(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The Jewish Agency is suffering from a $20 million budget shortfall necessitating cuts in staff and programs, while $92m. in major projects remain unfunded, according to the 2006 budget released Monday.
The funding gaps come at a time when the Jewish Agency has major commitments to fund MASA, a program bringing Jewish youth on year-long projects, and to help 20,000 Falash Mura in Ethiopia move to Israel over three years.
"This is not an easy period for us," Ze'ev Bielski told the Jewish Agency's board of governors in his first official address since assuming the agency chairmanship this summer. He spoke at the opening session of the tri-annual, three-day board meeting. "Some of this cut is very painful because it affects things we are doing for the Jewish people."
The shrunken income, leaving the 2006 budget at $285.7m., stems mainly from reductions in grants for refugee resettlement from the US government, monetary losses due to a falling dollar, and a $4m. decrease in the United Jewish Communities' funding of the agency. The UJC, which represents 155 Jewish federations throughout America, covers about two-thirds of the agency's annual budget.
"The money that the UJC has sent to us is less and less, even though they've been [recruiting] more American funding then ever before," lamented Herb Gimelstob, chairman of the assets and liabilities committee, at the meeting.
Bobby Goldberg, UJC chairman, responded that each federation has discretion over how donations are spent, and "they've allocated most of the increase to their local community needs." He also said the projection which came up with a cut of $4m. was "conservative," meaning the UJA could well raise more money over the course of the year.
Board of Governors Chairwoman Carole Solomon noted that funding the Jewish Agency is always the top priority of the federations.
UJC CEO and president Howard Reiger said that while there might be "issues" surrounding the Jewish Agency and federation systems, it was "doubtful" that they were "obstacles." "Most contributors to the campaign haven't got a clue what the Jewish Agency is. They probably haven't got a clue what the Jewish Federation is," he said. "They give because it's a Jewish imperative, because it's the right thing to do."
Reiger added that new initiatives such as the $160m. Operation Promise, of which $100m. will go to the Falash Mura, could provide momentum for American Jews looking for new reasons to give money.
But some agency board members expressed concern over the agency's vulnerability stemming from this new campaign. The UJC is supposed to come up with the funds, but there is no guarantee that they will do so. So far, the UJC has raised $26. The Israeli government, though, has committed the agency to facilitating the immigration of the Falash Mura.
Additionally, should the Falash Mura need to stay in Israeli absorption centers longer than one year - as has been the case with many newcomers from Ethiopia - and the government does not provide funding, the agency could be exposed to another $120m. funding liability, according to Jay Sarver, chairman of the agency's budget and finance committee.
"We are on a very precarious path," Sarver told the board. "One we need to be on, but one that could have dramatic implications for the Jewish Agency."
Gimelstob asked, "Are we making a wise decision? What happens if the UJC doesn't come up with this money?" "There is a balance between the business decision and the moral responsibility," Solomon replied. "We believe it's the right thing to do."
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