UJC leaders puzzled about some requests for funding

Say Israeli government should be at forefront of refurbishing bomb shelters.

bomb shelter 298 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
bomb shelter 298 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Though always ready and able to help Israel grapple with emergencies and much more besides, the United Jewish Communities has been somewhat taken aback by some of the Israeli government's requests for assistance in rebuilding the North and Sderot in the wake of last summer's war and rocket attacks, members of the UJC's top leadership told The Jerusalem Post Tuesday. "You got a problem, we're there to help solve it, [and certainly] when it fits in the context of an emergency," stressed Howard Rieger, UJC president and CEO. But sometimes, when it came to areas where the government ought to be in the forefront, such as rebuilding bomb shelters, he said, "A year later, I think, why hasn't it been solved in the last 12 months?" The UJC represents 155 federations and 400 independent communities across America. In an Israel Emergency Campaign begun at the start of the Second Lebanon War, the organization raised $359.5 million in pledges, of which it has approved the dispensation of about $235m. (Not all of the pledged money has yet been collected, the UJC said.) The government had asked the UJC for more money to help rebuild and refurnish bomb shelters in the North and, now, in Sderot as well, said Toni Young, vice chair of the UJC board of trustees. The UJC, which allocated $75m. to social services and refurbishing bomb shelters during the fighting, was reluctant to do so. "We don't think as much of repairing the physical structures as helping the people," Young said. "Our donors are asking 'Why doesn't the government do it?'" Among the areas where the UJC felt its assistance was most appropriate and useful were in paying for university scholarships for 8,700 reservists unable to work because of the war, and in allocating $36m. in employment programs and small-business loans to help the devastated northern economy recover. The UJC also donated $25m. to the Israel Trauma Coalition and The Fund for the Victims of Terror to help deal with the spike in post-traumatic stress disorder in the North. "It's easy to be cynical about any organization, including our own," Rieger said. "But when I see the array of recommendations that came to us for scholarships, loans funds - the ones bringing the recommendations got nothing out of it [themselves], yet they saw it as a priority." The UJC leaders emphasized that money raised for Israel in the emergency campaign did not subtract from money raised in the UJC's annual campaign, which yields more than $800m. per year. About 30 percent of that annual campaign philanthropy goes to Israel and other overseas needs, with the rest spent on American Jewish needs. The UJC leaders said the campaign was growing year by year, but that they were concerned by the need to keep the number of donors rising too, at a time when maintaining the connection among American Jews to Israel and to organized Jewry was a growing challenge. The officials worried that future donations were likely to decline if today's Jewish youth were not more involved in their communities. Programs such as Taglit-birthright israel, which currently gets $11m. per year from the UJC, are proving effective in fighting assimilation, they said. Rieger said the UJC was now involved in efforts to provide birthright with a solid endowment-centered funding base - but more needed to be done. "We say that all Jews in America are Jews of choice," said Kathy Manning, chair of the UJC executive committee. "The connection American Jews had to Israel two generations ago was a given. Now it's an option. It's going to take effort to get younger people connected to Jewish life." The officials highlighted their ability to use the donations to help "leverage" the government to allocate funding. According to Rieger, the UJC just proposed $2.7m. to aid Gush Katif evacuees, which it hopes will in turn prompt an allocation of several million more from the government. They stressed the aid was not political in any way, nor would it go to build permanent homes for the former Gaza residents. The money will go into about 10 different social service projects designed to help the evacuees and their children recover and prepare for their new lives. "We understand the government can't do everything," Manning said. "We have a Diaspora Jewry willing to help. It should be a partnership."