'Radical rethink' urged to deal with shift in Jewish philanthropy to Israel

Jewish Agency to pair donors in Israel and US with specific programs.

stephen hoffman 88 (photo credit: )
stephen hoffman 88
(photo credit: )
Recent tensions between the Jewish Agency and the United Jewish Communities have shed a spotlight on what may be the most significant trend in Jewish institutional life today - the changing priorities of American Jewish donors. "Philanthropy through the Jewish Agency is being cut year by year. It's suffering the death of a thousand cuts." The Jewish Agency "needs to radically rethink" its operations, according to Barry Shrage, president of Boston's Combined Jewish Philanthropies, in order not to lose its donors. The problem is not new, but is getting more severe. "Diaspora Jewry tend more and more to donate to non-Jewish philanthropies rather than Jewish ones, and increasingly are giving directly [to causes], rather than to general funds such as the UJC," explained Prof. Chaim Waxman, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute in Jerusalem. Indeed, according to a UJC official, donors increasingly "want to have a hands-on idea of where their money is going. There's more money raised than ever before, but people are giving it to [specific] things." And increasingly, those targets for donations are local. As Waxman notes, "there have been pressures on the UJC" - which gathers and then distributes moneys raised by federations, and accounts for the majority of the Agency's budget - "since the mid-1970s to decrease the amount of money [sent to Israel through the Jewish Agency] and to focus more on domestic needs," said Waxman. "And if you look at the dollar amount that the UJC gave [to Israel through the UJA and JAFI], it's gone down consistently since around 1975. Last year was an exception, because it was a time of crisis." Now, JAFI officials are concerned that the UJC and philanthropists are starting to question their relationship with the Agency as a target for their giving. A senior Agency lay leader told The Jerusalem Post last week that the UJC's current restructuring - which increased the UJC's operations in Israel - was "hard to understand," and that the Agency was watching to see if the American umbrella organization were trying to bypass the Agency's institutions and work more directly in Israel. These concerns have since been vehemently denied by both organizations, but, according to a source familiar with aliya, "more and more you see federations and the UJC question whether funds should go to the Jewish Agency, or should go to specific organizations [instead]." Indeed, the Jewish Agency has begun changing in the face of increasingly loud expressions of concern over the ways in which Diaspora Jews are contributing. According to Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland head Stephen Hoffman, "there has always been grumbling about the Agency inside the UJC." Reflecting a sentiment heard widely among American Jewish organizations and, more importantly, donors, Hoffman told the Post that "every organization has to understand that the environment in which it works is constantly being changed. [Israelis] need to figure out what their challenges are, and build private organizations that don't have political considerations, such as giving jobs [to political allies]." The Jewish Agency officialdom is partly composed of representatives of Israeli political parties and delegates from Zionist organizations worldwide, and the critique of politicized bureaucracy is heard often among American philanthropic organizations. As one former official noted, "if [the Agency] wants to be relevant, it should turn itself into an umbrella organization and take under its wing private organizations that excel at specific things." Now this streamlining has begun to take place. According to Hoffman, "the Agency has vastly improved" since the time of Sallai Meridor's chairmanship of the institution. As described by Jeff Kaye, head of the Agency's Department of Resource Development and Public Affairs, the Agency is shifting to a philanthropic model that pairs specific projects with individual donors, and bring in Israeli philanthropists to match American donations. "There isn't a project of the Jewish Agency in which an Israeli partner isn't put together with an American one," Kaye says, citing a list of wealthy Israeli businessmen and - recently - philanthropists that includes Nochi Dankner, Eitan Wertheimer and Avi Naor. In the 12-month period ending July 2007, the Agency has raised $48 million that was matched by Israeli donors, fundraising separate from the special emergency campaign following last summer's war in the North. "American Jews have felt for years that they were the 'American uncle' expected to fund Israeli projects," Kaye admits. "But Israel has its wealthy, and they are beginning to understand their responsibility to Israeli society." When the American donors see this Israeli involvement, Kaye believes, they perceive their philanthropy as a worthwhile partnership. According to Hoffman, the Agency will continue to be an important organization for world Jewry. "One of the roles the Agency has played and can continue to play is being this tremendous intersection of Israeli and Diaspora life. It's the only place in our philanthropic world today where Diaspora leaders and Israeli leaders come together and say, 'what can we do to build a better Israel and a stronger Jewish people?'" But, Shrage believes, "organized Jewish philanthropy must decentralize. Partnership 2000 has been a way to decentralize and has been very successful. The Jewish Agency has terrific people" and some excellent programs, "but what they have to understand is that a traditional 'don't worry, just send money' approach isn't going to work."