Show me the ‘new money’

For the Jewish Agency, an initiative by the prime minister is an opportunity for rebirth.

Director of Jewish Agency (photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
Director of Jewish Agency
(photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
‘While the Jewish Agency may be doing great work, its reputa- tion has not been nearly as good,” James Tisch lamented in Tel Aviv earlier this month. “I believe that [our] reputation has bottomed.”
Tisch, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s board of governors, was addressing the worries articulated by observers in recent years regarding the future of the organization, which for decades has served as Israel’s interlocutor with Jewish communities abroad.
Several years ago the Agency underwent a drastic organizational shift, slashing budgets, closing and merging departments and terminating reams of staffers. Under chairman of the executive Natan Sharansky, JAFI in 2009 approved a new strategic plan, with a “revised focus” on bolstering Jewish identity among those living in an increasingly disaffected Diaspora in addition to its traditional role facilitating aliya. A 2011 decision by the Jewish Federations of North America to change their fiscal relationship with the organization, under which they provided three-quarters of their overseas allocations to the agency as an entitlement, hit especially hard.
A recently announced joint initiative between the agency and the government may just provide JAFI its much-needed opportunity to reinvigorate itself and to implement Sharansky’s vision.
Last November, the government announced the launch of what it is calling the World Jewry Joint Initiative, its ambitious program to push back against assimilation, intermarriage and the increasing distance between Jews and the Jewish state.
Under the plan, which is being coordinated with Jewish communities abroad largely through JAFI, Israel plans on massively increasing its commitment to Jewish and Zionist programming.
Israel’s allocations, doubling down on the approximately NIS 400 million currently spent on programs like Taglit-Birthright and MASA, may very well end up being funneled through JAFI.
“To me this is a very exciting thing for JAFI,” Tisch said during his opening remarks at the board of governors meeting. “It has the potential to be truly transformative for JAFI and to catapult it on its mission of Jewish peoplehood.
“In many ways,” he added, “it will be our future.”
Certainly, Sharansky sees the government’s new focus on the Diaspora as, in essence, a vindication of the changes he has made at the Agency. The government, he recently asserted, has assumed JAFI’s “vision and mission” and he joked that Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett has been “brainwashed by our reforms.”
In fact, speaking with the board of governors, the Agency chairman went so far as to say that his shifting of priorities has “created the opportunity for the new prime minister’s initiative.”
Or, as the agency’s chief fund-raiser put it, echoing the prevailing sentiment that the new initiative constituted the acceptance of JAFI platform and strategy on a governmental level, “the vision of JAFI and the mission of JAFI is precisely what this initiative is about.”
JAFI is not going to be directly benefiting from extra government funding, Alef, a source with knowledge of the matter, explained, asserting that given recent fiscal developments, the agency is looking to “partner with the government.”
“They are looking where the money is,” Alef said.
Any money going into JAFI will have to be “new money” and will not harm the organization’s core programs, senior officials have assured their board.
“If after all the discussions the answer of the Jewish world will be, ‘We don’t think we can bring new money,’ then it will be the end of the initiative,” Sharansky said. “That’s clear.”
The question for the agency is whether this initiative will enable it to raise that new money.
Those in the organized Jewish world have noticed that the “quantity of Jewish charity that goes to non-Jewish [causes] is increasing,” as one Jewish Federations of North America official told The Jerusalem Post last year.
This, coupled with an increase in direct donations to causes, means that there is a lesser percentage of charitable contributions being funneled through communal organizations like JAFI and Federations.
In the wake of the JFNA’s decision to reevaluate its fiscal relationship with JAFI, the agency hired former Federation CEO Misha Galperin to head its newly established North American fund-raising arm, the Jewish Agency International Development.
“This is the major problem of JAFI,” Bet, a former insider who declined to be named, explained. “The problem lies in the fund-raising in America.
Young Jews are not contributing in the way that their parents and grandparents contributed.
“The major problem is new money,” he added. “What Misha Galperin is managing to do is cover the losses that JAFI is suffering... but this is not a solution.”
Bet said he believes that the new government initiative would largely benefit the agency due to the leading role it will perforce play.
“Everything abroad has got to be headed by JAFI,” he asserted.
Laws requiring domestic American organizations receiving government funds from abroad to register as foreign agents indicate the need for a non-governmental interlocutor, and this, Bet insists, “gives JAFI a raison d’être.”
“The government of Israel cannot do such things, because foreign governments will look at this as interfering in their internal affairs or messing around with their local population who happens to be Jewish,” he said.
In an interview with the Magazine, Galperin said that while the new initiative “could” help give the agency a boost, that is not the issue at hand.
“It doesn’t mean that we have to be the ones doing the programs, it doesn’t mean that it has to all go through our budget, it doesn’t mean any of these things,” he said. “So whether JAFI itself, in some way, [will] benefit in terms of the additional budget, it’s possible but...
we haven’t gotten there yet.”
However, he added that initiative is “very consistent with who we are and it’s certainly what we’ve affirmed we are and I think it’s definitely there for our future.”
Such a large program, he told the board, is “going to be a challenge that will go beyond the current funding sources.”
Clarifying his remarks to the Magazine, Galperin explained that he believes that a “new and exciting” set of programs like those being discussed in the context of the initiative would be enough to “actually help increase and reinvigorate campaigns” and even to bring in donors.
“What we’re seeing here, for example, is a great deal of interest from philanthropists and foundations that are not necessarily supporting the current campaigns,” he said.
In a speech last year in Kiev, Sharansky indicated that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had met with “potential donors” who could fund the proposed initiatives, a possible reference to American Jewish billionaire and close prime ministerial confidant Sheldon Adelson.
The Prime Minister’s Office could not confirm or deny this conjecture.
Representatives of various charitable foundations, including the Rothschild Foundation and the Jim Joseph Foundation, have been involved in talks over the initiative since the beginning, and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation is known to have already donated office space and other resources during the planning stages.
Critics like Jay Ruderman, the president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, have worried that the government, Jewish Agency and Federations are trying to “sell something to [philanthropists] that is already a project in the works” rather than seeking their buy in.
“The main thing about developing a partnership is to establish trust, and trust is established by partners who sit down and are fully vested in the development of a project. It seems like what is happening here is that they are attempting to engage the entire Jewish community in developing a project, and then they are going to sell it,” he recently told the Magazine.
While Galperin admits to not having spoken with “everyone,” he said that his organization is making efforts to bring donors to the table at the early stages.
“We reached out to a very significant number of people,” he said.
“Federation campaigns may be flat, but overall giving to Jewish causes is higher than ever. The key change is that the dominant players are now large independent foundations and independent donors,” Prof. Leonard Saxe of Brandeis University explained, underscoring the need to reach out to the big money players.
Queens College sociologist Samuel Heilman went further, saying that “a shrinking donor base does not necessarily mean that there cannot be some major donors in that base who will not step forward to make the match.
“As we have seen from donors like Adelson, when they feel strongly about something, they can step up and find the money.”
The issue at hand, explained Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, is how the initiative is presented.
“If the challenge is presented as a fund-raising effort on behalf of JAFI and the government, it is unlikely to capture the attention or excitement of a changing philanthropic environment,” he said.
“This is a huge priority, and I think this is a big opportunity for JAFI to actually raise new funds,” director-general for the agency Alan Hoffmann recently said. “Our question to them is how are we going to bring in new money from our traditional sources and how beyond that is the fund-raising enterprise of JAFI going to be mobilized to be able to find additional money.”
The question at the end of the day, for both JAFI and all of the other partner organizations, most of whom have expressed enthusiasm for the initiative, is really how attractive the newly proposed programs will be to donors.
“What is missing from the whole package is a vision for transformative impact on Diaspora Jewish identity,” as a comprehensive whole, one observer said.
What remains to be seen is if Israel can help to instill forms of Jewish identification – either cultural, religious or ideological – that stand on their own in the Diaspora or if they will insist that Israel itself, and a bundle of disparate programs, will be sufficient.
“An ecosystem of young adult engagement has to be supported throughout the world,” said David Cygielman, the CEO of Moishe House, an international Jewish start-up cited by initiative coordinators as a potential model for future Jewish growth. “It is not going to be a single training or program that manifests itself as the direct solution to this issue and opportunity that we face.”
That said, he observed, the government and JAFI have “the opportunity to develop this next level of Jewish commitment and vibrancy that is really in its infancy.”
JAFI is certainly bullish on its chances.
As James Tisch summed up his remarks to the board, he said that “this organization is not a big and lumbering organization; rather, it’s lean, it’s smart, it’s nimble and it’s competitive, and last time I looked, those were four words that were required to be successful.”