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"Usually Jewish organizations are thought of as wealthy and strong, but it's important that people know the situation here so we can begin to grow again," says Tamar Shchory, the 25-year-old chairwoman of the World Union of Jewish Students.
The confession comes as the 83-year-old international umbrella organization of Jewish student unions struggles for its very survival.
From joining the struggle to free Soviet Jewry, to facing off with anti-Zionist activists at Durban and demonstrating for Israel as the Hague considered its ruling over the security fence, WUJS was once a prominent Jewish advocacy organization.
Its past leadership is likewise impressive. Its first president was Albert Einstein, while many familiar names in Israel and the Jewish world, such as Malcolm Hoenlein and Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav, were its student leaders in their day.
But a rapid changeover in leadership and an almost grotesque mismanagement of the organization's resources has left it directionless and with NIS 1 million in debts.
The group has no staff save for Shchory herself, who serves in a volunteer capacity. Until Thursday, when the organization moved into its rent-free office in the World Zionist Organization building in Jerusalem, Shchory worked from home.
"There hasn't been a systematic budget for the past two years," Shchory, who took over the reins of the organization in December without previous knowledge of its financial state, explained when asked how the group fell so precipitously.
Since coming to the organization, Shchory has fired its entire professional staff - she didn't have the money to pay their salaries - and sold off the expensive furniture and computer equipment purchased without financial cover by the group's ousted director Jonny Cline, who was fired at the first board meeting held after Shchory's election.
It was during that meeting that the group's leadership became aware of the scope of its financial troubles. "Now I'm building the budget from zero," she says, "and I'm trying to focus on fundraising to cover the budget. But it's not easy. Nobody wants to donate to cover debt."
The situation of the once-respected organization is particularly tragic, Shchory believes, since it still has a role to play for the Jewish world. The group that brings together all the major Jewish student unions outside North America "is important to the Jewish people."
With anti-Semitism rampant on college campuses worldwide and the potential for student activism largely untapped, "the organization's potential is amazing. It's frustrating to think of everything we want to do as a Jewish organization and can't. I'm calling on anyone who can to help."
Yet, "with the boycott in London," said Shchory, who was in England last week to help with the campaign against the UCU boycott proposal, "we showed that WUJS can be relevant."
Shchory also plans to reorganize the organization to prevent a recurrence of its current troubles. "First I have to pay back the debt," she says. "Then, we're going to establish an internal oversight committee and a board of directors" that will make the group more transparent and effective.
Several groups in the Jewish world, convinced of the importance of WUJS's mission, have now come forward. Jewish Agency treasurer Hagai Merom is credited by Shchory with setting into motion the WZO aid package that could save WUJS. In addition to the office space and phone budget, the package includes access to the WZO's financial advisers, a crucial benefit for the management-less student organization.
Meanwhile, the World Jewish Congress gives WUJS a seat at the table, a membership which makes Shchory one of the electors at Sunday's WJC presidential elections in New York. And at the recent American Jewish Committee annual meeting in Washington, Shchory sat down with the AJC's David Harris to discuss an offer of financial assistance.
For the immediate future, Merom and the AJC's Dr. Eran Lerman "are helping us find donors for our current and future activities," Shchory related. Even if this doesn't cover the debt, "it lets us move forward and stay relevant."
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