US Jewish charities fall out over funding

By Paul Berger, May 27, 2010
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Two major Jewish organisations are battling over $130 million donated annually by American Jews.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Jewish Agency for Israel have been haggling in private over a share of overseas
fundraising for a couple of years.

But in recent weeks, the argument has spilled out into the open.

At issue is a formula which divides money from the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA ) between the two bodies, favouring the Jewish Agency by a margin of three to one.

We want to meet Jewish needs worldwide

The Jewish Agency has long received the lion's share of funding because of its costly work resettling Jews in Israel.

Today, however, resettlement is no longer the driving force behind the Agency.

Earlier this year, chairman Natan Sharansky announced that the agency needed to shift its emphasis towards bolstering Jewish identity projects around the world.

Meanwhile, the JDC, the world's largest Jewish social welfare organisation, claims it needs the money more urgently.

Among its global programmes, the JDC has a large presence in the former Soviet Union, where an ageing population presents a large and, the JDC claims, growing drain on resources.

The argument boils down to identity programmes versus social welfare.

The Jewish Agency believes its focus on identity prevents the greatest contemporary threat to world Jewry - assimilation.

It is interesting to note that the issue only made headlines in American Jewish newspapers after the JDC made its grievances public by threatening to opt out of the overseas funding formula and begin raising money directly.

Last week, however, the JDC was uncharacteristically tight-lipped.

Following a meeting on Monday in New York with Jewish Agency and JFNA officials, JDC leaders released a bland statement reaffirming the organisation's "joint commitment to increase fundraising to meet critical needs in Israel and around the world".

An equally bland JFNA statement quoted its leaders as saying: "We came together in a collaborative process, and we are going to move ahead in a positive and constructive manner."

It went on: "We will continue our discussions, and ultimately we remain unified in our goal of more effectively meeting Jewish needs worldwide." The Jewish Agency drafted similar platitudes and refused to elaborate last week.

Are observers meant to believe that an issue no one is willing to discuss publicly is resolved?

Each side's reticence to speak presents a united front. But it also suggests a fragile peace.

Jewish Agency officials are no doubt angry that an issue meant to be discussed quietly has been dragged into the open.

Meanwhile, neither the JDC nor the Jewish Agency seem capable of admitting that the other side deserves a greater share of the spoils.

Of course, if funding for both organisations had not fallen precipitously in recent years, this spat may never have occurred.

The two groups once carved up $250 million. Today, they are squabbling over half that amount. The funds keep falling.

In 2008, the Agency received $120 million from JFNA. Last year, it was awarded just $103 million, according to an Agency source.

Both the Agency and the JDC have had to make swingeing cuts.

If the money continues to disappear, the united JDC-Jewish Agency-JFNA veneer may well crack again.

    Last updated: 3:32pm, January 5 2011