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Funding Low for Ethiopian Absorption Program

Experts working to integrate new immigrants into Israeli society are saying the funding for a new project to help absorb recent arrivals from Ethiopia is grossly inadequate.

Ethiopian activists and absorption experts in Israel are thankful nonetheless for the launching of the long-delayed Ethiopian National Project, a partnership between Israel and Diaspora Jewry to assist the distressed population with education and job training.

The project, which was launched in December 2000, was envisioned as a sweeping $660 million, nine-year welfare plan. It will officially start in September with a mere $10 million for its first year and no guarantees of further funding. In fact, even the first year’s budget hasn’t officially been secured from the project’s main allies — local American Jewish charitable federations. The lack of certainty about the funding has officials holding their breath.

“Is it scary? Yes, it’s scary,” said Michael Rosenberg, director of the immigration and absorption department of the Jewish Agency for Israel, a partner in the project.

“There is a risk involved that the whole thing could fizzle out in one year and a lot of people could be disappointed,” said Rosenberg, who is also a board member of the Ethiopian project. “Could that happen? Sure it could happen. Will it happen? I hope not, and believe not. I have faith the government of Israel and the Jewish people realize this is a major problem to be solved.”

The original budget was calibrated in 2000 by the Jewish Agency based on the dire needs of the community, Rosenberg said. Those needs have since grown.

The program is a partnership of the Israeli government — which will foot half the bill — and Israeli and Diaspora welfare organizations. Those organizations are United Jewish Communities, the roof body of American Jewish philanthropic federations; the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee; the Jewish Agency; the international Jewish fundraising network Keren Hayesod, and a group of Israeli Ethiopian organizations.

American activists for Ethiopian Israelis registered strong discontent over what they called lackluster fundraising efforts by the American federated system and unnecessary delays by bureaucrats in Israel.

“They really, really blew it,” said Yossi Abramowitz, a member of the Ethiopian Jewry Committee of the Boston Jewish Community Relations Council. The publisher of the Jewish Family & Life multimedia firm, Abramowitz said that the project’s budget is a “drop in the bucket” and that federations should have been required by UJC to fund the program at the original budget projection.

The Ethiopian project seeks to aid the 80,000-strong Ethiopian community — 72% of which lives below the poverty line. Ethiopians under the age of 35 in about 15 cities were to benefit from college prep courses, post-army job placement and an expansion of existing programs such as the Joint’s preschool and adult education program.

Three years, one intifada and a major economic slump later, the program is getting off the ground, but only six cities will benefit.

Richard Wexler, a UJC lay leader who is also on the Ethiopian project’s board, rejected the argument that the intifada put the skids on funding for the project.

“The first year of the Ethiopian National Project, the federations’ aggregate annual campaigns were the highest in their history,” Wexler said about the 2001 to 2002 annual campaign. “And federations still didn’t respond.” Less than $2 million was raised for the project that year.

Federations report that 60% percent of Israeli Ethiopian families have five or more children, while 65% of their families lack a breadwinner; some 70% of their young adults work at unskilled jobs; 45% cannot conduct a conversation in Hebrew; only 50% of Ethiopian three-year-olds attend prekindergarten, compared with Israel’s national average of 95%, and 45% of Ethiopian students lack basic school supplies.

Local federations in Cleveland, Houston and Chicago, among others, have wired hundreds of thousands of dollars each to UJC for the project. The money was held up at UJC, and in some cases allegedly used for other purposes, while the project struggled to take off. As a result, some federations, including Chicago, decided against forwarding further contributions to the national body and have kept their funding for the Ethiopian project in-house. UJC officials say the money has not been used for other purposes.

Meanwhile Ethiopian activists are eager to get the show on the road. The new director general of the project, Negist Mengesha, will be in the United States next week to stump for the project. She has fought her share of political battles during its incubation period. She petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court against the government, which initially refused to hire her because of her affiliation with a political party. She had run for Knesset on the opposition Meretz party ticket in January — and lost. The government reversed its opposition last month.

“The Ethiopian situation is getting worse,” Mengesha told the Forward from her home in Bat Ayin. “My role now is bringing all the partners together and to strengthen the network.”

The North American co-chair of the project, Arthur Naparstek, told the Forward that launching the welfare program with a small $10 million budget is more realistic and may be more effective in the long run. A former professional head of UJC’s Israel and overseas pillar, Naparstek pointed to his own experience establishing programs like the HOPE VI public housing renewal effort, which he said benefited from modest beginnings. Naparstek believes that world Jewry will commit to expand the project once it’s off the ground.

“I’m optimistic,” Naparstek said.” The programs themselves have not been developed. The goals and strategies have been developed. The need is so compelling, and programs we’re developing are sound and leadership is good. I know we’ll succeed.”

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