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Jewish Agency Names First Woman as Diaspora Chair

The Jewish Agency for Israel has named a woman to its top Diaspora post for the first time ever, but the appointment is receiving a lukewarm response from the American Jewish communities she is meant to represent.

A powerful fundraiser for the Jewish Agency, Carole Solomon, won a fiercely fought battle Tuesday for chairmanship of the agency’s board of governors. Her rival for the post, Robert Goldberg, has served as a watchdog over the agency’s activities and budget and was said to be the favorite of the local American Jewish federations that provide much of the agency’s funding. The chairman is the chief representative of Diaspora fundraisers within the massive, quasi-governmental Israeli welfare agency charged with facilitating immigration to Israel.

The candidates, according to some observers, represented two camps jockeying for power within the federated system of Jewish charities: national leaders of the now dissolved United Jewish Appeal, who are heavily involved in lobbying federations to send more money to Israel, and leaders of local Jewish welfare federations, who are pushing for more federation oversight of the agency. The Jewish Agency and its allies were said to have lobbied heavily for Solomon, a past national chair of the UJA and a close friend of Sallai Meridor, the Israeli chairman of the agency’s executive. Goldberg was said to be a top choice of federation leaders including Stephen Hoffman, chief executive of the federation’s roof body, United Jewish Communities — which Goldberg chairs.

In recent years, some UJC leaders have become increasingly critical of the way the Jewish Agency is run. Senior agency officials complain that UJC is trying to impose American standards on the agency, such as ending the practice of giving salaried positions to representatives of political parties. One influential federation professional said the choice of Solomon would weaken calls from local federations for reforms at the agency. “The agency needs a strong, independent outside voice that could reflect the voice of federations and the Jewish world and reflect the need that the Jewish Agency itself has for radical change,” said Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston. “Carol has never reflected that perspective in the past. In this case Bobby is what they would’ve needed.”

What’s needed, Shrage added, is “more oversight, more creativity and independence emanating from local federations.”

Another senior federation executive, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “Bobby Goldberg would be the person who would have brought much more management on behalf of federations to the Jewish Agency… Carole is much more the public spokesman for the Jewish Agency, and as a team they couldn’t be beat.”

Some agency officials said the triumph of their candidate may come back to haunt them if it alienates American fundraisers. “There’s no doubt that we won the battle, but this victory is liable to cost us in the war,” said one senior Jewish Agency official, who requested anonymity.

But according to Hoffman, at the board of governors meeting in Jerusalem where the appointment was approved Goldberg made a “public statement of support and congratulations to Carole Solomon on behalf of himself and the leadership of UJC.”

During the board of governors meeting, which ran from February 23 to 25, the agency’s budget and finance committee moved to reinstate most of the funding it had previously cut to non-Orthodox religious streams in Israel, some $300,000, according to an agency spokesman. Top Reform and Conservative movement leaders commended the decision, which included a pledge from the agency’s top leadership to raise an additional $197,000 for the streams.

Last year, local Jewish welfare federations paid about half of the Jewish Agency’s $320 million budget. The funds were sent via UJC, an organization formed in 2000 through a merger of the UJA, Council of Jewish Federations and United Israel Appeal.

Solomon said she was surprised to receive the nominating committee’s nod. “As a woman, I’m very proud that I was elected,” she said from the lobby of the David’s Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem. “But I want to believe that I was chosen because I was better.” Solomon is to succeed Right Aid founder Alex Grass in June.

Solomon, while very aware of how her victory is perceived by federation leaders, denies that she will be too “Israeli” for the Americans. “Sallai will find life no easier with me than he would have with any other candidate,” she said.

Still, many agency officials were said to be apprehensive that whoever replaced Grass would serve as a UJC “auditor” enforcing American standards. In October, they began a frantic search for a candidate of their own.

Goldberg, president of Ohio Savings Bank, was regarded by many observers as the candidate most likely to win. He has held many senior positions in UJC and currently chairs its executive committee. A third candidate, Richard Pearlstone, has close ties with leading American donors to Israel; he also chairs the Jewish Agency’s Budget and Finance Committee. But Solomon, though she currently heads the UJC’s Campaign/Financial Resource Development Pillar has no serious power base in UJC, according to some observers, and was thus considered the least threatening candidate to the agency. She also has close ties with Israel: She has an Israeli boyfriend, and has spent several months a year there for the last several years.

Solomon’s election was considered a major victory for Meridor. Though his position barred him from openly supporting any candidate, he lobbied extensively for Solomon behind the scenes, according to agency sources. His victory is all the more impressive because in practice it is UJC that chooses the chairman of the board of governors. Its Israeli partner in the agency, the World Zionist Organization, has advisory status only.

Meridor’s latest success, however, may not be enough to keep him at the agency. According to some agency and UJC sources, the chairman may leave his post to join a Likud-led Sharon government. Some say that Meridor, who took a leave of absence at the agency to campaign for the prime minister during the elections, is a candidate to become Israel’s next ambassador to Great Britain.

In addition to being the first woman to head the board of governors, Solomon will also be the first chair who donates less than $1 million a year, according to agency sources.

But some UJC and Jewish Agency leaders said all three candidates would have been as committed to Israel advocacy as they are to the concerns of local federations.

One of Solomon’s supporters, Rabbi Richard Hirsch, a top Reform leader and agency lay leader, said: “Solomon’s appointment proves that for Jews, money isn’t everything… [she] has a human touch, warmth, and she understands both worlds, Israel and the U.S., better than any other candidate.”

Top leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements here and in Israel praised the agency’s move to reinstate the deep cuts in funding to non-Orthodox streams it had made in October 2002. An 18% reduction in the $4.26 million allotted for liberal streams had sparked a wave of protests from the non-Orthodox movements that rely heavily on agency funding to offset the Israeli government’s refusal to support non-Orthodox Jewish religious institutions. The agency’s executive committee must first approve the decision.

“Everything was conducted in an excellent spirit of cooperation,” said David Breakstone, a Conservative movement representative on the Jewish Agency executive. “All those involved recognized the need to promote religious pluralism in Israel.”

The president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, chalked up the victory to a combined lobbying effort by religious movements and UJC. “The UJC understood our concerns involved, and they delivered,” Yoffie said.

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