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A ‘Promise’ to Help Jews Overseas

by Rachel Pomerance

December 1, 2005 | 7:00 pm

A 100-year-old Jewish woman, whose closest relatives are dead, lives in a one-room walk-up apartment in the former Soviet republic of Moldova that she hasn't walked out of in four years.

The thought of Klara Kogan, who exists on a paltry government pension, haunts Steven Schwager, executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which provides relief and welfare to Jews abroad.

"We owe it to those people" to care for them, said Schwager, whose group provides Kogan with a home-care worker -- and her only human contact. "Those people could be us."

Making the case for funding overseas needs has become increasingly difficult for the North American Jewish federation system, which raises money for local, national and international needs.

Jewish federations have increasingly put their campaign dollars toward local social service and educational needs; today, roughly 30 percent of funds raised by federations go overseas, down from 50 percent in earlier times.

But the United Jewish Communities (UJC), the umbrella group of the federation system, wants to change that.

At its annual conference held in Toronto in mid-November, the UJC heavily promoted "Operation Promise," a special campaign to raise $160 million over three years primarily to finance the aliyah of an estimated 17,000 Ethiopians of Jewish descent known as the Falash Mura.

The funds will also go toward the absorption of Ethiopian Jews in Israel, caring for the Jewish elderly of the former Soviet Union and invigorating the identity of its Jewish youth.

Despite the fanfare around the special campaign, launched in September by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and endorsed by him via video conference at the General Assembly, there is real concern about how it will resonate with donors across North America.

But Carole Solomon, who chairs the Jewish Agency of Israel's board of governors, said there was great urgency in expediting the aliyah of the Falash Mura and reuniting families.

"It's our every expectation that they will provide the necessary funds to complete this chapter of Jewish history," she said, referring to UJC and the federations.

The campaign comes amid another major development in the federation system's overseas work -- the creation of a new allocations system.

With the 1999 creation of the UJC -- a merger of the Council of Jewish Federations, United Jewish Appeal and United Israel Appeal -- came the Overseas Needs Assessment and Distribution Committee (ONAD), which comprised a cross-section of federation leaders to determine allocations overseas with the aim of increasing overseas dollars.

Fraught with politics and bureaucracy, the committee has cost several million dollars and has not substantially increased the allocation of overseas funds.

The system's major overseas partners are the JDC and the Jewish Agency for Israel, which runs aliyah and Zionist education worldwide.

While the federations' annual campaign, which tops $800 million, increased by 4 percent since 2000, dollars overseas have dropped by more than 4.5 percent since 2001.

The UJC board of trustees unanimously voted to replace ONAD with a system that allows the Jewish Agency and the JDC to hammer out their own agreement for the next two years. A group of federation officials will monitor the process and the UJC board must then approve the deal by the two agencies.

Some hope the new format -- a modified return to pre-ONAD days, when the Jewish Agency and JDC negotiated their funds -- will restore a spirit of cooperation to the process.

Others call the resolution a compromise document that will satisfy no one, and some lament the lack of minimum amounts required by federations to allocate overseas, given past shortfalls.

In fact, the critical issue of shoring up overseas funds remains in question.

"Nothing much will improve unless there's an increase in overseas allocations, and that takes more than a document," said Ellen Heller of Baltimore, the JDC's president. "That takes advocacy."

There is no formal advocacy committee, UJC President Howard Rieger told JTA. But the resolution allows for an aggressive approach to raising overseas funds, he said.

It asks federations to increase overseas giving, provides incentives for those that do and calls for the consideration of punitive measures against noncompliant federations.

For many local federation leaders, making the connection to overseas needs in general and Operation Promise in particular is tough amid so many competing local demands.

People don't see overseas concerns as their responsibility because they have never seen the problems firsthand, said Michael Nissenson, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara

Federations are also facing increased local costs due to growing numbers and budgets of local agencies like day schools, said Steven Rakitt, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.

Still, Rakitt said that "sometimes a special campaign has a way of providing a laser focus," suggesting the new campaign will generate additional funds overseas.

"We have a responsibility to Jews wherever they live and an elderly person who's hungry in Atlanta or hungry in Belarus is our responsibility."

Operation Promise has already raised $32 million in pledges, according to UJC officials.

Several federations are responding to the campaign by soliciting individual major donors rather than rolling out a massive campaign.

Privately, several officials said they didn't want to conduct a "second-line campaign" because it would raise questions among donors, who understand that the annual campaign already funds these types of overseas needs.

The UJA-Federation of New York, which has been a leading proponent of the push to expedite the aliyah of the Falash Mura, has already appropriated $5.7 million to the cause.

John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of the New York federation, said his federation would provide an additional $18 million over the next three years for the other elements of Operation Promise.

"This is our way of fully participating in Operation Promise," he said. Jay Sarver, a UJC board member from St. Louis and the budget and finance chairman of the Jewish Agency, said that although the needs of Operation Promise are contained in the federations' annual campaign efforts, the urgency of the situation demands more funds in a shorter time frame.

In Cleveland, the community has already pledged nearly 90 percent of its goal to raise almost $6 million for Operation Promise, said Stephen Hoffman, president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland.

These pledges come on top of its annual campaign as well as a $137 million capital campaign.

Success comes "if you ask and you take the time to explain why you're asking."

Still, it may be a tough sell.

"It's going to take some real strategic marketing and an incredibly intensive fund-raising effort to reach the $160 million goal, and if we don't reach that goal the Jewish Agency and JDC are going to be in a tremendous debt situation," said Richard Wexler, a UJC board member from Chicago.

Moshe Vigdor, director general of the Jewish Agency, said that "if we have less, we will be able to do less, unfortunately."

But the aliyah operation is unlikely to be halted, even in a funding crisis, according to senior UJC and Jewish Agency officials.

"We have an obligation here," Rieger said.

He noted that Ethiopia and Israel reached an agreement that officials say could prompt the Ethiopian immigration to begin in December.

The $100 million cost of funding the aliyah is broken down as follows: $23 million for preparing and educating the Jews before they immigrate, $40 million for their needs in Israeli absorption centers and $37 million for programs that integrate Ethiopians once they have moved out of the absorption centers, Vigdor said.

Zeev Bielski, the new chairman of the Jewish Agency, which will assume the bulk of responsibility for the education and preparation for the Falash Mura aliyah, said he hoped that the entire immigration would be completed by the end of 2007.

 

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