for Jewish Zionist Education.

The allocation to Beit Morasha comes from a $1.8 million budget line for “new initiative programs” that promote “Jewish peoplehood.” The programs are chosen by Meridor and the chairman of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors, Alex Grass. Projects supported by this budget line range from an initiative to attract new immigrants to the annual Israel Festival to the new Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, chaired by former American diplomat Dennis Ross.

Among the programs to be funded under the Jewish Agency grant, according to a Beit Morasha press release, are Jerusalem seminars on Jewish and Zionist identity for Israeli soldiers and a religious-secular Torah study program. Beit Morasha, a leadership training institute, was founded 12 years ago to “confront the erosion of the cultural, ethical and religious foundation of Israel and the resulting disunity among various sectors of our people,” according to its press release.

Said Yehuda Weinraub, a Jewish Agency spokesman: “If you look at faculty slots as a partisan or religious stream issue, rather than judging the program on its merits, it debases the entire idea of a new initiative program.”

Beit Morasha’s founder and rector, Benjamin Ish-Shalom, said: “Our major consideration is the talent and skill of the people we appoint.”

But one Conservative leader claimed top Jewish Agency officials are using this special budget line as a backdoor to support an Orthodox institution outside the limited distribution to religious streams. “It’s completely outrageous,” said Rabbi Andrew Sacks, director of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel. “It turns the whole thing on its head.”

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