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Non-Orthodox Blast Jewish Agency Over Funding Cuts

Top leaders of Conservative and Reform Judaism are livid at the Jewish Agency for Israel for cutting what they say is a sizable and disproportionate chunk of their funding in Israel, and doing so without prior consultation.

Movement officials expressed their anger at the 18% reduction in allocations to their streams in Israel in an “urgent” letter last month to heads of United Jewish Communities, the confederation of North American Jewish charitable federations that provides much of the Jewish Agency’s funding. The December 16 letter was signed by 18 top religious leaders from Israel and North America.

Some Israeli movement leaders told the Forward that if the cuts are not restored they would be forced to drop their collaborative fundraising efforts with UJC and compete directly with the federated charities to make up the shortfall.

For the Conservative movement in Israel, known as Masorti, the 2003 grant of $657,000 would amount to a cut in funding of about $200,000 for its programs in Israel. That figure does not include an additional cut of $200,000 of the Jewish Agency’s allocations to the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and other non-congregational Conservative institutions in Israel. The Reform movement is facing similar cuts.

At a time when Israel is facing a security crisis, movement heads say their religious activities in the Jewish state are mushrooming and need more support than ever.

“The Jewish Agency is shortsighted,” said Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. “The Israelis in their present crisis need spiritual sustenance as well as military might.”

Movement leaders feel especially slighted by the decision because Conservative and Reform donors traditionally are the main givers to the federated system. Both religious streams say they encourage their constituents to give through the federations and have joined the central body’s charity campaigns, including this past year’s Israel Emergency Campaign. But that may all change.

“We feel betrayed,” said Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Masorti movement. “The cut of the Jewish Agency threatens the very existence of our movement. I don’t want to be forced to go to people and say ‘Don’t give to the UJC, give to us,’ but if these cuts will continue we will be left with no other choice. We are calling on the UJC to realize that such cuts are endangering their entire regular annual campaign. We want to work together. We don’t want to work against each other.”

One top Israeli Reform leader, who is also a Jewish Agency official, echoed Bandel’s concerns: “If this trend continues and there is no willingness to come to some kind of compromise, we have to seriously consider what our relationship is with the UJC in terms of fundraising,” said Paula Edelstein, chairperson of the Israeli Movement for Progressive Judaism. “Not just for the emergency campaign but overall.” Edelstein, one of the signatories of the letter to UJC, is co-chair of the Israel department of the Jewish Agency and represents the Reform movement in the World Zionist Organization.

A spokesman for the Jewish Agency told the Forward: “The deliberations concerning the Jewish Agency’s budget have been influenced by the special needs of the State of Israel emanating from the terror offensive being waged against it.”

The spokesman said that the chairman of the agency’s Board of Governors and other agency leaders have asked that the issue of the allocations to the religious streams be “revisited.”

The Jewish Agency’s allocation to the movements was established in 1986 as an affirmative action to offset what was seen by American donors as Israeli discrimination against non-Orthodox streams in funding decisions. The allocation, which also goes to Modern Orthodox groups, was considered beneficial to local Jewish charitable federations because it eliminated competition in fundraising from Reform and Conservative groups.

Before the funding cut was made, at a Board of Governors meeting in October, the allocation comprised about 40% of both the Reform and Conservative streams’ budgets for programs in Israel and a smaller share of Modern Orthodox budgets.

Edelstein said that although all of the Jewish Agency’s programs have taken a hit due to funding woes at the massive quasi-governmental organization, the religious streams have seen their allocations slashed significantly more than other recipients of Jewish Agency dollars. While they were cut by 18%, another category within the agency’s allocations budget, the so-called “creative and innovative” slot, was only reduced by 4%, while funding for Modern Orthodox institutions dropped only 10%, according to Edelstein. The creative and innovative category includes Israeli youth and unity projects.

Pointing to the discrepancy, Edelstein and other movement leaders claim that elements within the agency that opposed funding for the streams are using the intifada and the current economic downturn as an excuse to reroute funds away from religious programs.

“It’s no secret there are some people in the agency, in both the professional and volunteer membership, who have been opposed to these allocations from the beginning,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations. “The current crisis has become an opportunity to move the money out of the streams.” Yoffie also signed onto the letter to UJC officials.

One addressee of the letter, Stephen Hoffman, president and CEO of UJC, told the Forward: “The [Jewish Agency] committee is going to meet again to discuss and study the issue of funding to religious streams in Israel. Members of religious movements have been asked to attend the meeting and we at UJC will continue to watch it closely.”

Other complaints against the Jewish Agency centered on the way in which the allocation cuts were decided. Reform and Conservative movement leaders say a the Subcommittee on Allocations made the decision without abiding by a longstanding agreement that the religious movements be consulted in advance of any funding changes. Then, it was improperly brought to a vote where others had no opportunity to object, according to movement leaders. “The process was distressing,” said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of ARZA/World Union, the Reform movement’s international affairs arm.

“We had no idea that this was coming up for a vote,” said Hirsch, who was a signatory of the December 16 letter.

But the Jewish Agency spokesman said that the cuts were never officially “authorized” by the agency’s full Board of Governors. Movement leaders claim this statement is beside the point because they say the cuts were part of the 2003 budget that was voted into being by the Board of Governors in October.

The letter to UJC heads regarding the cuts stated: “If we allow this problem to fester, we are fearful that the unity of spirit and commonality of purpose that have characterized our efforts in North America during the past two years will begin to break down.”

Bandel said the Masorti movement is threatened with extinction because of the double blow of Jewish Agency cuts and its own disastrous fundraising campaign. In 2001 the Masorti movement raised $1.36 million. That number plunged to $300,000 in 2002, he said. If the Jewish Agency funding is not restored, Bandel said, the Masorti movement will have to let five rabbis go this year, the same number it lost in 2002. “There is a steady growth in numbers of congregations and people who joined our shuls, but we cannot provide the rabbinical salary.”

The Jewish Agency’s board of governors is set to meet in February and movement leaders are expressing hope that much if not all of their funding will be restored.

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