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Model Community In Russia Revolts Against Aid Agency

The tsarist capital of St. Petersburg has long been a model for the revival of Jewish life in Russia, but in recent weeks a growing number of Jewish leaders there have come forward to say that the community is being torn apart by the very American Jewish organization that helped build it up.

The organization under fire is the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, or Joint, which has historically served as the main conduit for American Jewish charitable funds for international relief and reconstruction. Now, in St. Petersburg, the Joint is being accused of overstepping its role as middleman by exerting unwelcome control over Jewish life, with little input from local community leaders.

One such accusation came in a letter to American donors from Dmitriy Eliashevich, head of the local Jewish university.

“The [Joint] position resembles the policy of ‘GOSPLAN’ and ‘OBKOM’ in the worst years of the Soviet regime,” Eliashevich wrote, using bureaucratic terms from the era of communist planning, in a letter that was distributed to officials of American Jewish charitable federations. “No discussions, no trust to organizations, Jewish leaders permanently must prove that they are not thieves.”

Eliashevich’s complaints — and his appeal to American fundraisers — have been echoed by many other Jewish community leaders in St. Petersburg. They include the heads of the local Jewish community center, the local Jewish social welfare agency, the Jewish day care program and even former employees of the Joint.

The extent of the criticism comes as a shock, because the Joint has long been the major funder of Jewish life in the former Soviet Union; indeed, it provided the bulk of funding for many of the organizations now attacking it. Last year, the Joint sent $100 million to the former Soviet Union, the bulk of it from local Jewish federations in America. Jewish leaders in the region have complained in the past about the Joint’s influence and clout. The current din in St. Petersburg, however, amounts to a full-scale revolt in the very city that the Joint has frequently held up as a model of its success.

Top officials at the Joint downplay the criticism and say it is mostly coming from local professionals who are struggling with the fact that the Joint’s funding will not last forever. Steve Schwager, the Joint’s executive vice president, told the Forward that his organization is trying to wean Russian organizations off American money and make them more transparent, and this has caused resentment.

“When you try and make these kinds of changes, lots of vested interests simply say, ‘No,’” Schwager said. “You have people who have been at this for a long time, and they believe they are owed money — and I don’t believe anyone is owed money.”

Leaders in St. Petersburg balk at the description of the recent feud as a dustup over shifting strategic objectives. Numerous agency directors say that they have been subjected to significant budget cuts with little warning, despite the fact that the Joint’s own budget in the region has not been cut. Locals also complain about a maze of bureaucratic rules imposed by Joint officials. One frequently criticized rule requires Russian organizations to find three competitive bids and win the Joint’s approval for any expenditure greater than $100.

“We had to increase staff, and the big part of working time is spent not on serving clients but on filling out different reports and papers,” said Leonid Kolton, director of the Hesed welfare agency.

Kolton and the other leaders say that while the Joint has subjected local organizations to relentless scrutiny, it has shown little openness in its own operations in Russia. One of the most maligned moves was the firing of an editor at a Jewish newspaper, Nekuda. Numerous officials in St. Petersburg charged that the editor was fired because he wrote articles that were critical of the Joint. Schwager said he did not know anything about the firing of the editor.

In addition to the criticism from inside Russia, the first voices from outside Russia have recently taken the Joint to task. In New York, the longtime director of Russian programs at American Jewish World Service told the Forward that the Joint’s strategy in the region amounted to a “tragedy.”

“They are supposed to be a transfer point for money, but they misuse that function horribly,” said Martin Horowitz, whose own organization was an early funder of programs in the region.

There are signs that some American donors are beginning to circumvent the Joint. This year, for the first time, the local UJA-Federation of New York gave grants directly to the Adain Lo childcare agency rather than using the Joint as a conduit. The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation is taking a similar route with college programs in Russia. Both organizations said they are still committed to working with the Joint.

Varying explanations are given for why all these issues have come together with such force in the past few months. There is the matter of the Joint’s changing strategy. But Kolton and other Russians have said that the Joint has met the same fate as any vertically organized bureaucracy.

“The operation of [the Joint in the former Soviet Union] looks very similar to President [Vladimir] Putin’s attempt to create a vertical of power, controlled by one person, that is very ineffective and will not work no matter what,” Kolton said in an e-mail to the Forward.

Another often-cited reason for the tensions is the Joint’s new Jewish community building in St. Petersburg. The Yesod, as the structure is known, cost $13 million and opened last year. Local officials said that by building the Yesod and offering programming in it, the Joint has put itself in competition with the very organizations it has been tasked to fund.

“Before the Joint started their own program, we were considered a success,” said Eugenia Lvova, director of Adain Lo, the nursery school agency. Lvova’s programs had their Joint funding cut this year. “Now, all of a sudden, once they start their own program, we are not considered a success.”

The situation has grown particularly sensitive as the Joint office in St. Petersburg has struggled to find tenants for the Yesod. The building’s annual maintenance fees come to $1 million, no small sum in a city where the previous Jewish center was run on an annual budget of close to $200,000.

That center, a sprawl of interconnected apartments in downtown St. Petersburg, was one of the first Jewish institutions established in the city after the Soviet era, and it has been one of the biggest losers in the recent battles with the Joint. According to Alexander Frenkel, the center’s director, the Joint cut its 2007 contribution to $10,000 from $90,000 and informed Frenkel of these cuts only a week before this year began.

The tensions worsened in January, when the Joint released an audit accusing the Jewish community center of failing to both achieve its programming goals and maintain proper governance. Schwager said that he was particularly concerned with the fact that the center’s director appoints the board rather than having it chosen independently.

The audit suggested that one way to solve the financial crisis was for the center to move into the Yesod. Pending resolution of the dispute, the Joint has released only a small portion of the center’s funds. The center had to cancel Purim programming and has had its telephone service cut off.

Frenkel has dismissed the charges in the audit, calling them “cooked-up.” A review of the audit by a Russian not-for-profit monitor, found that the Joint’s audit “does not correspond with reality.”

Frenkel said that the most galling part of the audit was its accusation that he had not spent his entire budget in 2006. Frenkel said he was unable to spend it because the Joint never approved his expenditures.

“You will not imagine what we have to go through to get our grants,” Frenkel said.

The Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland has been drawn into these disputes because it has been the largest single donor to St. Petersburg. The federation’s president, Stephen Hoffman, told the Forward that he has been looking into the charges.

“I don’t think the management is irresponsible in any way,” Hoffman told the Forward. “We like the work Frenkel has been doing, but we’re open to discussion as to whether he deploys his time and resources in the most efficient way.”

The center is not the only organization facing severe funding cuts. Lvova said that the Joint informed her in January that it would slash its $100,000 contribution to her operations. She said that her agency has had to lay off speech therapists and psychologists for kids with learning disabilities, among other cuts.

The story in St. Petersburg is not all gloom and doom these days. The local Reform congregation just bought its own synagogue with funding from a London synagogue, the first one in the former Soviet Union to do so. Schwager noted that the fighting has not put a significant dent in the services being offered to St. Petersburg’s Jews.

But the mood is one of bitterness. Lvova and Frenkel were both among the earliest Jewish activists in St. Petersburg, working at the grass-roots during the Soviet Union’s death throes. Frenkel said his current headache is making him question his career choice.

“Now the Jewish community looks like a terrible place,” Frenkel said. “It’s not an attractive place where people want to be. Personally, I would prefer to change my life. I want to receive a stable salary — but I am responsible. I created an institution. I feel responsible for it.”

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