When the Overseas Needs and Distribution Committee of United Jewish Communities meets on December 8 to decide how to allocate federation money, an unavoidable conclusion must be reached: The federation system has to raise more funds for overseas needs and continue to place Israel as its prime responsibility. To decide otherwise given today’s realities would be nothing more than irresponsible.
The needs of our brothers and sisters in Israel have not shrunk during the past few years. Quite the contrary. Many of the most critical needs relate to new immigrants, the very population for whom North American federations have traditionally taken a major share of responsibility. It is unthinkable that federation leaders would turn away, even in part, from those responsibilities today.
We have justifiably taken pride in helping Jews from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia and Argentina to settle in Israel. Much work remains to be done, however. While the number of immigrants dropped in 2003 from previous years, the difficulties in absorbing and integrating the immigrants into Israeli society are up — way up.
New immigrants are among the hardest hit in Israel’s current economic recession, the worst in five decades. The level of unemployment among new immigrants is 2.5% higher than among the general Israeli population. The proportion of immigrants coming from situations of distress and requiring intensive services in the absorption centers of the Jewish Agency for Israel almost doubled in 2002 from 1998 levels.
The most troubled of new immigrants have no informal social support network to help them find their way in their new country. They have very little savings, if any; when they are out of work, they fall into poverty more quickly than any other Israeli population group. If we do not step in to help when the Israeli government cannot, too many of these immigrants will find themselves on a sure track to alienation from mainstream Israeli society. Ultimately, it will be Israel, the Jewish world and, most critically, our American Jewish philanthropic federations that will end up paying the bill in the future for our failure to respond today.
The needs of these immigrants are enormous. One of their greatest handicaps in finding work is their weak grasp of Hebrew, yet most immigrants are entitled to only one five-month course in a Hebrew-language program. The Jewish Agency has a plan to increase the level of education by offering a second course, private lessons and smaller classes. And while the level of unemployment in Israel is currently the highest in that country’s history, there are openings in specific fields and the Jewish Agency has programs to retrain up to 6,000 immigrants so they can fill these jobs and thereby build a future for themselves and their families, even in these most difficult times.
There are thousands of young immigrants who moved to Israel on their own during the past few years. Many are students, receiving some measure of support from the Jewish Agency and the Israeli government’s Absorption Ministry for their first three years of studies. A sizable number of the young immigrants, however, need far longer to complete their degrees but cannot manage to cover their tuition and living costs, and they are dropping out of their studies.
There are 4,000 new immigrant soldiers serving in the Israeli army. Most of them are in Israel on their own, without their families, have nowhere to go on their weekends off and no financial support to cover their basic needs. Only $1,000 a year would enable the Jewish Agency to help one of these students or soldiers. But the Jewish Agency does not have the funds. These are just some of the most urgent, unmet needs of new immigrants in Israel today.
Last week, 5,000 delegates to the General Assembly of UJC traveled to Jerusalem from North America and countries around the world to join with our Israeli brothers and sisters in a collective expression of Jewish unity and to build more bridges together. We saw an Israel mired in a socioeconomic crisis: After three years of intifada, more than 850 Israelis have been killed and thousands injured. Israel’s Gross Domestic Product fell by 3.0% in 2002 after falling 3.2% in 2001. The government has been forced to slash social services. It is inevitable that the weakest in society will be hurt the most.
If UJC’s Overseas Needs and Distribution Committee votes to recommend redirecting funding away from the most vulnerable among our brethren when it convenes in December, it would represent a serious rupture of our traditional support for Israel. Even to suggest that this may ultimately be the collective decision of our federation leadership — at a time when we should be inspiring our federated communities to greater financial support of both the work of the Jewish Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee — would undermine one of the core beliefs of American Jewry.
Now is the time for a massive increase in the federation system’s allocations, not for a reallocation of reduced resources.
Richard Wexler is chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel-North American Council.