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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews will become one of the central strategic partners - and funders - of the Jewish Agency following a deal announced this week that will see some $45 million donated by the organization to the Agency over three years.
The funds will go to the Jewish Agency's core budget, which has been shrinking in recent years as donors overseas choose to give directly to projects, bypassing the Agency.
As a result, many in-house Agency projects, such as Jewish identity programs in the former Soviet Union, face cutbacks each year.
The donation is part of a broader agreement that will see Fellowship founder and president Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein join the Jewish Agency Executive, the 26-member "cabinet" that makes its high-level decisions and implements policy.
Fellowship representatives will also be given seats on the agency's Budget and Finance Committee and the Coordinating Committee between the agency and the Israeli government.
Despite the funding windfall for Jewish Agency programs, complaints were heard from inside and outside the organization over "bringing Christians to the table."
"This is a Jewish Zionist institution. What are they doing giving Christian donors a say in Jewish Agency policy?" asked a Jewish institution official who spoke anonymously, and wondered if American Christians' voice would be heeded when deciding politically-sensitive issues.
But a source familiar with the group's workings said it had always limited itself to apolitical welfare work.
"The Fellowship interacts with donors in terms of values, where the money is going, reporting and accountability," he said. "But that's the end of the relationship. The donors are usually small donors" - the group claims some 600,000 individual donors, past and present - "and their influence over decision-making is almost nil. In the disengagement [from Gaza in August 2005], or on the question of donating over the Green Line, you see that the organization had no political side. It gives according to National Insurance Institute categories of poverty, not political viewpoint," the source said.
According to the Jewish Agency and the Fellowship, the move has the approval of the Jewish Agency's other major donor partners: the American umbrella group United Jewish Communities and the worldwide community umbrella Keren Hayesod.
The move marks a significant upgrade in the involvement of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews in Jewish Agency affairs.
Eckstein is already a member of the organization's Board of Governors, and millions of Fellowship dollars have gone to Agency programs in the past, "but never in a structured way over years, like what's happening here," said an observer familiar with both institutions.
The Fellowship has operated in Israel for years, often by providing funding for Jewish Agency projects. It has spent an estimated NIS 1 billion in Israel on welfare projects, immigrant absorption and facilitating aliya.
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