Jewish Journal


November 23, 2009

Philanthropy roundup: At annual parley, Chabad emissaries reflect on recession


Some 4,000 Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries came home to their Crown Heights base for the annual “kinus” earlier this month—a conference that includes a week of professional development culminating with a grand banquet Nov. 15 at the Brooklyn Armory.

If you can somehow score an invite, the kinus is not to be missed, if only for the sheer spectacle, with most of the Chabad shluchim on hand.

To borrow from Tablet’s “By the Numbers” feature, think 600 tables, 4,000 black hats, 10,000 challah rolls, 24,000 inches of beard, a ton or so of meat and six women. Four thousand men dance the hora at one time for about a half-hour after the emcee holds a roll call of the cities and countries where Chabad has outposts.

Over the last year, Chabad has been hit as hard as any other Jewish nonprofit system, but the rabbis with whom I spoke at the armory seemed steadfast in holding to their mission to serve as the unofficial outreach arm of the Jewish people.

Chabad houses typically are bare-bones operations as far as organizational infrastructure, consisting most often of the rabbi and his wife. The most developed operations have a few teachers and program officers.

Generally run on shoestring budgets to match, Chabad houses spend more on educational elbow grease and personal interaction than on expensive programming. It’s part of the reason Chabad has been one of the most successful Jewish identity-building projects in modern history.

Chabad’s director of education, Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky—the night’s emcee—declared publicly that not one house has closed since the recession (though there was a report earlier this year that four Chabad houses in Florida are in foreclosure).  But most houses, which generally receive no financial support from Chabad central in Brooklyn, have seen a cut in donations and been forced to adapt.

Rabbi Chaim Bruk, for instance, started a Chabad in Bozeman, Mont., two years ago and said he has seen a 30 percent dip in funding. Chabad houses don’t charge membership fees, so Bruk started what he is calling a Chai Club. He asked his regulars to give whatever they could each month to the Chabad in addition to their annual donations. Now he has 25 people giving $18 to $400 a month.

It’s helping to keep his outpost, which has a $150,000 annual budget, afloat.

Bruk hasn’t had to cut any programming. But he also realizes there are projects he completed before the recession hit—like building the state’s first mikveh—that never would have attracted sufficient funding in today’s climate. And this is in Montana, which has been less affected by the recession than most anywhere else in the country.

At Washington University in St. Louis, the campus Chabad House has seen subtle changes, says its director, Hershey Novack. For instance, at the free weekly Shabbat dinners, students are being served plain white rice instead of jasmine rice—at about one fifth the cost. Also, Novack has had to put off some maintenance work on his building.

Novack, who has been growing the Washington U. Chabad for seven years, suddenly finds himself as the only full-time rabbi on campus after the Hillel had to let go its rabbi for financial reasons, he said.

That means Novack is working more than ever. And like all of the Chabad rabbis with whom I spoke, he said he is spending more time than ever on fund raising. A number of the workshops at the conference last week focused on dealing with economic realities, and kinus speakers repeatedly mentioned economic hardships.

But Chabad may have an advantage over a lot of nonprofits: The rabbis dispersed all over the world believe they are on a mission from God and remain highly motivated to do their fulfilling work. That is why they were selected as shluchim in the first place.

“There’s just a sense of responsibility,” Novack said.

Keeping Mumbai victims’ names alive: An interesting side note to the Chabad gathering: In the year after emissaries Rabbi Gavi and Rivky Holtzberg were killed by terrorists who struck the Chabad house in Mumbai, some 500 Lubavitcher children have been named Rivky or Gavi, according to The New York Jewish Week.

Will Israel pick up more of Jewish Agency tab?

Maybe a new day is dawning.

The Jerusalem Post reported earlier this month that the Israeli government is contemplating picking up $12 million of the Jewish Agency’s debt.

Such claims might be a touch premature (according to my sources, there still is no deal in place for the government to make its first contribution to the agency’s core budget). But that doesn’t mean the JPost’s news story is not significant.

Quite the contrary. Discussions indeed are apparently taking place between the two sides over whether the government can give the agency unrestricted dollars. That could be a sign that the agency’s new chairman, Natan Sharansky, and his friend and political sponsor Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have concluded that a new reality exists to which they must adjust. Namely that at a time of shrinking federation budgets, American Jews may not be willing to keep footing the bill for some of the agency’s more quasi-governmental operations—immigration, absorption and Zionist education aimed at convincing non-Israelis to make aliyah—especially at a time when aliyah is down and lacking a mobilizing story.

This is the sort of potential paradigm shift that U.S. supporters of the Jewish Agency have a hard time accepting. After all, these efforts have been the fundamental part of the organization’s mission for so long. So long, in fact, that it’s easy to forget why it was that American and European Jews paid for the settling of Jews in Israel in the middle part of the last century—namely that no one else would or could.

The country had a very young government, virtually no gross domestic product and was still very much in its early stage of economic development. Now Israel is a first-world country that in 2007 had more than 7,200 millionaires, according to Morgan Stanley. It is also a country whose GDP has grown by at least 5 percent every year since 2003—aside from the 3.8 percent in 2008, while in the throes of the recession, according to the CIA’s “World Factbook.”

Despite Israel’s strong economic standing, the Jewish Agency expects to spend $118 million on immigration and absorption in 2009. Just over $100 million of the amount comes from the organization’s core budget, which is comprised primarily of American charitable dollars from the federation system that the Jewish Agency is free to spend as it sees fit.

In short, American donors aren’t giving as much, and Israelis and the Israeli government are doing relatively well. Yet the vast majority of the $120 million that the federations will give this year to the Jewish Agency is going to pay for something the Israeli government can afford on its own and, according to a growing number of federation leaders, that makes no sense.

Plenty of the Jewish Agency’s major U.S. supporters would reject any such talk, but either intentionally or not, Netanyahu and Sharansky appear to be headed down that road to some degree. According to one source with knowledge of the situation, the fact that the two old friends and political allies are even talking about the government giving $12 million to the agency shows that both recognize “now is a good time to re-examine the role of the government in some of this.”

It doesn’t mean that anything will ever happen, the source said. Any significant shift of responsibility to the Israeli government could take years. Netanyahu and Sharansky would have to make a very tough sell to the Knesset, and it may be an even tougher sell when it comes to some lay leaders of the Jewish Agency.

One thing is clear: Sharansky has been stressing the need to shift the Jewish Agency’s mission to serving as a convener and promoter of the Jewish people. And as the Boston federation’s leader, Barry Shrage, recently said to me, the Jewish Agency has played and should continue to play an important role in developing and maintaining relationships between Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews. It’s a view that echoes many federation officials.

What’s not clear: Whether any of this will impact the federation system’s current system of allocating money to overseas organizations.

(This column was adapted from TheFundermentalist.com, JTA’s philanthropy blog.)

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