Financial crisis crashes GA's party

After raising almost $2.5b in 2007, American Jewish federations are plagued by profound uncertainty.

nachman shai 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
nachman shai 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The General Assembly of the umbrella body of North American Jewish communities will meet in Jerusalem starting Sunday, in an event originally planned as a birthday party for Israel, but which gathers in a moment of crisis for American Jewish institutions.
After raising almost $2.5 billion in 2007, the federation system was expecting a year flush with cash and new initiatives. The issues on the agenda for thousands of American Jewish professionals and lay leaders reflect this: They are the usual discussions held in every GA and cover assimilation, fund-raising, Israeli security, welfare, minorities and other topics.
Indeed, over a third of the GA's time is not being spent in conferencing, but in touring the country.
But, unforeseen by its planners, the GA meets at a time of deep turmoil. The financial crisis has generated fears and profound uncertainty about the ability of the American Jewish federations - essentially a vast network of charities - to continue to provide the desperately needed social services to America's poor, including the one Jew in five who lives below the poverty line in the United States.
Equally unforeseen, political instability in Israel has nearly eliminated the possibility of practical policy discussions with Israeli leaders.
"This was supposed to be a moving meeting between the two largest [Jewish] communities in the world," said the GA's chief planner Nachman Shai, senior vice president of UJC Israel. "In the end, however, it's clear that the discussions will be dominated by the crisis."
Unlike in other GAs, little serious research has been published on American Jewry or philanthropy to give direction to the conference. No platform, other than the state's 60th birthday, guides the discussions.
Yet pervading all, said Shai, would be an awareness of the expected immense shortfall in donations to Jewish charities in America.
"I expect that all the major speakers will relate to the economic situation," Shai said.