For more than half a century, North America’s Jewish federation system has divided its overseas allocations between the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The Jewish Agency has been dedicated to building up Israel and encouraging aliyah, while the Joint has focused on aiding Jewish communities in need around the globe.
Today, both agencies are working to assert their continued relevance in a changing Jewish world. With aliyah slowing, the Jewish Agency is moving toward embracing a new agenda: promoting the concept of Jewish peoplehood. The JDC, meanwhile, has sought to claim a larger share of the communal pie, which had long been split 75%-25% in the Jewish Agency’s favor.
After a recent round of sniping over the funding issue, the two sides are now stepping back from their public confrontation and recommitting to negotiations over the future of the collective funding arrangement. Underlying this fight, however, is a more fundamental tension over communal funding priorities: Should overseas aid be focused on helping needy Jews and assisting communities that have few resources of their own, or should it be used to bolster Jewish identity?
With this debate raging, the Forward asked a diverse group of Jewish thinkers and communal activists from around the world to weigh in and address the following question: How should North America’s Jewish community be thinking about its priorities and purposes in funding Jewish needs abroad?
New Century, New Priorities
By Yossi Beilin
During the 20th century, the challenges facing world Jewry were the following: rescue of Jews who encountered existential danger, assistance to Israel, helping with the absorption of those who immigrated to new countries and opening the gates for those who were denied the right to emigrate. In the 21st century, ensuring Jewish continuity is the greatest challenge facing the Jewish people.
Yet too often Jewish organizations in the United States and elsewhere remain focused on the challenges of the previous century. (Indeed, Jewish groups were not very receptive when I first proposed the idea for Birthright Israel 17 years ago.)
Ensuring the existence of Jewish life (religious and secular) throughout the world via Jewish education, encounters between young Israeli and Diaspora Jews, creating a virtual Jewish community using new technologies — these must be at the top of the global Jewish agenda. This requires American Jewish philanthropy and leadership, which in turn requires discerning between past and present priorities.
Yossi Beilin, a former justice minister of Israel, is president of the international consulting firm Beilink.
Reviving Polish Jewry
By Konstanty Gebert
The rebirth of Central European Jewish communities after 1989, though numerically not very impressive, remains significant for moral and historical reasons. It is also crucial for Jewish self-understanding. An enormous proportion of American Jews can trace their origins to what used to be Poland alone. This is where much of Diaspora history happened.
Alongside the courage and determination of local Jews, the far-sighted support of several American Jewish organizations and philanthropies made this rebirth possible. In Poland the Joint Distribution Committee, the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and the Taube Foundation played key roles. Their support has translated not only into Jewish schools and festivals in places once believed to be Jewish-ly dead, but also in most cases into changed relations between local Jewish communities and their fellow citizens as well as clear support for Israel on the part of these countries’ governments.
Yet for all this progress, Central European Jewish communities might never become self-financing. The support given them by American Jewry remains a vital Jewish interest. It must be strengthened.
Konstanty Gebert, a former underground journalist, is a columnist at the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza and founder of the Polish-language Jewish monthly Midrasz.
What We Give Ourselves
By Lisa Leff
More than any Jewish community in history, postwar American Jews have used our prosperity to help Jewish communities around the world. On one level, the greatest beneficiaries of this support have been Jews abroad. But we should also recognize that these philanthropic efforts have shaped our communal values and identity.
Through our international aid, we have dedicated ourselves to universalist and cosmopolitan ideas like tikkun olam and solidarity across borders. In helping disadvantaged and oppressed Jews abroad, we have also deepened our community’s commitments to democracy, human rights and economic justice for all. It’s only natural that Jewish groups pitch in on Haitian earthquake relief and advocate on behalf of oppressed people of all backgrounds.
Whatever the outcome of the federations’ deliberations over how to divide allocations between the Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committee, it is imperative that American Jewry maintain its commitment to our values through supporting international philanthropy.
Lisa Leff is an associate professor of history at American University and the author of “Sacred Bonds of Solidarity: The Rise of Jewish Internationalism in Nineteenth-Century France” (Stanford University Press, 2006).
Putting Identity First
By Jonathan S. Tobin
The choices we face are not between good causes and bad or even indifferent ones but between vital Jewish obligations. But since the decline in giving to Jewish causes means that we must make tough decisions, programs that reinforce Jewish identity and support Zionism both in the Diaspora and in Israel must be accorded a higher priority.
At this point in our history, with assimilation thinning the ranks of Diaspora Jewry and with continuity problems arising even in Israel, the need to instill a sense of membership in the Jewish people is an imperative that cannot be pushed aside. Under the current circumstances, absent an effort that will make Jewish and Zionist education the keynote of our communal life, the notion that Jewish philanthropies or support for Israel can be adequately sustained in the future is simply a fantasy.
Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of Commentary magazine.
By Richard Wexler
One cannot have a meaningful discussion about framing the national Jewish community’s priorities and purposes in funding Jewish needs abroad without first asking the question: Is there actually a collective “North American Jewish community” today?
Collective responsibility has been and remains the foundation upon which the federation system and, therefore, the national Jewish community are built. It is what distinguishes the federations from all other charities. It is embodied in our participation in the adventure of building Israel and in meeting overseas needs through the Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committee, in the dues that federations pay to the Jewish Federations of North America and so much more. But today, federations “bowl alone.”
Collective responsibility gives meaning to kol Yisrael arevim zeh l’zeh — all Jews are responsible for one another. Until federations understand once again that Jewish needs extend beyond the borders of any one community, we cannot have a meaningful priority-setting process for funding Jewish needs abroad.
Richard Wexler is a former chairman of the United Israel Appeal.