Putting a question mark on Jewish earmarks

This year’s loss of earmarks, the spending amendments lawmakers attach to larger bills, has cost Jewish federations millions of dollars, officials say. And earmark-reform proposals could present even more headaches in coming years.

The new Democratic majority in Congress, backed by some conservative Republicans, is considering reforms that would curtail lawmakers’ ability to anonymously insert funding for local projects into spending bills.

The aim is to stop the proliferation of non-essential programs and pet projects, but the earmark reforms also could inhibit funding favored by Jewish nonprofit organizations, including programs that benefit seniors, the disabled and the poor.

The decision by Democrats to remove all earmarks from the 2007 budget is already having an effect. Gone from the appropriations bill that covers the departments of Labor, Education and Health and Human Services is more than $9 million in earmarks for Jewish groups and programs, according to an analysis of reports that accompanied the draft bills.

“There are real people in the Jewish community that will not receive critical services due to the lack of earmarks this year,” said William Daroff, United Jewish Communities’ (UJC) vice president for public policy.

Democrats blame Republicans in the last Congress for the earmarks’ removal, saying that after the midterm elections ended their 12 years in the majority, Republicans all but abandoned the lame-duck session and left behind a vindictive mess by failing to pass nine of 11 appropriations bills.

“The Republicans have taken their ball and gone home and are pouting,” Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the new majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, said last month.

Debate on the 2008 budget starts next week, which Democrats say leaves them little choice but to abandon much of the process that would otherwise attend the 2007 budget, including earmarks and new spending. Instead, the 2007 budget is now likely to be funded by “continuing resolutions” that hew to the broad outlines of the 2006 budget.

Some social services would be affected, Hoyer acknowledged, but “we want to make that suffering as short-term as we can.”

The earmarks affecting Jewish groups were mostly for less than $500,000 each and served a variety of programs, from equipment upgrades to Jewish hospitals to Jewish community service programs for the mentally ill and educational programs.

Earmarks are preferred by local Jewish groups, which maintain strong constituent relations with lawmakers. The earmarks allow federations to garner millions of dollars for social service programs without having to compete for grants from federal agencies.

They have been used to support Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities, or NORCs, fostering programming in areas with large numbers of retirees, allowing them to live semi-independently and close to family.

Local NORC programs so far have received $25 million from the federal government, all through earmarks, UJC officials said. About $7 million in NORC funding was stripped from the 2007 spending bills.

In 2004, the omnibus spending bill included 37 earmarks for programs with “Jewish” in the name, amounting to more than $9 million.

Including the terms “Hebrew” and “Sephardic,” the number climbed to 41 earmarks and more than $10 million.

Many other projects of importance to local Jewish communities may not have identifiably Jewish names and could be buried in the vast spending documents.

Despite such salutary effects, earmarks are more notorious as pork, or federal funds funneled to lawmakers’ campaign contributors and for local initiatives. A slate of recent scandals has led to the reform proposals.

Those have drawn mixed reviews from the Jewish community. Jewish groups long have sought political oversight and reform, but at the same time have benefited greatly from spending measures inserted by lawmakers.

“We wholeheartedly endorse measures that are intended to increase the transparency of the spending process,” Daroff said. “We think deals that are cut in the middle of the night is not good government, so we encourage reforms.”

But cutting all earmarks would not be wise, Daroff said. The earmarks Jewish groups receive are not designed to help big companies but are for essential community programs.

Hoyer said worthy earmarks would stay in place.

“I am a proponent of not eliminating earmarks,” he said, noting that the president has considerable spending discretion and giving up earmarks would “badly skew the balance” between the two branches.

“Congress ought not to give up that authority,” Hoyer said. “Some earmarks are good, some bad, but we’re going to make sure the public knows about them. Is this a good investment of American taxpayer dollars?”

UJC and the federations back such transparency, supporting reforms that would require lawmakers to attach their names to each spending provision rather than inserting it anonymously.

“The House passed earmark reform earlier this month as part of its rules package.

The Senate is now considering measures that include attaching naming to spending provisions, as well as allowing senators to strike earmarks from spending bills and prevent earmarks from being added to the final drafts of legislation that emerge from House-Senate conferences.

Jewish leaders acknowledge that as earmarks fall out of vogue, they will need to garner funding through federal agencies. UJC was able to secure language in the Older Americans Act to authorize a national NORC program, which will distribute funding for the senior-citizen initiatives across the country through the Department of Health and Human Services. UJC will seek funding for the program in the next budget.

Most of the federal funding Jewish groups receive comes from agencies, largely through the Medicare and Medicaid programs. But Daroff worried that removing earmarks would hurt the ability to fund pilot programs such as NORCs and other innovative solutions to social-service issues.

“The Jewish federation system will adapt to the changing environment and will do what it needs to do to bring necessary services to the community,” he said. “Our initiatives are innovative public policy approaches that are welcomed by members of Congress because they see it as not funding the same old program the same old way.”

Bye-Bye Buys

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the resulting weak economy and high unemployment have been affecting Los Angeles Jewish businesses in a variety of ways.

There are no official statistics yet, but a random sampling of local businesses revealed that many have experienced a drastic drop in business. Others have seen an increase in the sale of certain items. All are watching the market closely.

“A lot of people are in danger of going out of business. The small entrepreneur running small profit margins is vulnerable,” said Claudia Finkel, vice president of Programs and Services for Jewish Vocational Service, a beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “All you have to do is look down Wilshire or San Vicente and see lots of ‘for lease’ signs. That signifies loss of jobs. Those people are no longer going out to lunch or to the dry cleaners. It’s a neighborhood ripple effect.”

Consumers are watching their pocketbooks, even if both husband and wife are employed and maintaining their income levels. Major purchases, such as travel plans or a new car, are being put on hold, and going out to dinner means a less pricey restaurant than they might normally go to.

“They may be feeling anxious watching the changes in the economy,” Finkel said. “There’s no question in my mind that things will get better, but in the meantime, all of these businesses are at risk and will continue to be if things keep going the way they are.”

In the food sector, the prognosis is mixed, with most seeing a marked decline. At Pico Kosher Deli, on Pico, the lunch and dinner crowd has been holding steady, said waitress Elizabeth Panamino. But down the street at Little Jerusalem, sales are usually slower after the High Holy Day rush, but not by this much, manager Avraham Shamoil said.

“Business is down, for sure, by maybe 40 percent. I think it’s a combination of people scared to come out and not wanting to spend money when things are unsure,” Shamoil said.

Simon Elmaleh, owner of Simon’s Cafe, in Encino, believes that part of the reason his business is down by almost 50 percent is because it is a Mediterranean restaurant.

“There may be some fear. Maybe people will go to what they see as the safest place. They are also watching what they’re spending. They are worried about the future,” Elmaleh said.

On the catering side, things are slow as well, although weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs remain on schedule.

“People are still having events, but I think they are a little bit more cost-conscious, perhaps not spending as much as they have in the past,” said Kim Cartaino, director of hotel sales for the Warner Center Marriott Hotel, in Woodland Hills.

Loss of corporate business for local caterers has been staggering, amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to Joann Roth-Oseary, owner of Someone’s in the Kitchen, in Tarzana. Immediately after Sept. 11, 13 corporate events were canceled.

“My kind of business is hard hit because people don’t have to have a party. Everyone’s struggling: musicians, florists, limo services,” said Roth-Oseary, who does a lot of work for the entertainment industry. “We’re scrambling to try to hold everything together. But we’re Jews, so we’re tough. We cannot lay down to this. We have to pick ourselves up and go on.”

When the Emmy Awards were twice-canceled and rescheduled on a smaller scale, Michael Stern, the president of Regal Rents, Inc., in El Segundo, one of the largest party rental businesses in the country, saw his biggest job disappear. The wedding and b’nai mitzvah business has remained intact, he said, but a large part of his business, which comes from the studios, has been slow.

“Things are uncertain at the moment because who knows what’s going to happen next, but it’s definitely getting better,” Stern said. “In my experience with recessions, the first thing people do when they start feeling better is to go to sporting events and have parties.”

With Chanukah quickly approaching, there is hope that customers will return for what is traditionally one of the busiest sales seasons for many Jewish businesses. Some businesses are coming up with imaginative incentives to entice reluctant shoppers. At Abi’s Judaica, in Agoura Hills and Tarzana, business has slowed by about 50 percent. Manager Bobbi Benjamin came up with the idea to donate 5 percent of store sales, from the 11th of each month, to the families of victims of the terrorist attacks. She also asked the owner of the Agoura Hills strip mall where Abi’s Judaica is located to match the store’s donation.

“It would give us one special day each month where we could relate to what happened and feel like we’re making a difference,” Benjamin said. “The owners of these strip malls have to come up with something to help us, especially going into the holiday season.”

Kosher Take-Out in Encino was struggling even before Sept. 11, but business does seem to be worse than before, according to owner Yossi Rabinov. To boost sales, Rabinov has begun to sell family packages for Shabbat dinner, entire meals including everything from challah to dessert.

“The mood around is that everything is slow, including Jewish business,” Rabinov said. “I had the idea for the Shabbat packages even before all of this was going on, but maybe this will help,” he said.

Other businesses have noticed a change in what customers are buying. At Shalom House Fine Judaica, in Woodland Hills, owner David Cooperman has seen an increase in purchases of home-based activity items including Shabbat kiddush cups and challah trays. Books on basic Judaism and Bibles have also been in demand.

“I think people are going back to their roots, looking for some spirituality in these uncertain times,” Cooperman said.

At Atara’s Hebrew Book & Gift Center on Fairfax, sales of the Torah, Zohar, Chumash and Talmud, have been brisk, among both Jews and non-Jews.

“We’re seeing a lot of interest in Judaism,” said a salesperson named Devora who declined to give her last name. “We’re seeing more newly religious people, but also Spanish and Chinese customers coming in to buy the ‘Tanakh.'”

Some stores have served as meeting places for support and comfort. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, customers came in to talk.

“Several friends called on me to close the store on Sept. 11. But as a Jewish store, it was important to stay open. This is what Israel lives through everyday and their stores stay open. I got a tremendous amount of support, with people coming in and hugging each other,” said Tina Oberman, owner of Gallery Judaica, on Westwood Boulevard.

It has been the same at Shalom House Fine Judaica.

“Customers are running into friends and family here, coming into the store to talk, kibitz,” Cooperman said.

One business owner suggests that the loss of business is media inspired.

“There’s a way of reporting something and making it worse,” said Simon Rutberg, owner of Hatikvah Music International on Fairfax Avenue. “Instead, we should look at what we’re not stopping doing as a result of everything that’s going on and give people hope.”

Those Who Will Suffer

"The money you give gave me a mom and a dad."

Forgive Lee Wallach if he sounds like a commercial for the organized Jewish community. Wallach says he owes his life to the Los Angeles Jewish community, and he is worried that the current economic downturn might endanger the service programs that guided him from an orphanage to a successful — and Jewish — life.

"The money we give is clearly about lives," Wallach says, referring to the Jewish community. "Like the life of the little boy who found himself stuck in the L.A. social welfare grind at age 3. Vista Del Mar found this little guy a Jewish home. He had after-school care, Jewish summer camps, Jewish mentors. When it came time for college, Jewish Free Loan helps this guy. Hillel sends him on his first trip to Israel.

"Did it stop there? It still didn’t stop. JVS [Jewish Vocational Service] steps in, and he ends up working for The Federation while he’s getting money for two masters’ degrees." Now owner of a successful court reporting firm and married to a woman he met at Hillel, that boy, Wallach, worries for the future of the Jewish programs that worried about him.

The service programs that have made such an impact on Wallach’s life are in danger of falling short next year as the effects of the Sept. 11 attacks and the economic downturn impact philanthropic decisions. "It’s affecting all giving. We gave money to aid families in New York, and rightfully so," Wallach says. "But there are still issues going on in our communities. There are still kids without parents, women being abused, people with AIDS — these are real people."

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, $5 million short of its year-end fundraising goal, has already reinvigorated its drive. Other Jewish social service programs throughout Southern California are bracing for a recessionary double whammy of increased need and decreased donations.

At Bet Tzedek Legal Services, Executive Director David Lash sees the recent waves of layoffs as a portent for increasing need of his organization’s services: the wage claims, the evictions, the whole range of legal and financial troubles that follow in the months after a family breadwinner loses a job. "The economy is affecting a lot of people. When the economy worsens, the calls to Bet Tzedek go up. I don’t think that the full impact has yet been felt," Lash predicts.

Jewish Free Loan Association (JFLA) makes interest-free loans to families, students, entrepreneurs and for a variety of emergencies and needs. As with Bet Tzedek, calls for help have yet to reach panic levels. "It usually happens two to four months after [a recession begins]," says JFLA Executive Director Mark Meltzer. "We will probably start getting hit by December or January, with people having difficulty paying rent, needing emergency moneys. The rest — student loans, etc. stands the same. But I can tell this is the lull before the storm."

At SOVA Kosher Food Pantry, "We’re just now starting to see it, as Thanksgiving gets closer. We’ll start seeing more families having a harder time making ends meet," says Director Naomi Wische. "We’re starting to see more working families in temporary crisis, people who never thought this would happen to them."

Nonprofit services are "very much like retail — we collect a lot of our money in the last six weeks of the year," says Craig Prizant, The Jewish Federation’s senior vice president of marketing. One of the reasons for this year’s possible shortfalls, Prizant says, is the difficulty of collecting on pledges made in happier economic times. "If we do not collect the money, we come to the horrible situation of having to eliminate programs. Every program we do is important."

For Wallach, and many like him, problems for Jewish service organizations are not far-off institutional cash-flow situations. Even with his own personal success, the economic situation hits Wallach like an illness in the family. "The Jewish community gave me all the important things people say money can’t buy. They gave me a mom and a dad. I wouldn’t be a Jew if it wasn’t for the money they raised." n

Staff Writer Michael Aushenker contributed to this story.

Federation Blues

With the economy caught in a downward spiral, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has joined the growing list of organizations forced to downsize.

An as yet undetermined number of the agency’s 185 employees at the 6505 headquarters and at The Federation’s Valley and South Bay sites will be let go, according to officials. This arrives at a time when The Federation, a nonprofit organization, is anticipating a $5 million shortfall in its general campaign.

"We certainly are looking at reorganization," said Federation President John Fishel, who would only confirm that eight Federation employees had been notified of dismissal as of press time. Much thought, he said, has gone into "trying to ascertain whether losing people with important jobs could work, and whether those functions and responsibilities could be picked up elsewhere."

Fishel would not confirm the exact number of layoffs, but he said a meeting next week would determine how many would be necessary. He noted that the cuts would be made "across the board — all the departments will somehow be impacted," and would involve every level of management.

The Federation has been running print ads that dramatically emphasize the need to boost its campaign target from its current $39.2 million to $44 million.

A downward economic cycle, exacerbated by the dot-com/technologies bust and the recent Sept. 11 attacks, has taken its toll on segments of the Jewish nonprofit world.

Even in October, when the general campaign was narrowly outpacing its 2000 totals, William Bernstein, The Federation’s executive vice president of Financial Resource Development, predicted that by the end of the year, charitable giving would slump. "We’re not blind to the idea that the economy is not in the position that it was a year ago," he told The Journal. Federation officials now confirm that Bernstein’s prediction has proved accurate and that some pledges are not being fulfilled.

Last week, anxiety reached a fever pitch at Federation headquarters as staff members traded rumors of 30 layoffs occurring before the year is out.

Several Federation workers said they believed that the organization is too focused on the bottom line. One of them told The Journal that employees were recently asked to volunteer a portion of their paychecks toward "closing campaign."

The workers said they felt this atmosphere was too shortsighted and came at the expense of nurturing long-term relationships within the organization.

"There are an awful lot of nice people who work very hard at The Federation," said one person who used to work there. "It just seems that a lot of good people The Federation wouldn’t want to lose wind up leaving."

Fishel said he’s not happy about the people he has to lay off, terming this past year the most difficult of his Federation career. "A lot of thought and a lot of soul-searching went into these decisions," he said. "We had a serious discussion among our senior managers, and we tried to approach these issues as carefully as possible. We recognize we can’t wait until it’s too late. We have to watch our cash, and we watch where this is going."

One of the people told The Journal that he expected more than a bottom-line mentality from the Federation. "It’s tikkun olam, but run by a motion picture studio. Everything’s married to the bottom line. It may as well be about checking weekend box office receipts on ‘Monsters Inc.’" he said. "You would expect something more hamisch from The Jewish Federation."

For Fishel, it’s a public relations challenge to project The Federation’s identity as a caring, generous, community-minded institution with a Jewish heart, while keeping an eye on the bottom line, a fiscal necessity.

"You’re balancing between hope and a lot of success. There’s a very thin margin of maneuverability," Fishel said. "You’re not going to have a lot of time to do it. I fully realize that there are people involved, some with families. It makes me feel very bad."

"But to provide the services that we offer, we decided it was important to review very carefully, so that regardless of the outcome of the campaign, we can ensure that the most services are available for the most vulnerable people in our community and abroad."

The rush to provide aid for those victimized by the Sept. 11 attacks has competed for the Jewish community’s philanthropy. Recently, nonprofit agencies raising money for Sept. 11 causes, such as the American Red Cross and United Way, have come under intense media scrutiny and, in some cases, under fire for not getting money fast enough to victims’ relatives. Still, Fishel said, he believes that people have not become overly cynical about the machinery of the nonprofit world and that any stigma created by such controversies is overblown.

Los Angeles’ Federation has been in communication with its New York counterpart to make sure not to duplicate the disbursement of its charitable dollars, he said.

"We operate on pledges, then we make an assessment on how much we’ll get from those pledges." Fishel said that with so much money and energy on the federal level being invested into the nation’s defense and security, social and educational services might be overlooked and underfunded.

"This is a large puzzle, where a lot of puzzle pieces are not exactly clear at this juncture," he said.

The Federation in Los Angeles is not the only Federation grappling with the long-term impact of Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in America.

Earlier this month, at this year’s General Assembly — sponsored by The Federation’s parent organization, United Jewish Communities (UJC) in New York — delegates from the UJC’s 189 Federations across North America expressed a mix of apprehension and pessimism.

"We’re all waiting to see how things shake out," Los Angeles Federation delegate Mark Lainer told a Jewish Telegraphic Agency reporter at the Assembly.

"People give in times of crisis," said Helaine Loman, a member of the UJC’s Young Leadership Cabinet and a board member of the MetroWest Federation in New Jersey. "And this is definitely a crisis."

"This is not an easy year," said Robert Aronson, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. "Federations are taking hard looks at their expenditures."

Fishel said he hopes that 2002 will offer better tidings: "More stability in the economy, broader hope in the broader society, some willingness in the community to buckle down."

"I’m pretty hopeful in the longest term," Fishel continued. "I tend to think of things in cycles, and I think things are going to get better."

Stewart Ain of Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this report.

JCC Board Approves Major Reform

Leaders of the area’s Jewish Community Centers proposed a series of reforms this week that they hope will reinvigorate center services and help the organization meet the demands of a far-flung and diverse Jewish population.

The changes approved by the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA) will eliminate after-school programs and senior services. The plan might also lead to the dismantling of existing centers serving the Westside and Silverlake/Los Feliz areas.

JCC executives said that they will take the next few months to decide whether to relocate or renovate the Santa Monica-based Bay Cities JCC and the Silverlake/Los Feliz JCC. They stressed that no decision has been made to permanently close down the sites. However, even a temporary shutdown could adversely impact those who have come to depend on the centers as their primary — and sometimes sole — link to the Jewish community.

In a 13-4 vote at Valley Cities Jewish Community Center in Van Nuys on Monday, the JCCGLA’s board of directors approved a package of initiatives that will reorganize select services in an effort to make programming more cost-effective for the agency, which operates on a $16-million annual budget.

"It was a groundbreaking vote," JCCGLA President Lee Smith told The Journal.

At press time, top brass were still notifying staff and lay people about the motions. While the meeting itself was closed to press and outsiders, participants, including Smith and JCCGLA’s Executive Vice President Nina Lieberman Giladi, spoke to The Journal afterward.

The board members ratified suggestions that were presented by the JCC’s New Directions Committee, comprised of 15 current board members and past presidents (half of the board of directors’ 30-person membership).

The JCCGLA’s New Directions Committee, a beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, has met 25 times over the past six months to plot the organization’s future. (The New Directions Committee was formed last October following a centralization of the JCC power structure, intended to streamline operations.) A statement circulated to board members on Monday night said, "The Federation was integrally involved as a partner with the JCC New Directions Committee and concurs with the recommendations proposed."

Among the approved changes:

• The Santa Monica-based Bay Cities facility and the Silverlake/Los Feliz counterpart will undergo refurbishing or relocation, to be determined at a later date.

• The discontinuation of the "underutilized" after-school child care at Westside, Silverlake/Los Feliz and Bay Cities JCCs as of July 1. Permits have also been obtained to expand preschools at the Silverlake/Los Feliz and Bay Cities JCCs to accommodate up to 80 students per site (instead of 60 and 51 pupils, respectively) by September.

• Mommy & Me infant-caretaker programs will be implemented in all JCC locations as of this month.

• An expansion of summer day care, to be initiated in summer 2002.

Programs for seniors will also undergo major revisions, including the transfer of certain services at North Valley and Valley Cities to "other, more suitable facilities," according to the memo.

That transfer will include JCCGLA divesting itself of operating SOVA Kosher Food Pantry and the Venice-based Israel Levin Senior Adult Center.

JCCGLA will also restructure the physical-education component.

"We will look at outside management to come in and provide programming of the highest caliber," Smith said.

Smith and Giladi said that athletic programs and gym and pool facilities are crucial, as they often provide a gateway for children and seniors into community participation.

The new changes follow recent years

that administrators even acknowledge have not been easy for the local JCC system. The 1999 North Valley JCC shooting threw the organization into the international spotlight under the most undesirable of circumstances. The tragedy continues to create problems for JCCGLA, now the subject of a lawsuit filed by the parents of Benjamin Kadish, a child severely injured during the rampage. Last year, scrutiny of the timeworn Westside JCC forced administrators to accelerate a long-simmering architectural overhaul.

"This agency has been away for at least a decade, operating in a direction that is not future-thinking or future-directed," said Giladi, adding that members had no choice but to initiate "some self-critical analysis."

Smith said that "despite our best intentions, the Westside deserves a better, larger place" than Bay Cities. He also noted that Silverlake/Los Feliz needs "complete renovation or relocation." No decisions regarding the fate of the Bay Cities and Silverlake/Los Feliz facilities will be made until two ad-hoc board committees (which will include members from the respective centers and outside consultants) have carefully evaluated these weakest links in the JCC’s eight-center chain.

"We’ll continue to move at this very fast but thorough pace," said Giladi, refusing to nail down a concrete time frame.

According to Smith, this week’s executive decisions were the culmination of a six-month process. JCCGLA hired consultants to assess the local centers and compare them to a successful Seattle JCC site. They drafted a 300-page report which heavily influenced the New Directions Committee to make the changes announced this week.

The board’s support of the changes was not unanimous. One of the four dissenting voters, who asked not to be named, disapproved of the measures because "my concerns are that the plan will not achieve our goal." (Still, the board member remains committed to helping forward the election’s verdict).

At this early date, the decisions ushered in by the board have been generally well-received.

Pamela Boro, center director of Silverlake/Los Feliz JCC, told The Journal, "I support all of the new directions that were made." According to Boro, it was logical for the JCC to discontinue the after-school services because area public schools offer them for free."

Regarding any likelihood of her facility closing down — even temporarily — Boro said, "I know that this center is very important to the organization and to the JCC as a whole. I don’t believe that they would ever compromise our center in any shape or form. That would be letting the community down."

Boro looks forward to the additional preschool class her center will offer this fall. As for upcoming moves to revitalize Silverlake/Los Feliz, Boro said that "some of our advisory board members at this center will, without a doubt, be involved in that process. There is a strong trust between JCCGLA and local members."

David Aaronson, JCCGLA’s immediate past president, said the changes were going to move the agency forward. "These are the first steps needed to create the programs of excellence that the communities of L.A. deserve," he said.