While most participants at the North American Jewish federation system's annual conference were happy just to be in Israel this week, the network's decision makers were grappling with another matter -- funding for overseas partners.
The issue has become so contentious, in fact, that Israel's prime minister decided to step in.
In a Sunday afternoon meeting with representatives of the United Jewish Communities (UJC) committee that decides overseas funding priorities, participants said Ariel Sharon said, "You are my guests, so I am asking you to make Israel your No. 1 priority for funding. If you weren't my guests, I would demand it."
The message comes as the UJC, the federation umbrella organization, prepares to determine allocations to its two main overseas beneficiaries: the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which aids distressed Jews overseas, and the Jewish Agency for Israel, which runs immigration and absorption in Israel and Zionist education worldwide.
It also comes amid increasing concern that local federations, focused more on local needs, are allocating fewer dollars to overseas needs in general -- below the allocation recommendations that the UJC's Overseas Needs Assessment and Distribution Committee (ONAD) has been submitting to UJC's member federations.
For decades, the federation system has followed a 75/25 split in funding the Jewish Agency and the JDC, with 75 percent going to the Jewish Agency.
With aliyah down, however, ONAD recently recommended allocating an additional $13 million to the JDC, possibly altering the customary division.
Last year, according to the JDC, the UJC provided it with roughly $45 million, a few million short of the amount promised.
The Jewish Agency said the UJC provided it with $143 million, $20 million short of what was promised.
The General Assembly, which has drawn some 4,000 lay and professional leaders of federations from all over North America, falls between two important developments on the matter. Earlier this month, ONAD issued new overseas recommendations, and a vote on the issue is scheduled for Dec. 8.
Some say Sharon's appeal -- essentially for Jewish Agency funding -- came at the behest of the agency's chairman, Sallai Meridor.
Asked how Sharon's pitch might influence ONAD's decision, the committee chairman, Steven Klinghoffer, said, "It will be interesting to watch how they respond."
He also said that ONAD's recommendations are "not determinative of any kind of outcome," and that more funds for the JDC wouldn't necessarily mean less for the Jewish Agency.
"There's a lot of different ways to skin the cat," Klinghoffer said.
One member of ONAD, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Sharon's remarks were not helpful.
"It was almost like blackmail," she said. "I was truly offended by his remarks." Sharon was "talking to a group of very dedicated leaders in the Jewish community who have never abandoned Israel," she said. "To say that you owe us is not the way to win friends and influence people, as far as I'm concerned."
But Sharon isn't the only one using the gathering of North Americans to lobby for the Jewish Agency, which ostensibly has more to lose than the JDC in the upcoming ONAD decision.
In his remarks at the Jewish Agency's opening plenary last Friday, Meridor spoke of the "serious challenge" of obtaining enough funds from American Jewry for immigration and absorption in Israel's current economic climate.
He called it "close to a miracle" that the Jewish Agency was bringing some 20,000 immigrants to Israel this year, and claimed that many more are awaiting the chance to make aliyah.
For its part, the JDC says it is not campaigning for funds at the conference.
"I'm not lobbying people. Absolutely not," said Steven Schwager, JDC's executive vice president. "The JDC has put its faith in the ONAD process."
He said the 18 communities involved in the ONAD process "will review all the information that has been presented and all of the facts and will consider all of the site visits that they made and will come to a fair and appropriate conclusion."
Still, talk about overseas funding has been a steady undercurrent at the General Assembly, figuring prominently in meetings and in corridor conversation among decision makers.
In addition, delegates spent the day on Tuesday visiting a variety of programs throughout the country, from social-service programs for new immigrants to educational programs, many of which get at least part of their funding from the North American federation system via the Jewish Agency or the JDC.
At a meeting of the UJC's board of governors and delegate assembly on Monday, the group pledged to continue funding its overseas beneficiaries and to "increase its efforts in the advocacy for allocations in support of overseas needs."
This appeared to be a nod to the common gripe that the system doesn't push hard enough for funds for its overseas partners.
Some fault the federation system for allegedly establishing a competition between the JDC and the Jewish Agency and failing to create an overseas advocacy committee to secure enough funds for both groups.
Klinghoffer admits that the process is fraught with "friction and difficulty" and "political land mines," but says it is "designed to meet the needs of the Jewish people throughout the world."
Indeed, at the last meeting of the UJC's executive committee, in Chicago in September, board chairman Robert Goldberg called ONAD a "failure."
ONAD was created when the Council of Jewish Federations, the United Jewish Appeal and the United Israel Appeal merged to form the UJC four years ago. The establishment of ONAD was an attempt to reverse a trend of decreased giving to overseas needs. That hasn't happened, however. The system has delayed establishing an advocacy committee to encourage federations to give to the UJC's overseas partners. And because several federations did not comply with ONAD recommendations, the UJC has fallen short on the amount it planned to provide the groups.
That has caused the JDC to do its own advocacy work: Schwager has visited individual federations around North America, encouraging them to allocate more for overseas needs.
Some observers say the ONAD process has cost the UJC dearly in terms of the time and energy of its professionals and the financial strain on its overseas agencies.
ONAD was scheduled for an initial review after five years, a juncture that is quickly approaching. Some say it's simply a matter of making overseas needs a priority. Others anticipate reform, if not a complete overhaul, at that time.
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