Teaming up to help the developmentally disabled


Like most donors to the annual campaign, I never imagined that my family would be beneficiaries of federation agencies. When my second child, Daniel, was diagnosed with autism, I learned abruptly that today’s donors can become tomorrow’s beneficiaries.

For my wife and me, Daniel has been one of our two great gifts from God, a source of joy and inspiration. The challenges posed, however, by having a child with autism and the communal reaction to this condition create serious challenges, including feelings of alienation and isolation.

Our family then joined the Friendship Circle, a partner agency of our local federation, United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ. The Friendship Circle is an exceptional program that each year pairs more than 800 teenage volunteers in our UJC community with hundreds of disabled peers. At the Friendship Circle, “klal Yisrael” and “areyvut”—Jewish mutual responsibility—are not mere slogans but living, breathing Jewish core values often overlooked in our contemporary society.

In 2009, my wife and I opened a bookstore, [words], in Maplewood, N.J., the twin mission of which is to promote the vibrancy of our town community and serve as a place where local individuals with developmental disabilities and their families are welcomed with open arms and hearts. In coordination with MetroWest agencies, [words] has instituted a vocational training program for young adults with autism.

MetroWest contains some of the most impressive programs for the disabled in the United States. For example, JESPY House is one of only a few programs in the country for adults with learning and developmental disabilities who demonstrate the ability to live independently and gain competitive employment. It provides job training and a full social and recreational calendar.

The WAE Center (Wellness, Art & Enrichment) offers people with disabilities an opportunity to join the artistic community by expressing themselves through programs in writing, poetry, painting, film, music and more. Career Camp is a vocational summer camp experience for students who have been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.

Although our community has provided many great programs, communication and coordination between the agencies was sometimes sub-optimal, and potential beneficiaries often were confused by the process and unaware of programs offered at various agencies. Moreover, the dream of integration into mainstream Jewish life, particularly at our synagogues, seemed elusive.

Participation in the Friendship Circle and our work at [words] introduced me to an extraordinary and innovative effort in its embryonic phase at MetroWest, one that ultimately resulted in the creation of MetroWest ABLE. ABLE is a dynamic group of lay and professional leaders (of which I am proud to be a part) from several federation agencies dedicated to enhancing services to those with disabilities.

In the past few years, ABLE has become a national leader in the development of comprehensive and holistic programmatic services for people with disabilities and their families.

ABLE’s success is grounded in the extraordinary eagerness of its constituent federation agencies to work together and avoid turf battles to provide the best possible services. It creates a central address, with a services coordinator, that enables families with special needs to learn about all of the services available to them.

ABLE’s work is shared through the Disability Workgroup of the Jewish Federations of North America, which disseminates best practices developed by Jewish communities throughout North America.

One of ABLE’s most significant accomplishments has been to galvanize the integration of individuals with special needs into the everyday life of our synagogues. Many synagogues wish to include disabled congregants but lack the resources or expertise to do so effectively. ABLE created a set of criteria to help synagogues to become “ABLE-ready” and has encouraged the formation of special needs inclusion committees.

Shabbat Shalem weekends have been promoted at synagogues throughout the community, and matching grants were awarded to synagogues for projects that helped disabled congregants to participate more fully in mainstream activities.

We are fortunate to belong to a synagogue that has played a leadership role in embracing the ABLE initiatives. Last year, Daniel celebrated his bar mitzvah in an inspiring synagogue service. We hope that over time, the dream of integrating Jews with disabilities into mainstream Jewish life, particularly at our synagogues, will become a reality.

Despite these encouraging accomplishments, many challenges lie ahead for Daniel and all individuals with disabilities. And just as we donors have become beneficiaries, we must strive to enable today’s beneficiaries to become tomorrow’s donors.

(Jonah Zimiles is the parent of a child with autism, the owner of [words] Bookstore in Maplewood, N.J., and a member of MetroWest ABLE.)

(February is national Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month. Information and suggestions on activities and programs can be found in the Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month Resource Guide published by the Disability Workgroup of the Jewish Federations of North America.)

UJC seeks donations for hurricane victims


United Jewish Communities begun a campaign for donations to help in the recovery from recent hurricanes.

The umbrella organization of North America’s Jewish federation system is urging the 157 federations and 400 independent Jewish communities it serves to contribute to the effort, which will go to help Jewish communities in the country’s coastal region that were affected by the hurricanes and to nonsectarian relief efforts.

Initial relief will go toward short-term disaster needs such as food, water and medicines, and for intermediate needs such as mental-health counseling and other counseling, according to the UJC’s emergency committee chair, Fred Zimmerman. Other needs will be determined.

UJC staff have spoken daily with the president and chief executive officer of the Jewish federation in Houston, Lee Wunsch, as well as to community leaders elsewhere.

In an effort to coordinate a response to the storm, UJC also has talked with Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff; national, state and local relief agencies; and national Jewish groups and religious movements.

Initial reports said the community in Corpus Christi, Texas, was safe following Hurricane Ike over the weekend, according to UJC. Also in Texas, efforts were continuing to reach Jewish evacuees in Galveston—one report emerged over the weekend that people were trapped in a flooded synagogue there. UJC coordinated with local and federal law enforcement agencies, who investigated and reported the synagogue was empty.

Checks should be mailed to United Jewish Communities, P.O. Box 30, Old Chelsea Station, New York, NY 10113, Attention: UJC Hurricane Relief Fund, or go to www.ujc.org to make online donations.

As Jewish communities unite, disconnects persist


Howard Rieger, the top professional of organized American Jewry as president and chief executive officer of the national organization United Jewish Communities (UJC), figures that criticism comes with the territory.

“Any time you make changes, some people will admire you and some will not,” he said in a phone interview. “If you can’t keep that in perspective, you become immobilized and don’t belong in this position.”

That’s a fortunate attitude, for Rieger and UJC have been on the receiving end of a volley of brickbats remarkable even for the contentious Jewish community.

UJC was formed in 1999 through a merger of three North American umbrella organizations, the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), United Jewish Appeal (UJA) and United Israel Appeal (UIA), which together oversaw nearly a billion dollars annually in fundraising proceeds for domestic and overseas programs.

Fueling the historic merger, following seven years of discussions and negotiations, were demands by UJA for a more efficient fundraising system, and by the federations for more control over the proportion and use of funds going to Israel.

According to a number of Jewish leaders, many of whom played key roles in the merger discussions, their expectations for UJC have remained largely unfulfilled, to put it diplomatically.

Part of the fault, the critics say, is structural, and some are missteps, such as the elimination of the popular UJA brand name.

But most of the criticism focuses on the performance of the UJC leadership, which is faulted for operating in a vacuum, avoiding vigorous discussions before implementing decisions, lack of passion and energy, and terrible staff relations, marked by the departure of five key senior staffers during the past year.

One frequently heard charge is that UJC is “owned” by the executives of big metropolitan federations, at the expense of smaller communities and overseas needs.

If so, Los Angeles, with the nation’s second largest Jewish community, appears largely absent from the decision-making table.

One highly knowledgeable source in another part of the country observed that there had been a “disconnect” between the Los Angeles Federation and UJC for years, but he hoped that once Stanley Gold, the new Federation chair, focused on the problem, things would change.

Gold acknowledged that relations between Los Angeles and UJC headquarters in New York had been “stop and start” for many years. He said that both the national and local organizations must adapt to changes, and at a faster pace, to put the long-term relationship back on track.

Veteran community and Federation leader Frank Maas, recently appointed by Gold as the local representative on the UJC executive committee, said that the “disconnect” in Jewish organized life between the West Coast and the New York-Boston-Chicago-centered leadership was one of long standing.

“It’s largely a matter of geography,” Maas said, with West Coast leaders losing one day in travel to attend an East Coast meeting, and one day coming back.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles currently contributes $2.1 million annually toward the UJC overhead, for such expenses as resource development and campaign assistance, which yield relatively few benefits for Los Angeles, with a well-developed structure of its own.

Nevertheless, “We are committed to a strong collective and collaborative effort with UJC for the benefit of the national and international Jewish communities, and we want to see UJC as a strong and viable entity,” Maas said.

Another veteran Federation leader, who asked that his name be withheld, put the long-term gap between the left and right coasts more bluntly.

“It’s just a different ballgame out here,” he said. “We’re a different community in Los Angeles than in Cleveland, Baltimore or Atlanta. But New York thinks that if we only followed its directions, everything would work out.”

Los Angeles Federation president John Fishel declined requests for comment.

The lives of UJC top executives have been made even more unpleasant lately by an unidentified blogger (www.disunitedujc.blogspot.com), who seems to have a direct pipeline into UJC’s inner workings, although Rieger said the blogger was not a UJC employee.

The blogger devoted a recent column to a three-year-old piece of unfinished business that refuses to go away.

In early 2005, Gerald (Jerry) Bubis and Steven Windmueller, respectively founding director of the School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles and its dean, came out with a 165-page paperback titled “From Predictability to Chaos? How Jewish Leaders Reinvented Their National Community System.”

Based on interviews with 88 men and women, most of who participated in the 1999 merger talks, the study concluded that these “stake holders” were largely frustrated and disappointed by the outcome of their labors.

Despite everybody’s good intentions, the merger reveals “a tale of unclear expectations, unshared visions, mixed motivations and multi-layered power games,” the authors wrote.

Just before publication of their report, Bubis and Windmueller met in New York with a cross-section of national lay leaders and professionals for a daylong dialogue on their study.

There was vigorous discussion, with both critics and supporters having their say. Among the former was Stephen Hoffman of Cleveland, who preceded Rieger as UJC’s top professional, and who said in an interview that the study went “180 degrees in the wrong direction” and propounded “academic theory that had no relationship to reality.”

Rieger saw some good and some bad in the report, but was mainly offended by an incident during the dialogue, which he recounted with some emotion: “In the waning moments of the meeting, Jerry [Bubis] made a statement to the effect that the majority of American Jews don’t like the Jewish federations. I thought that statement was outrageous.”

Bubis agreed that he made the statement, and that he believes it was unfortunately true.

“You can see it in the decrease of givers to federations all across the country, with very few exceptions,” he said.

By virtue of his lifelong personal and professional dedication to Jewish communal work, his writings and his academic research, Bubis is one of the senior figures in the field, and even his critics generally avow their respect for the man.

Ethiopian advocates push for 8,500 more olim


With Israel’s Interior Ministry on the verge of bringing its Ethiopian aliyah operation to a close, a coalition of Ethiopian advocacy groups is pressing the government to add another 8,500 would-be immigrants for the ministry’s consideration.

For now it seems nothing short of a court order will force the Interior Ministry to screen the additional Ethiopians for aliyah eligibility under the special terms granted to the Falash Mura — Ethiopians who claim links to Jewish progenitors.

The advocacy groups say Israel is shirking its obligations under a February 2003 government decision to bring up to 26,000 Falash Mura to Israel, and they have petitioned the Supreme Court to take action.

The Interior Ministry says it has fulfilled its obligations, and that the 8,500 Ethiopians represent a new group beyond the 26,000 specified in ’03.

“This stems from the decision that we don’t open lists to additional people,” said Sabine Hadad, an Interior Ministry spokeswoman. “Our job is to implement the government’s decision of 2003, and we have done that.”

Avraham Neguise, the director of South Wing to Zion and a leader of the advocacy coalition, said Israel is drawing an arbitrary line that is dividing families.

“By deciding to draw the line between parents who have already come and brothers and sisters, they are cutting the live flesh of the community,” Neguise said. “The government is lying and cheating the Israeli people and the Jewish people.”

The Supreme Court has given no indication when, or whether, it will hear the petition, which has been pending for several years.

The dispute over the 8,500 Ethiopians cuts to the heart of the controversy over Falash Mura immigration to Israel.

Many observers — including Israeli and Ethiopian government officials and some Jewish aid groups — long have warned that Israel’s efforts to end the mass immigration of Ethiopians would be stymied by advocates seeking to bring additional Ethiopians to Israel.

Those fears were realized once before, in 1998, when Israeli officials welcomed what they thought was the last planeload of Ethiopian immigrants to Israel, only to find another 8,000 Ethiopian petitioners knocking on their doors several days later.

The 2003 government decision and subsequent decisions by the Israeli Cabinet were aimed at bringing those new petitioners, who soon swelled to some 26,000, while putting a cap on the olim (immigrants under the Law of Return). The cap was based on a 1999 census conducted in Ethiopia by a former Israeli official, David Efrati.

Israeli officials’ insistence on a cap underscored fears that Ethiopians with dubious claims to Jewish ancestry would exploit the system to escape Africa’s desperate poverty for a better life in Israel.

Unlike the Ethiopian immigrants who came to Israel in Operations Moses and Solomon in 1984 and 1991, respectively, the Falash Mura were not practicing Jews until very recently. That has made it difficult to ascertain their claims of links — either by heritage or marriage — to Ethiopians of Jewish ancestry whose progenitors converted to Christianity more than a century ago to escape economic and social discrimination.

The Falash Mura, most of whom practiced Christianity until a few years ago, must agree to embrace Judaism as a condition of their aliyah. They currently are being brought to Israel at a rate of 300 per month.

Once in Israel, the Jewish Agency for Israel teaches them Judaism, houses them in absorption centers and helps them adjust to life in Israel. After a year or two they are given housing grants to purchase or rent homes. The government estimates that each Ethiopian immigrant costs the state an average of $100,000 over the course of his or her lifetime.

The Interior Ministry has been systematically going through the list of Falash Mura petitioners, which is based on the 1999 census.

That unofficial census originally counted some 26,000 or so Ethiopian candidates for aliyah, but the Interior Ministry said the list shrunk to some 17,000 once the Israeli government made clear its criteria for coming to Israel. In intervening years the list grew by some 3,000 as a result of natural growth, the ministry said.

Now the ministry says it is a week or two away from completion, and only about 1,500 to 2,000 eligible petitioners remain.

“As soon as the eligibility process is done, the project is over,” Hadad, the ministry spokeswoman, said.

The advocacy groups charge the ministry is arbitrarily excluding 8,500 people from those counted in the 1999 census — people who remained in their rural villages rather than going to the Ethiopian cities of Gondar and Addis Ababa, where the other petitioners congregated while their cases were being reviewed.

“The people on the 1999 list included people in villages, but they’re simply not included in the Interior Ministry’s numbers and were not permitted to apply for emigration,” said Joe Feit, a New York lawyer involved with several of the Falash Mura advocacy groups.

Feit said that in the last three or four years, those 8,500 villagers have left their rural homes for Gondar, where Jewish aid compounds offer schooling, some employment and some food aid to the Falash Mura.

The compounds, which do not include housing, are funded by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry and run by a local proxy group headed by Getu Zemene, an Ethiopian who himself applied for aliyah but was deemed ineligible by Israeli authorities.

NACOEJ has not directly run the compounds since 2005, when the group was barred from operating in the country.

The NACOEJ-funded activities are supported primarily by the United Jewish Communities (UJC) federation umbrella group, which sends NACOEJ some $68,000 per month for a program at the compound that provides food to children and pregnant mothers. UJC also is lining up federation support to construct a school in Gondar — a move some aid officials called puzzling, since Israel is on schedule to bring all eligible olim by late next year.

UJC officials declined to comment for this story.

UJC reaches out to young innovators


A self-described professional Jewish lesbian. A Web guru who calls himself the Orthodox Anarchist. A young, Oscar-winning producer.

The United Jewish Communities (UJC) looked to this group and their disenfranchised peers for help at its annual General Assembly (GA) in Nashville in November, giving them an entire plenary to talk about themselves, what they need from the North American federation system and why they have a hard time becoming a part of it.

It was a recognition by the UJC that it must embrace new, innovative thoughts and programming that can attract a younger population that does not see itself bound by traditional Jewish lines.

Jewish federations are fretting over how to bring young Jews into their fold because the failure to do so could cause a crisis down the road for a system that takes in more than $3 billion annually in charitable dollars.

“What you saw is a beginning,” the UJC’s chair, Joseph Kanfer, said. “It strikes us that the federation system needs to become a capacity builder and an engine to bring people together.”

Kanfer envisions a future federation system in which “we will have not created the new ideas but we have support for the new ideas.”

In this future, he said, “many great things would have died out if not for the support of the federations. The federations will have not always had the early passion surrounding great ideas, but they have the capacity to allow ideas to flourish.”

The plenary session featuring young Jewish innovators signaled a change in thinking for a system that critics perceive as one that collects money primarily from major, older donors and allocates those funds to the same local, national and international projects and service agencies year after year.

Looking at the federation system as an enabler of new projects, rather than the organization that has to own all the Jewish projects, is central to a new operational strategy adopted by the UJC in June. The plan is designed to help sagging campaigns and maintain the federation system as North America’s Jewish backbone.

Kanfer described a bleak alternative future for the federation system if it does not embrace new ideas.

“If we are simply a system that hangs onto the old ideas and wants to do that, then we will have done a magnificent job in promoting those old ideas and our day will sunset.”

The chair of the UJC’s executive committee, Kathy Manning of Greensboro, N.C., opened the GA’s first plenary with a joke, imploring its largely middle-aged cohort to pay attention to the 275 college students that attended the event through Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

“Please take a moment to get to know them,” she said. “Don’t forget they will be building our nursing homes.”

The presence of the Hillel students contrasted with last year’s GA, when the UJC invited 700 Hillel students to Los Angeles to perform a community service project but failed to invite them into the GA itself, according to Hillel’s executive vice president, Wayne Firestone.

But the UJC became more daring with the younger set last month, opening a plenary session to seven young Jewish innovators and activists — leaders that stray from the typical mold of the federation “leader.”

They included an up-and-coming film producer, Ari Sandel, who won an Academy Award for his short film, “West Bank Story,” a farcical musical about a love that springs between the scions of two warring fast food joints in Israel — one kosher and one hallal.

He was followed by Sarah Chasin, a senior at George Washington University, who, after seeing the devastation of post-Katrina Mississippi while on a Hillel Alternative Spring Break, took a year off from college to volunteer in Mississippi with AmeriCorps.

Chasin was followed by two Israeli young men who were trying to settle the Negev and the Galil by building youth villages there. They were followed by Idit Klein, the director of Keshet, a Boston-based gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.

Next up was Esther Kustanowitz, a noted blogger and senior editor of the startup magazine, PresenTense, which is focused on the next generation (see First Person, Page 56).

Closing the plenary was JTA’s director of digital media, Dan Sieradski, a Jewish Web maven. Known outside JTA as Mobius, the Orthodox Anarchist, Sieradski started the influential and iconoclastic blog, Jewschool, and is prone to post-Zionist outbursts.

The speakers offered some critical advice. Sieradski scolded the established Jewish community as too parochial in its funding, and he called grant makers “disconnected” and “soul crushing.”

The next big Jewish idea, in fact, “has probably already come and gone, and been shot down by no less than a dozen Jewish grant-making organizations,” he said. “And because the innovator will have no resources at his or her disposal with which to continue his project, he will probably walk away from it crushed and discouraged. And a revolutionary idea that could have transformed American Jewry forever will never come to be.”

Still, Sieradski envisioned a future federation system much like the one described by Kanfer, in which the federation is not the seed bearer for new Jewish initiatives but the system that nurtures those ideas by accepting and funding them.

Following the plenary, UJC CEO and President Howard Rieger was beaming, laughing off Sandel’s line to the crowd that they “had to kick their children and grandchildren in the ass” to get them Jewishly involved.

Involving these new voices is central to the plan Rieger and Kanfer have implemented to move the UJC forward. Part of the strategy includes beefing up the organization’s presence overseas and establishing a more active office in Israel to oversee foreign operations. Another feature is establishing a system for federations and the UJC to promote and share the best practices.

“What we will see in 25 years is an organization that will go the way its constituency wants it to go,” Rieger said. “It will evolve. It will be different. It won’t be tied to past models because past models can’t prevail over 25 years.”

Briefs: Mass Shoah grave discovered in Ukraine; Report: Israel wants to talk with Syria; German Jews


Mass Grave Discovered in Ukraine

The Associated Press reported Tuesday on the discovery in May of a previously unknown mass grave in southern Ukraine that may contain remains of thousands of Jews killed by the Nazis. The report says that the finding came by accident, when gas pipelines were being laid in the village of Gvozdavka-1, near Odessa. A concentration camp nearby, established in 1941, was the site of the killing of about 5,000 Jews according to Roman Shvartsman, a spokesman for the area’s Jewish community and the source for the report.

Report: Israel Seeks Syria Talks

Israel reportedly plans to seek U.S. approval for launching secret peace talks with Syria. Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz, who heads out to Washington this week for routine bilateral strategic talks, will raise the idea of new back-door negotiations between Jerusalem and Damascus, Yediot Acharonot reported Monday. According to the newspaper, Mofaz plans to tell Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Syria’s demand for a return of the Golan Heights, and its recent build-up of forces near the territory, warrants asking what it would be willing to give Israel in exchange for a peaceful resolution. Israeli officials neither confirmed nor denied the report, which comes amid rising fears of an armed confrontation on the Syrian front.

“The military is prepared for any eventuality on the north, but at the same time, we should not rule out any call for peace by Syria,” Defense Minister Amir Peretz told Israel’s Army Radio, without elaborating.

UJC Approves Budget, Reorganization

The United Jewish Communities’ (UJC) board of trustees approved a $40.2 million budget for 2007-08, effectively endorsing a plan to reorganize the umbrella organization for North America’s federation system.

The budget, passed Monday at UJC governance meetings in New York, is up from $38.8 million last year.

To pay for the budget increase, the UJC is asking for a 3.7 percent increase in dues from each of its 144 member federations.

The budget includes $2 million to be spent on program changes and a $2.6 million savings from cutting 24 jobs, according to a UJC source. According to the reorganization plan, which was introduced informally in March, the UJC will dissolve its pillar system and form two operating units.

One will be based in Israel and focus on Israel and overseas fund raising and operations. The other will be based in the United States and concentrate on helping the federations increase their donor base and campaigns. The budget also includes a $1.5 million research and development fund for “new strategies.”

The budget “was passed overwhelmingly,” UJC spokesman Glenn Rosenkrantz said. A trustee who asked not to be identified said “there were a number of federations that voted no either on the budget itself or on the dues increase.”

Those federations include Detroit, and Palm Beach and South Palm Beach in Florida.

German Jews Resist Aliyah Body

Leaders of German Jewry say they do not want Israel to encourage more immigration to the Jewish state by expanding the reach of its government body dedicated to promoting aliyah. The leaders said they would even ask for the German government’s help in resisting attempts by Nativ, the Israeli government entity that encourages immigration from the former Soviet Union, to expand its authority to Germany, Ha’aretz reported.

In September, two Nativ officials will begin work in Germany, home to 200,000 Russian-speaking Jews that recently moved there from the former Soviet Union.

Nativ has long wanted to work in Germany, but faced opposition from the Jewish Agency, which does the same work. But now that Nativ is under the control of Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the group will begin running an ulpan and other educational programs in conjunction with the Jewish Agency.

Absorption Minister Ze’ev Boim, who previously oversaw Nativ, did not want the organization to expand because he believed it was unnecessary given the Jewish Agency’s presence. But Lieberman has said publicly that he favors replacing the American-dominated Jewish Agency with Nativ.

Dems Favor Clinton As Envoy

Democratic candidates for president said they would use former President Bill Clinton as a peace envoy. Four hopefuls in Sunday night’s debate on CNN, when asked how they would use Clinton, said envoy would be their preferred choice.

Clinton’s presidency ended with a failed attempt to hammer out a comprehensive Palestinian-Israeli final status deal, but negotiators for both sides praised him for coming closer to achieving an agreement than any other broker.

Clinton’s wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel spoke of using Clinton as an envoy in general terms, and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson specified his usefulness in the Middle East, among other regions.

“I believe he is needed in the Middle East,” Richardson said. “This administration has not had a Middle East peace envoy as other bipartisan administrations have had. We have serious problems in the Middle East. Our great ally Israel, which I think needs buttressing, right now is less safe than it was when President Bush came in.”

The other candidates in the debate, which took place in New Hampshire, were not asked the question.

Conservative Union Opens to Gay Staff

In a vote June 2, the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, representing about 700 Conservative synagogues moved to change its hiring practices, according to a press release. The change applies only to the union itself; Conservative synagogues retain the right to decide independently whether to modify their hiring guidelines or not.

“As a movement that has always integrated our commitment to halachah — Jewish law — with our desire to see the spirit of God in all people, we are glad to be able to take this step,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the organization’s executive vice president.

The decision comes six months after the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards voted to permit the ordination of gays and lesbians and to allow rabbis to perform same-sex commitment ceremonies. The committee also endorsed a rabbinic opinion upholding the traditional ban on gay rabbis and gay unions.

Post-war belt-tightening: Israel could cut Falash Mura dreams in half


Israel’s Finance Ministry is proposing substantial cuts to Ethiopian immigration next year as part of widespread belt-tightening following Israel’s war in Lebanon.

The plan, announced on Sept. 5 as part of Israel’s proposed budget for 2007, would halve the number of Ethiopian immigrants brought to Israel per month, to 150 from the current rate of 300.

If adopted, the change would represent a major setback to U.S. backers of Ethiopian aliyah, who launched a $100 million campaign last year designed in part to pressure the government to increase the rate of Ethiopian immigration. Israel’s Cabinet decided in March 2005 to double the rate of Ethiopian immigration to 600 people per month, but the decision was never implemented.

“I hope the Jewish leaders overseas will understand this breaks all the rules, all the agreements, all the understandings,” said Shlomo Molla, an Ethiopian-Israeli politician and head of the World Zionist Organization’s department of Zionist issues. “We won’t let this happen. It’s a scandal.”

The proposal to slash Ethiopian immigration signals the failure of a complex agreement reached a year and a half ago to complete mass Ethiopian immigration to Israel by the end of 2007.

That agreement would have seen the takeover of Jewish aid compounds in Ethiopia by the Jewish Agency for Israel, the end of lobbying campaigns for immigration by the main Jewish advocacy group in Ethiopia and the raising of more than $100 million by North American Jews to help Israel foot the bill for the airlift and absorption of up to 20,000 additional Ethiopians.

The collaborative effort was intended to bring the mass Ethiopian aliyah to a close in under three years.

Now it seems the estimated 12,000 remaining Ethiopian petitioners for aliyah — known as Falash Mura — will have to wait even longer in shantytowns in the Ethiopian cities of Gondar and Addis Ababa before they can emigrate to the Jewish state, if at all.

“I think it’s morally reprehensible,” Stephen Hoffman, president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, said of the proposed budget cuts. “We’re going to obviously ask the government not to go in that direction.”

The Israeli government repeatedly has delayed implementing the decision to accelerate the aliyah, with various ministries shifting the blame. Under the current budget proposal, an increase in the aliyah rate wouldn’t be reconsidered until the 2008 budget discussions.

Last year, the United Jewish Communities umbrella group of North American federations launched a campaign called Operation Promise to raise $100 million for Ethiopian aliyah and motivate the Israeli government to move ahead with its March 2005 decision.

The UJC raised about half of the amount before the campaign stalled and was overshadowed this summer by special emergency fundraising for the war with Hezbollah.

“Even considering a cut from the current level of 300 a month would be unacceptable,” said Howard Reiger, UJC’s president and CEO. “UJC and the federations will continue their partnership with the government to help populations most in need, including the Falash Mura. We hope and expect that the government of Israel will keep its commitments in this regard as well.”

Some U.S. Jewish leaders say they’re not sure whether the proposed slash in the Ethiopian immigration budget is a legitimate cutback resulting from the war or just an excuse to avoid bringing more Ethiopians to Israel.

One federation official said he’s beginning to doubt Israel’s commitment to accepting the Falash Mura as immigrants.

“I think there will be great skepticism that this is not about something beyond money,” said John Ruskay, executive vice president of UJA-Federation of New York. “I think many of us are aware of the complexity and costs involved, but the signal that will be sent if the number is in fact reduced will, in my judgment, weaken the partnership with world Jewry.”

“Every prime minister has said to us over and over again that the issue of aliyah is a No. 1 priority,” Ruskay said. “The rabbinate has indicated that these are Jews. Ultimately, this is an issue in the hands of the Israeli public and the Israeli political system.”

The government’s reticence to bring the Falash Mura to Israel has been both economic and ideological — and, some charge, racist.

Each Ethiopian immigrant costs the state approximately $100,000 over the course of his lifetime, according to Israeli government estimates. The Ethiopians are considered far more expensive than other immigrants, since the background they’re coming from is so different than Israel, and they need extensive support services after immigrating.

Many Israelis also doubt the Falash Mura’s Jewish credentials, despite their being classified as Jews by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and the three major religious denominations of American Judaism.

The Falash Mura are Ethiopians of Jewish ancestry whose progenitors converted to Christianity several generations ago to escape social and economic pressures. Now they have begun returning to Judaism — in order to immigrate to the Jewish state along with their extended families, some charge.

Given the state of record-keeping in Ethiopia, the Falash Mura’s Jewish pedigree is virtually impossible to prove. Unlike Ethiopian immigrants who came to Israel in Operations Moses and Solomon in 1984 and 1991, the Falash Mura have not continuously maintained Jewish traditions and practice, so Israel has been accepting only those Falash Mura who can demonstrate a familial connection with Ethiopians already in Israel. Some of those now coming to Israel have no claims to Jewish heritage at all and are linked to descendants of Jews only by marriage.

It’s not clear exactly how many Falash Mura remain in Ethiopia, though aid officials say the number is probably not more than 12,000.

The longer it takes Israel to bring the current group of Falash Mura, the more petitioners for aliyah there will be, warn Israeli and American Jewish officials stationed in Ethiopia.

Rebuilding New Orleans — With A Little Help From Each Other


One year after “the storm,” as New Orleanians refer to Hurricane Katrina, Jewish communal leaders describe the health of the community with certain expected terms — loss, trauma, devastation and challenge.

Unexpected is the word “blessed,” used repeatedly in reference to the outpouring from the American Jewish community of financial support, volunteerism and donations of everything from teddy bears to challah covers.

Funds from the United Jewish Communities (UJC), the umbrella of the North American federation system, and the national religious movements have kept New Orleans’ Jewish agencies and synagogues afloat this past year and are expected to do so through 2007.

To date, the UJC has contributed more than $17 million to the rebuilding efforts; the Reform movement has contributed some $800,000 to local Reform congregations, with another $800,000 available for recovery efforts not covered by insurance. Other movements have sent funds as well, although exact figures were not available.

What will happen in 2008 and beyond is the worry that both drives many planning meetings during the day and keeps communal leaders up at night.

“Fortunately, the Jewish community has not had to depend on the help of government, given its failure at all levels,” said Allan Bissinger, president of the New Orleans federation. “UJC has taken the place of what the government should normally have done.”

Roselle Ungar, interim executive director of the federation, said, “What UJC and the many generous contributions from individuals across the country have given us is the opportunity to take a deep breath, step back and take the time to make the hard decisions that will be necessary, so that in 2008 we can stand on our own two feet again.”

A community-wide task force is in the beginning stages of implementing a recovery plan. The plan focuses on such issues as how to retain current residents while encouraging new ones to resettle in New Orleans. It also is determining how the organized Jewish community can work smarter to make the best use of limited dollars.

One of the positive outgrowths of the storm has been the burgeoning spirit of cooperation among all the New Orleans Jewish institutions. Beth Israel Congregation, the Orthodox synagogue that took on 10 feet of water, is now holding a Shabbat minyan at the Reform Gates of Prayer Congregation.

The Anti-Defamation League is sharing federation office space. Interagency programs are on the upswing, and a Hebrew free-loan program is in the works. The JCC is getting needed revenue by renting out its facilities to community groups.

Tackling the population issue will not be as easy. Current estimates are that the Jewish community will stabilize at about 65 percent its pre-storm strength of about 10,000 individuals.

Although there are no hard and fast data about the population exodus, the increasing number of “For sale” signs attests to residents’ continued impatience with the slow pace of recovery, frustration with the government and concern about the rising crime rate. And it would be difficult to exaggerate the impact another hurricane would have on people’s decisions to move.

Although all age groups have joined this exodus, one particular cohort — those in their 60s and 70s with grown children in other communities — has been leaving in large numbers.

Communal officials count the loss of these individuals particularly troublesome because these are the big machers — those with the money and the time to make significant contributions. Every institution has lost some of its biggest donors and officers.

At the same time, each of the five synagogues surveyed has reported new members, mostly young people drawn by the pioneer spirit of rebuilding and the opportunity to make a difference.

Indeed, despite the loss of members, synagogue attendance seems to have remained stable. As Rabbi Andrew Busch of the Reform congregation, Touro Synagogue, put it, “In their new lives after the storm, people have a greater need to come together in the synagogue.”

Rabbi Ted Lichtenfeld of Shir Chadash Conservative Congregation agreed.
“Though I have not had people battering down my door for pastoral counseling, in a sense, the storm underlines everything,” he said. “Fortunately, very few of my congregants lost family members to the storm, but most are rebuilding their homes and almost everyone’s job was affected in one way or the other. That is taking up so much of their energy. They come to synagogue to be in community.”

Undaunted by the storm, Chabad-Lubavitch of Louisiana has committed to build a new student center at Tulane University; the cornerstone ceremony is scheduled to be held Aug. 27, two days before the storm’s anniversary.

The New Orleans Jewish Day School, a community school supported by the federation, has been hit hard by the population exodus. From a pre-storm enrollment of nearly 90 children in kindergarten through eighth grade, it will begin the coming school year with 23 children in just two classes: a combined kindergarten-first grade and a second-third grade class. This precipitous decrease comes despite a halving of tuition, made possible by outside contributions.

Because the local Jewish Family Service (JFS) helps individuals cope with the challenges in their lives by providing counseling and financial support, it has been a lead agency in the post-storm year.

And it has transformed its way of doing business.

Although it had always provided small grants of $500 to $1,000 to individuals in need, that activity increased exponentially over the past year, when it distributed $900,000 in UJC funds directly to individuals affected by the storm, according to agency officials.

By requiring individuals to come to the JFS office to pick up their checks, JFS staff had the opportunity to see how recipients were doing, to hear their concerns and to offer help that went beyond the financial.

Anne Freedman, associate director of JFS, said of its clients: “All that some people needed was the chance to cry and tell their story to the staff, people who really understood them because they had gone through the same thing.”

“Many people were so used to giving to others that they were embarrassed about accepting aid,” she said. “I would tell them that the sooner they were made whole, the sooner they could be back to their traditional role of helping others.”

The traditional counseling role of JFS has changed as well. With many families now living with several generations while their homes are being repaired, more clients are coming in for family counseling. In Baton Rouge, which received many older evacuees, JFS plans social events that bring isolated older adults together; the JCC in New Orleans puts on similar activities.

The agency’s suicide prevention and education program, Teen Life Counts, is needed more than ever. One volunteer reported that pre-Katrina, when she would ask high-schoolers what they thought of teens who committed suicide, they would characterize them as selfish and foolish. This past year, the responses were much more sympathetic. She heard students say, for example, that peers who committed suicide “must be real sad because their parents were crying all the time.”

Yet, even against the backdrop of government incompetence and uncertain levees, many residents are buoyed by optimism.

On a recent Sunday, community members gathered in the afternoon for a chanukat habayit, a home dedication ceremony in which a mezuzah is hung, for Georgette Somjen, a physician moving to town. Later, a brit milah was celebrated for the son of Gary and Susan Lazarus, who are committed to remaining in New Orleans.

Dan Alexander, a fourth-generation New Orleanian, and his wife, Lazelle, also a native, attended both celebrations.

Katrina destroyed their home and surrounding neighborhood, where they had lived for 43 years. The house was bulldozed a few weeks ago.

An 81-year-old retired public schoolteacher, Dan Alexander, said, “When you lose your home, it is like losing a relative.”

Buying and moving into a new house was “the farthest thing from my mind,” he said. “But what’s the alternative? You have to move on and establish a whole new type of existence.”

Declaring that he and his wife are satisfied in their new home, he added: “I couldn’t have made these changes without the support of Lazelle and my family and the community. We just have to be strong and work together as a team.”

Visit to Ethiopia Changes His Life


In 2004, John Fishel went to Ethiopia as part of a delegation of American Federation leaders. The experience changed his life.

The president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, along with five members of the UJA Federation of New York, visited shantytowns filled with Ethiopians waiting in squalor for the chance to make aliyah — to immigrate to Israel.

Fishel and the delegation saw families living in one-room, windowless huts without electricity or running water, and, if lucky, eating one meal a day. Looking at the desperate faces of the Falash Mura — Ethiopians who have ties to Jews either through relatives or their own ancestry — Fishel vowed that he would do something.

Africa has long captivated Fishel, who has a degree from the University of Michigan in anthropology. He had visited about 20 African countries, including Nigeria, Liberia and Senegal. However, nothing made as indelible impression on him as that first mission to Ethiopia, which tapped into Fishel’s commitment to Jewish people worldwide.

After that trip, the United Jewish Communities (UJC), the umbrella organization representing 156 federations and 400 independent Jewish organizations across North America, asked Fishel to co-chair a task force to suggest ways federations could help the estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Falash Mura remaining in Ethiopia. Among the group’s recommendations: The UJC should lobby for the acceleration of aliyah and improve health care and other services for the Ethiopian Jews as they wait to immigrate to Israel.

It was partly at Fishel’s instigation that the UJC recently launched Operation Promise, an ambitious campaign that hopes to raise $160 million over the next three years, with $100 million for Ethiopia and $60 million to help Jews in the former Soviet Union. The L.A. Federation has pledged to raise $8.5 million for the campaign over the next three years.

“John has given real leadership to the issue of Ethiopian Jewry,” said Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, who earlier this year went to Ethiopia with Fishel and 100 American Jewish federation members. “He’s always been the first one to speak up and stir the conscience of the federation movement.”

On that trip, Fishel’s second to Ethiopia, the federation contingent accompanied nearly 150 Jewish Ethiopian olim, or immigrants, as they made the emotional journey by plane from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, to Ben Gurion Airport in Israel.

“John is a very compassionate person and was very moved by what he saw,” said Susan Stern, a fellow mission participant and chairman of the board of the UJA Federation of New York.

Fishel intends to stir other consciences as well. At every opportunity, he said, he has brought the issue of Ethiopian Jewry to the attention of Israeli leaders, from midlevel bureaucrats to prime ministers, including Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert.

“I see Jewish issues as global in scope,” Fishel said. “I think Jews are all responsible for one another, whether in Ethiopia or Russia or Argentina or in the Jewish state.”–MB

 

Post-Katrina, Jews Raised Funds Fast


Major Jewish organizations have raised more than $30 million to house, feed, educate and relocate thousands of victims of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi.

The biggest chunk of money has come from the United Jewish Communities (UJC), which represents 155 Jewish federations and 400 independent communities across North America. As of Dec. 13, UJC said it had collected $25.5 million in Katrina disaster relief, of which $7.9 million already has been allocated to Jewish and non-Jewish hurricane victims.

The single largest beneficiary of UJC’s generosity has been the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, which received $4 million for programs ranging from emergency assistance for individual Jews to general funding for social services.

UJC funds also have gone to the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, as well as groups such as MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, to aid 13 food banks and other groups along the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast.

Smaller amounts have been allocated to groups such as the Dallas Mayor’s Housing Initiative, to provide housing assistance to evacuees ($250,000); the Jewish Federation of Northern Louisiana to provide Wal-Mart gift cards to evacuees in shelters ($153,900); and the Jewish community of Jackson, Miss., for emergency aid to evacuees ($50,000).

The American Jewish Committee also has been active. In mid-December, the group’s executive director, David Harris, visited New Orleans to present a total of $575,000 in hurricane relief funds to four institutions.

Dillard University, a predominantly black college, got $200,000 to help rebuild its Information Technology Center, while $125,000 each went to Clement of Rome, a Catholic church, and two synagogues — Congregation Gates of Prayer, a Reform synagogue next to St. Clement, and Congregation Beth Israel, an Orthodox shul in suburban Lakeview that was severely damaged by Katrina.

“Each of us is potentially vulnerable to the fury of Mother Nature, irrespective of where we live, the religion we practice, or the lifestyle we lead,” Harris said. “Responding to the needs of our fellow Americans in New Orleans was a moral imperative, and we are glad to be able to contribute significantly to the long-term rebuilding and recovery efforts.”

In addition, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), which represents more than 900 Reform congregations, has raised $3.4 million in general hurricane relief.

Rabbi Deborah Hirsch, director of regions at URJ, said about half of that is going to general assistance for both Jews and non-Jews, and the other half to Reform congregations throughout the Southeast that suffered damage this fall from Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma.

“Whenever there’s a disaster of this kind, there are often high uninsured losses. Obviously, the fund won’t be able to cover all those losses,” Hirsch said. “Between these three hurricanes, the losses are going to exceed whatever is in the fund.”

The URJ also has raised $225,000 for SOS New Orleans, a new fundraising campaign to help four New Orleans-area Reform congregations maintain their operations, programs and services: Gates of Prayer in Metairie; Temple Sinai and Touro Synagogue in New Orleans; and the Northshore Jewish Congregation of Mandeville.

According to a URJ press release, some 500 to 600 of the more than 2,000 families that belonged to these four synagogues before Katrina might not return. This puts an added burden on the synagogues’ fundraising efforts at a time when they need money more desperately than ever.

“Never in our modern Jewish history have we witnessed such a dramatic displacement of a Jewish community in North America: so many people displaced, for who knows how long a time,” said Robert Heller, chairman of URJ’s board of trustees. “Those who want to return need to know their congregations will be there for them. The buildings can and will be repaired, but souls and spirits do not mend so easily.”

Eric Stillman, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, said that besides the institutional grants, his federation has received over $100,000 in private, individual donations from outside the New Orleans area since the hurricane.

“We’re tremendously grateful to the American Jewish community for the way they’ve stepped forward and provided financial support,” Stillman said. “I don’t know where we’d be otherwise.”

 

Study of Federations Finds Job Sexism


While a new report says that sexism pervades the North American Jewish federation system, in Los Angeles, the facts paint a much more positive picture of gender equality.

An old-boys’ network and an attitude that rejects women’s leadership skills have kept women from reaching the top echelons of the federation system, according to research released recently by the United Jewish Communities (UJC) and a group called Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community.

The study, based on interviews with a cross-section of North American federation leaders conducted from January to September 2003, sought to understand why women have not reached top executive spots in the 20 largest Jewish communities in North America. Some of those quoted in the report seem to reflect sexist attitudes.

"Just because a man might look at a woman as a sexual object doesn’t mean that he’s not taking her seriously professionally," said one male lay leader interviewed in the report. "I mean, does every woman have to be Golda Meir?"

"My advice to women is to be presentable and play to your femininity," he said. "Men want to preen, and they will respond favorably to the right package."

In its recommendations, the report advised the system to groom a significant number of low- and mid-level female staff members for senior positions, create flexible work environments that make it easier to balance career and family and make gender balance a criterion of executive search processes.

The report recommends experimenting with new models to promote gender equity, monitoring progress through data collection and integrating women’s initiatives into federations’ executive development programs.

The UJC, the umbrella group for North American Jewish federations, paid for and commissioned the report at the request of Stephen Hoffman, the group’s president and CEO.

At The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, women appear to have more opportunities than their colleagues elsewhere. Of The Federation’s 11 vice presidents and senior vice presidents, nine are women. To name but a few, Carol Koransky, the highest-ranking woman, serves as associate executive vice president and executive director of Valley Alliance; Tzivia Schwartz-Getzug is senior vice president of public affairs; and Carol Levy holds the title of senior vice president of leadership enhancement and development.

"I think there’s definitely a desire to achieve gender equality and to be an open place for women to come and succeed," said Sue Wellerstein, senior vice president of human resources at The Federation.

Women hold none of The Federation’s top three professional staff spots. However, they now hold the top three lay leader positions.

The L.A. Federation is believed to be the only one in the country with women occupying the top positions at the same time, Wellerstein said. Harriet Hochman is the board chair, Laurie Konheim serves as campaign chair and Sharon Janks heads the women’s campaign chair.

The Federation’s relatively strong record on hiring women for important positions mirrors a trend elsewhere at other Southern California Jewish institutions, Koransky said. Unlike on the East Coast, women in Los Angeles and other Western cities hold important positions in federations and Jewish agencies, she said.

At the national level, Hoffman said the situation reflects the gender imbalance in the corporate world, with which many federation volunteers are associated. While he doesn’t yet have a precise plan to address the issue, "the first thing you do is you throw light on the issue," Hoffman said, and then "keep the light focused on this."

The report comes as the UJC is seeking a successor to Hoffman, who is stepping down in June. The search committee’s top choices are said to come from the pool of large-city federation executives, all of whom are men and some of whom have been considered for the job in the past. The UJC has not hired an external search firm, which some say would be more likely to consider a wider field of candidates.

Shifra Bronznick, president of Advancing Women Professionals, called the report a "breakthrough."

Among the report’s findings:

Female professionals face a "leaky pipeline" in the federation system, with sizable numbers in lower ranks but few at the top. The representation of female professionals increases as job prestige declines.

No women hold chief executive positions in Jewish federations in the largest U.S. cities — though some, as in Los Angeles, have held the top lay positions — and women hold just 28 percent of subexecutive positions in those cities. In large-intermediate cities, women hold 16 percent of the chief executive positions and 47 percent of subexecutive positions.

Women are held to a different standard than men. For example, the report claims, aggressive leadership is valued in men but is disdained in women and can cost them top jobs.

Despite advances in women’s philanthropy, federation leaders question women’s ability to raise funds, a key requirement for top executive positions.

The network that refers and recruits executive-level candidates is male-dominated and more likely to recommend other men.

According to Bronznick, UJC must apply the recommendations quickly but shouldn’t regard the report as a recipe to which federations can simply "add water and stir."

"It has to be about people really understanding what all the elements of change are and grappling with them themselves," she said. "Otherwise things are going to be very superficial."

Senior Writer Marc Ballon contributed to this report.

Grappling With Competing Needs


While most participants at the North American Jewish federation system’s annual conference were happy just to be in Israel this week, the network’s decision makers were grappling with another matter — funding for overseas partners.

The issue has become so contentious, in fact, that Israel’s prime minister decided to step in.

In a Sunday afternoon meeting with representatives of the United Jewish Communities (UJC) committee that decides overseas funding priorities, participants said Ariel Sharon said, “You are my guests, so I am asking you to make Israel your No. 1 priority for funding. If you weren’t my guests, I would demand it.”

The message comes as the UJC, the federation umbrella organization, prepares to determine allocations to its two main overseas beneficiaries: the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which aids distressed Jews overseas, and the Jewish Agency for Israel, which runs immigration and absorption in Israel and Zionist education worldwide.

It also comes amid increasing concern that local federations, focused more on local needs, are allocating fewer dollars to overseas needs in general — below the allocation recommendations that the UJC’s Overseas Needs Assessment and Distribution Committee (ONAD) has been submitting to UJC’s member federations.

For decades, the federation system has followed a 75/25 split in funding the Jewish Agency and the JDC, with 75 percent going to the Jewish Agency.

With aliyah down, however, ONAD recently recommended allocating an additional $13 million to the JDC, possibly altering the customary division.

Last year, according to the JDC, the UJC provided it with roughly $45 million, a few million short of the amount promised.

The Jewish Agency said the UJC provided it with $143 million, $20 million short of what was promised.

The General Assembly, which has drawn some 4,000 lay and professional leaders of federations from all over North America, falls between two important developments on the matter. Earlier this month, ONAD issued new overseas recommendations, and a vote on the issue is scheduled for Dec. 8.

Some say Sharon’s appeal — essentially for Jewish Agency funding — came at the behest of the agency’s chairman, Sallai Meridor.

Asked how Sharon’s pitch might influence ONAD’s decision, the committee chairman, Steven Klinghoffer, said, “It will be interesting to watch how they respond.”

He also said that ONAD’s recommendations are “not determinative of any kind of outcome,” and that more funds for the JDC wouldn’t necessarily mean less for the Jewish Agency.

“There’s a lot of different ways to skin the cat,” Klinghoffer said.

One member of ONAD, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Sharon’s remarks were not helpful.

“It was almost like blackmail,” she said. “I was truly offended by his remarks.” Sharon was “talking to a group of very dedicated leaders in the Jewish community who have never abandoned Israel,” she said. “To say that you owe us is not the way to win friends and influence people, as far as I’m concerned.”

But Sharon isn’t the only one using the gathering of North Americans to lobby for the Jewish Agency, which ostensibly has more to lose than the JDC in the upcoming ONAD decision.

In his remarks at the Jewish Agency’s opening plenary last Friday, Meridor spoke of the “serious challenge” of obtaining enough funds from American Jewry for immigration and absorption in Israel’s current economic climate.

He called it “close to a miracle” that the Jewish Agency was bringing some 20,000 immigrants to Israel this year, and claimed that many more are awaiting the chance to make aliyah.

For its part, the JDC says it is not campaigning for funds at the conference.

“I’m not lobbying people. Absolutely not,” said Steven Schwager, JDC’s executive vice president. “The JDC has put its faith in the ONAD process.”

He said the 18 communities involved in the ONAD process “will review all the information that has been presented and all of the facts and will consider all of the site visits that they made and will come to a fair and appropriate conclusion.”

Still, talk about overseas funding has been a steady undercurrent at the General Assembly, figuring prominently in meetings and in corridor conversation among decision makers.

In addition, delegates spent the day on Tuesday visiting a variety of programs throughout the country, from social-service programs for new immigrants to educational programs, many of which get at least part of their funding from the North American federation system via the Jewish Agency or the JDC.

At a meeting of the UJC’s board of governors and delegate assembly on Monday, the group pledged to continue funding its overseas beneficiaries and to “increase its efforts in the advocacy for allocations in support of overseas needs.”

This appeared to be a nod to the common gripe that the system doesn’t push hard enough for funds for its overseas partners.

Some fault the federation system for allegedly establishing a competition between the JDC and the Jewish Agency and failing to create an overseas advocacy committee to secure enough funds for both groups.

Klinghoffer admits that the process is fraught with “friction and difficulty” and “political land mines,” but says it is “designed to meet the needs of the Jewish people throughout the world.”

Indeed, at the last meeting of the UJC’s executive committee, in Chicago in September, board chairman Robert Goldberg called ONAD a “failure.”

ONAD was created when the Council of Jewish Federations, the United Jewish Appeal and the United Israel Appeal merged to form the UJC four years ago. The establishment of ONAD was an attempt to reverse a trend of decreased giving to overseas needs. That hasn’t happened, however. The system has delayed establishing an advocacy committee to encourage federations to give to the UJC’s overseas partners. And because several federations did not comply with ONAD recommendations, the UJC has fallen short on the amount it planned to provide the groups.

That has caused the JDC to do its own advocacy work: Schwager has visited individual federations around North America, encouraging them to allocate more for overseas needs.

Some observers say the ONAD process has cost the UJC dearly in terms of the time and energy of its professionals and the financial strain on its overseas agencies.

ONAD was scheduled for an initial review after five years, a juncture that is quickly approaching. Some say it’s simply a matter of making overseas needs a priority. Others anticipate reform, if not a complete overhaul, at that time.

World Briefs


U.S. Vetoes U.N. Resolution

The United States vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have demanded Israel not “remove” Yasser Arafat. The United States vetoed the resolution Tuesday at the 15-member council in New York because it does not explicitly condemn Palestinian terrorism. At a meeting of the council Monday, almost all the speakers condemned Israel’s threats against Arafat, made after two suicide bombings last week killed 15 Israelis.

Settlers Convicted in Bomb Plot

Three Israelis were convicted for plotting to bomb a Palestinian girls’ school in eastern Jerusalem. Shlomo Dvir, Yarden Morag and Ofer Gamliel, all residents of the West Bank, were found guilty Wednesday of attempted murder and illegal possession of firearms. Dvir and Morag were arrested as they were about to plant a bomb at the school. Gamliel was arrested after the two were interrogated.

Report: Hamas Gets Saudi Money

At least 50 percent of Hamas’ operating budget comes from Saudi Arabia, The New York Times reported. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Saudi support for Hamas increased as donations from elsewhere in the world dried up, according to American analysts cited in the report. The donations, roughly $5 million a year, were allegedly made in cash and therefore are difficult to trace.

No Word on Colombia Captives

The fate of four Israelis and four other foreigners abducted near Colombia’s Lost City is unknown, Israeli government sources said. Colombian intelligence services, citing intercepted communications by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, said the eight trekkers are alive, but the group has denied even holding them.

Campbells Gets OK by O.U.

Campbell’s Vegetarian Vegetable soup was certified as kosher by the largest kosher-certification group. The company shut down a production line so it could be cleaned and certified by officials with the Orthodox Union.

“The coveted O.U. symbol is one of the best-known trademarks in the world,” said Jeremy Fingerman, the president of Campbell’s U.S. soup division.

The 6 Percent French Solution

Six percent of French Jews say they will move to Israel, according to a recent poll. The poll, conducted by Erik Cohen, a demographer at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, found that 36 percent of French Jews said they might consider immigrating to Israel while 58 percent said they would not consider the option, the Jerusalem Post reported. Last year, some 2,400 French Jews left for Israel, according to Jewish Agency for Israel figures. The survey contacted 1,132 French Jewish families for the survey.

Birthright Budget Cut

Israel is reducing its allocation to the Birthright Israel program to a symbolic sum. The cut in the state’s 2004 draft budget would bring the figure down to $500,000 for 2004 from its original commitment of $14 million for five consecutive years.

However, Israel will restore its full financial commitment to Birthright in 2005, said Israel’s minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs, Natan Sharansky, who was involved in 11th-hour negotiations on the matter with Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and American philanthropist Michael Steinhardt.

Funding for the program, which provides free trips to Israel for Jewish youths aged 18 to 26 who have never before visited Israel on an organized tour, is shared equally by Israel’s government; the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella federation group; and private philanthropists, as well as other Jewish groups.

U.S. Reducing Aid to Israel

The United States will deduct funds from the loan guarantees it has given Israel. The White House announced Monday that funds used by Israel for settlement activities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip will be deducted from the $9 billion in loan guarantees Israel will receive from the United States.

The Bush administration has chosen not to follow through on threats made this summer to deduct money used on a security fence in the West Bank from the loan guarantees, according to unnamed sources. The loan guarantees officially were made available to Israel on Monday.

Iran Ordered to Pay Victims

Iran was ordered to pay more than $400 million to eight Americans injured in a 1997 terrorist attack in Jerusalem. A U.S. judge ruled last week that Iran bore the responsibility for the attack, perpetrated by members of Hamas, since Iran supports the terrorist group. Five people were killed and nearly 200 wounded in the Sept. 4, 1997, attack.

New Reform Moniker?

The Reform synagogue union may get a new name. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, which represents more than 900 North American Reform synagogues, may become the Union for Reform Judaism. The new name will go before the group’s 67th biennial convention in Minneapolis on Nov. 5-9 for a vote after the recommendation last year by its board of trustees.

UAHC’s President, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, wrote in Reform Judaism magazine that the new name is “short and euphonious” while the old title is “clumsy and difficult to remember.”

UJC Wants You

The Jewish Federation umbrella is recruiting new employees. The United Jewish Communities, which represents 156 federations and 400 independent communities, launched the National Recruitment Corps in Chicago last week in an effort to woo and train entry-level Jewish professionals.

The drive began by training 16 federation veterans to spot new talent in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Delaware, Detroit, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, St. Louis, Toronto and Washington.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Jewish Survey Missing Data


Much-anticipated parts of the National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) will not be released as expected next week because some of the data has been lost.

The United Jewish Communities (UJC), which is funding the $6 million study, is canceling all events pertaining to the 2000-01 NJPS at the Philadelphia gathering of its General Assembly, which begins next Wednesday.

And the UJC, the umbrella of the North American federation system, is launching an independent investigation into the lost data, JTA has learned.

“It is true we are delaying the release of the study,” Stephen Hoffman, UJC’s president and chief executive officer, said on Wednesday. “The reason is there have been some questions raised that I don’t believe we have adequate time to get answers to.”

The revelations could cast doubt on the entire NJPS, the most extensive and costliest demographic study ever conducted of the American Jewish community. The lost data apparently concerned methodological details about who was surveyed, rather than their responses to survey questions.

“Some people with serious reputations believe the study is sound and it could have gone forward and will stand up to the test of time,” Hoffman said. “That could be the case — but I didn’t feel comfortable with these questions to go forward [with releasing further NJPS data next week as planned].”

Last month, the UJC released initial findings from the NJPS, showing the American Jewish population declined 5 percent to 5.2 million since the last study in 1990, and that birth rates were dropping and the community was aging.

Hoffman said that had he known of the missing data before the release of that information, he would not have approved the release of those initial conclusions.

“There may be aspects of it [that are inaccurate],” he said, referring to the initial data released. “I don’t know.”

Hoffman said he only learned of the missing data Tuesday, one week before the information from the NJPS about Jewish identity and intermarriage was due to get released at the annual UJC gathering, which brings together much of the organized American Jewish world.

“I feel it would be irresponsible to go ahead and release the study while these questions are still unresolved,” Hoffman said.

“There will be some people who will be disappointed,” Hoffman said of the implications for the General Assembly. “I’m personally disappointed.”

But there “are other things in Jewish life,” he said that delegates will focus on.

At the heart of the mystery was that Hoffman only learned Tuesday that the firm conducting research for the NJPS, Roper Audits & Surveys Worldwide, lost some data for the study two years ago during initial telephone calls.

Meanwhile, “other issues like that have been coming up in recent days,” he added, though he declined to elaborate.

One source familiar with the NJPS said the missing data concerned lists of those people telephoned for the survey, their phone numbers and how often they were called.

Two-thirds of that data was lost, according to the source.

But the source maintained that while this information was important in determining the accuracy of the survey’s methodology, he did not think that it would undermine the ultimate conclusions, specifically those relating to Jews and Jewish identity.

“I don’t know how much has been lost,” Hoffman said. “The issue is 29 hours old. All I’ve had time to do is make the decision to not have the data be released.”

However, Hoffman said that Jim Schwartz, UJC’s director of research for NJPS, “was aware” of the missing data at some earlier point, though Hoffman said he hadn’t spoken directly with Schwartz yet about the matter. There were no plans affecting Schwartz’s position at this point, he added.

“It would be unfair to jump to conclusions about anybody’s particular role,” he said. “I’m not casting any aspersions at the moment.”

Schwartz could not be reached Wednesday for comment, despite several attempts.

After the General Assembly, the UJC will secure “an outsider” who is “totally objective” to launch an investigation into the missing information. The investigative team might include UJC staffers as well, Hoffman said. Such a probe would presumably attempt to learn exactly what information is missing, how it got lost, how significant it is, who knew about the missing information and why they did not inform senior UJC officials.

“I want to know if there are any other issues they haven’t told me about, either from staff or the technical team” or Roper researchers, Hoffman said.

June Wallach, a spokeswoman for Roper, said the company would have no comment at this time.

Hoffman said he had no idea whether the UJC would take action against Roper, which apparently lost the information from its computer system.

Several lead members of the National Technical Advisory Committee of demographers and social scientists that consulted with UJC’s staffers working on the NJPS said they were participating in a conference call Wednesday about the survey, though they declined to comment further.

Hoffman said he did not know if the co-chairs of the advisory panel, Vivian Klaff of the University of Delaware and Frank Mott of Ohio State University, knew about the missing data. Reached Wednesday, Klaff would only say he would be joining the conference call on the NJPS. Mott did not return calls.

Egon Mayer, director of the North American Jewish Data Bank at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, said he had heard about the delay this week though he didn’t know the reasons for it.

“I think some very important conclusions were reached by the UJC management that led them to this decision, which I’m sure they reached very reluctantly,” he said.

Stephen Bayme, national director of contemporary Jewish life for the American Jewish Committee, said he had heard of the delay but preferred waiting until the UJC got to the bottom of the issue.

“I’d rather not have the data than have data that is mistaken,” Bayme said.

Your Letters


Withholding Funds

We are writing in support of the opinion expressed by Steve Berman opposing the policy of United Jewish Communities (UJC) supporting settlers living beyond what will be the revised Green Line (“Withholding Our Funds From Territories,” Aug. 30).

For almost 50 years, we have been significant contributors to the United Jewish Fund, et al., have held many leadership positions and have always been confident that the funds were used to build a strong and secure Israel. We were dismayed to read that there is a new policy where grants are now being given to settlers living in the West Bank. Although we understand the humanitarian purpose behind these grants, in our opinion the UJC is making a political statement by such support, and that is a position we strongly oppose. Continuation of the blanket support of settlements represents a most serious block to any constructive efforts to move forward the Israel-Palestinian peace effort. Therefore, any aid given to the settlers who are living beyond what will be the revised Green Line, even under the banner of humanitarian relief, gives support to the settler movement, which we feel is so destructive of efforts to build a peaceful and secure Israel. We care deeply about Israel and its struggle for survival and healthy growth.

There are many other worthy organizations whose total efforts are aimed at that goal. We find it difficult to continue support of the UJC, whose policy only makes any peaceful solution more difficult. Therefore we strongly urge this policy be re-examined, both at the local and the national level.

Richard and Lois Gunther, Los Angeles

Question of Blood

In Dan Gordon’s article (“A Question of Blood,” May 24) the following appeared:

“I heard a story, which I did indeed find chilling. It was told to me by Dr. David Zangen, chief medical officer of the Israeli paratroop unit, which bore the brunt of the fighting in Jenin.

“Zangen stated that the Israelis not only worked to keep the hospital in Jenin open, but that they offered the Palestinians blood for their wounded. The Palestinians refused it because it was Jewish blood.”

On Aug. 25, there was a meeting in Melbourne, Australia, organized by the State Zionist Council of Victoria. The guest speaker was Zangen. I was not at this meeting, but I understand that Zangen categorically denied ever having said anything like that to Gordon, and denied being aware of any incident in which Palestinians had refused blood from the Israelis.

Harold Zwier, Melbourne, Australia

Dan Gordon responds:

I spoke with some 50 Israeli soldiers, officers and enlisted men, reservists, conscripts and career army personnel on site in Jenin, Bethlehem, Beit Jallah, at military headquarters (the Kirya) in Tel Aviv and in Jerusalem. I did not write the article in question until almost a month after my return from Jenin. Could I have misattributed a story told by one Israeli officer to another Israeli officer; in this case, Zangen? Yes.

I did not, however, misattribute who confirmed the story. That was Col. Arik Gordin (Res.) of the Israeli Military spokesman’s office. On May 13, I received the following e-mail from Gordin:

“I made some inquiries about the blood donations. It was confirmed by the spokesman of the office of the coordinator of the government activities in the territories that the Palestinians refused our offer of blood. They said they would not take blood from Israel … in short, the story you heard onsite is true.”

If I misattributed the source of that story to Zangen, I again profoundly apologize. I did not however, misattribute the confirmation of that story, nor misstate it as it was related to me.

A Home for the Holidays

I could not believe my eyes when I read the article about alternative services at local synagogues (“A Home for the Holidays,” Aug. 30). I counted 15 services listed, but not one mention of the Library Minyan at Temple Beth Am.

It does not do it for me to read that “this is just a small sampling….” To exclude Beth Am is somewhat ludicrous, because the Beth Am Library Minyan was the pioneer of alternative services in Los Angeles.

I remember when Rabbi Jacob Pressman introduced the idea, it was greeted with some hesitancy. It grew, and although the name remained the same, it had to move to larger quarters in the synagogue.

I know Julie Gruenbaum Fax is usually very thorough in her research, so I was surprised at this glaring omission.

Marjorie Pressman, Los Angeles

 

Arab Hatred

Larry Derfner thinks the only reason Israel has problems with the Palestinians is the presence of Israeli settlers and soldiers on the West Bank, “lording it over them” (“The Irrelevance of Arab Hatred,” Aug. 30). He is wrong. The goal of the Palestinian Authority is to destroy the State of Israel and eliminate Jews from the Middle East. Yasser Arafat founded the Palestinian Liberation Organization, with the avowed goal of destroying Israel, at a time when there was no occupation; not one Israeli in all Judea, Samaria or Gaza.

The Palestinian Authority has changed its name, but not its goal, its leadership or its tactics of terrorism. It is the destruction of the Jewish state that Arafat seeks, not an independent state on the West Bank.

Deborah Koken, Costa Mesa

p

Larry Derfner’s opinion piece is breathtaking in its wisdom. If only the world had been given the benefit of his insight in 1939. An article entitled “The Irrelevance of German anti-Semitism and anti-Slavism” would have prevented those sky-is-falling Jews and Poles and Russians from worrying about the oft-stated Nazi desire to kill or enslave them.

Chaim Sisman , Los Angeles

Jewish ‘Life’ in Simi

The anonymous writer (Letters, Aug. 23) responding to the article “Jewish ‘Life’ Comes to Simi” ( Aug. 9), makes an important point: There is and has long been a diverse and vital Jewish population in the area. Demographics also indicate this an area where Jewish families are moving.

We take pride in the fact that this is truly a community effort and feel compelled to correct two misunderstandings: “I hope the B’nai Emet people find a way to include Chabad.”

First, the Jewish Life Center is a separate entity from Congregation B’nai Emet. B’nai Emet is donating land that will be the site of the Jewish Life Center. The sad fact is that in an area with over 8,000 Jews, there is no permanent home or Jewish center to serve the community: Congregation B’nai Emet leases space in an industrial park and Chabad operates from a modest storefront. Our board is representative of the entire community and includes people such as Margy Rosenbluth, immediate past president of The Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance; Arnold Saltzman of Mount Sinai Memorial Parks & Mortuary; and Glen Becerra, the mayor pro tem of Simi Valley.

Second, we have made efforts to include Chabad, discussing with its Simi Valley rabbi such things as creating a Jewish library and designing a kosher kitchen suitable for Chabad functions.

Those of us involved in The Jewish Life Center wish to create a warm, welcoming home where all can gather to share our traditions, culture and values.

Nancy Beezy Micon Board Chair

Mark Friedman Chief Financial Officer

The Jewish Life Center of Simi Valley

Jane Ulman

Thank you for the return of Jane Ulman. Reading her column on Jeremy’s Bar Mitzvah was like turning on a 500-watt light in a darkened room (“The ‘Contemporary’ Bar Mitzvah,” Aug. 9). The column brightened the whole paper.

Elvan L. Spilka Des Moines, Iowa

Ventura Festival

The recent Ventura County Jewish Festival was a great event in a county with a quickly growing Jewish population. Too bad that part of the region snubbed the event altogether.

Thousand Oaks, which is clearly in Ventura County even though it orients itself toward The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, failed to be represented by any congregations or organizations. Simi Valley is further east, but its congregation set up a booth, as did organizations from Los Angeles, including The Jewish Journal. Considering that the festival was held at the new CSUCI campus adjacent to Camarillo, a city that borders Thousand Oaks, these no-shows are sad.

Ventura County is full of Jewish newcomers, Jewish residents who travel into Los Angeles and Jews unaffiliated with the existing congregations. The entire Conejo Valley missed a stellar opportunity to reach out to potential members.

Steve Greenberg , Camarillo

L.A. Jews Send Aid Beyond Green Line


For the past three weeks, the theme of Rabbi Elazar Muskin’s Shabbat sermons at Young Israel of Century City has been the same. Thundering from the podium, he chastises his congregation for not doing enough to support Israel, and he urges them to pray better and give more charity in response to the horrors of the terror attacks.

Like many communities in Los Angeles, Young Israel of Century City has taken upon itself the support of a large number of charities in Israel, specifically those that fall between the lines; causes that are neither affiliated with the large Jewish fundraising bodies such as The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, nor supported by the Israeli government, despite the urgency of the cause.

Across Los Angeles, grass-roots fundraising are raising money organizations to provide Jewish settlements beyond the Green Line with emergency medical equipment and facilities, first-aid kits, bulletproof vests and buses and armored cars and to help different families who have been affected by the terror attacks in one way or another.

"Unfortunately we have had to make appeals for all sorts of things," said Rabbi Yehoshua Berkowitz of Congregation Shaarei Tefilah in Hancock Park. "Security, bulletproof vests, first-aid kits for the shtachim [occupied territories]. In the past year or two we have raised about $100,000 for these causes, and it has been very gratifying, but we are paying a very small price compared to what the Israelis are paying."

"I did try to get some help from the UJC [United Jewish Communities], but I had no success," said Efrat’s Mayor Eitan Golan, who was in town last month to raise money for an emergency medical center in his city. "And from the government, the situation is not better," he said.

Although Efrat is only 9.5 miles from Jerusalem, its location beyond the Green Line means that the main road leading to Jerusalem is often sealed off for security reasons, forcing residents to travel on alternative routes that can take over an hour.

Golan, who was amazed at the deplorable state of the Emergency Medical Center of neighboring community Gush Etzion, which is located in the garage of the fire station, said that a medical center in Efrat was necessary to save lives as the first hour is critical in stabilizing the life of the patient.

The cost of the center is $1.6 million, and together with Los Angeles expatriate Harvey Tannenbaum, Golan has been knocking on doors in Los Angeles, approaching different communities for money. They made appeals at Beth Jacob, Young Israel of North Beverly Hills, Young Israel of Century City, Sinai Temple and Beth Am, among others.

"For me it is very difficult to go and ask for help, it is not my education," Golan said. "But now the situation is too serious to play honor."

"This is not an Orthodox, Conservative or Reform cause," Tannenbaum added. "We all bleed the same blood and we all need the same attention. When they attack or shoot they don’t figure out if he or she is Orthodox, or Reform or atheist, but they know that it’s a Jewish person they injured."

Steve Berger, chairman of Religious Zionists of Los Angeles, senses a similar urgency. Berger raises money for such causes as Zaka, an organization that outfits members of the Chevra Kadisha (burial society) with bulletproof vests so that they can safely enter the territories to clean up after a terror attack, and Hatzalah Judea and Samaria, an emergency medical organization that provides medical volunteers in the settlements with $1,800 and $3,400 first-aid kits.

"L.A. started the ball rolling," Berger said, noting that with the help from the L.A. community, Hatzalah Judea and Samaria’s volunteer staff has grown from seven to 400, all trained and ready to help in an emergency. Berger estimates that the L.A. community has raised at least $1 million to help causes in Israel in the past six months.

"This is nothing to do with politics, but it is simply the protection of fellow Jews," he said. "While the state of Israel continues to support Jews living in settlements beyond the Green Line, we have to go along with that."

Glen Rosencrantz, director of media relations at UJC, would not comment on the UJC’s policy with regard to the various charities mentioned in this article, except to say that , "UJC does not fund projects beyond the Green Line."

John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, a member of UJC, said these groups have not approached the local Federation for help. But, he added, the current dire situation necessitates the Federation be, “creative and thoughtful in an overall communal mobilization." The Federation supported a walk for terrorist victims in which at least some monies raised went over the Green Line, Fishel pointed out. "This Federation believes that Israeli victims of terror on whichever side of the Green Line are deserving" of a communal response, he told The Journal. "We are open to sitting with any group and hearing what they do."

Golan said, "We say in Hebrew, ‘Yeshuat Hashem ceheref ayin’ — God’s salvation will come in the blink of an eye. I believe we will get the help we need."

UJC Surveys Crisis in Argentina


For Karen Shapira, the United Jewish Communities’s fact-finding tour to Argentina last week made a deep impression.

“Two weeks ago, I knew the figures [of Argentina’s economic crisis]," she said.

“But to be here, to see the effects of the crisis on the middle class, [is something else]," said Shapira, chair of the Overseas Pillar of the United Jewish Committee (UJC), the umbrella for the North American Jewish federation movement.

Shapira, who also co-chairs a special UJC task force on Argentina, was one of a group of UJC leaders who traveled to Buenos Aires last week to evaluate the needs of the country’s Jews during Argentina’s continuing economic collapse.

Before the mission was over, UJC leaders in North America, in a conference call with mission delegates, had approved some $5 million in emergency aid for food, shelter and medicine.

The funds, to be distributed by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), are expected to come from local federations.

Steven Schwager, chief operating officer of the JDC, welcomed the development, and said the JDC will continue to look for additional funds to meet the estimated $8.7 million Argentine Jews will need in 2002.

UJC still must determine its overall budget for the Argentine emergency, taking into account the increasing needs of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which is helping to fund the emigration and absorption of Argentine Jews to Israel.

Argentina was a major focus at this week’s meeting in Israel of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors.

While in Buenos Aires, the UJC contingent met with local Jewish professionals who coordinate welfare programs, visited centers focused on helping Jews immigrate to Israel and met with religious and other community leaders.

They also met with ordinary Jews, most whom belonging to middle- or former middle-class families in a Jewish community of about 200,000 people. These people shared with the UJC visitors their stories and needs.

Though Shapira had read about the Argentine situation, she emphasized that the people she met in welfare centers were not the kind of people she had imagined in such a situation — educated, hard-working members of the middle class.

"For me, one of the really important things here is to meet Jewish leadership, to see how they organize," Shapira said.

She also noticed how much the leaders used phrases like "reengineering" and "cooperation" in describing their efforts to reorganize to help a community that has difficulty paying membership fees and dues to Jewish institutions.

Through the windows of the group’s van, Shapira saw could see people begging and shops closed as a result of the economic crisis. Beyond that, however, the streets looked normal.

Under the surface, however, the situation is anything but normal.

The current crisis has closed banks and decimated small business people, including many Jews.

For Richard Bernstein, the co-chair of the UJC’s Argentine Response Task Force, one of the most shocking discoveries was "how quickly things are happening. In a question of the last six weeks, there are parts of the Jewish community who started to have urgent needs," he said. "Some are uncertain about food and shelter for next week."

The UJC group also visited Emanu El Social Assistance Center, which works with the support of the JDC and Tzedaka, an Argentine Jewish social services organization.

At the assistance center, they talked to five formerly middle-class families who have become part of the "new poor."

Just meeting their basic needs — food, medicine and shelter — now is a struggle.

Schwager said meeting the five families made a deep impression on him.

"They were clearly middle class, and now they have nothing, they have no hope. It is so hard to imagine," he said. "I think this is an emergency situation. And Jews around the world need to know about it."

The group also visited Comedores Populares Israelitas Argentinos, an independent welfare institution that, with financial help from the JDC, provides kosher meals to approximately 90 people a day.

"There are more people willing to come for lunch, but we do not have the money to feed them," a spokesman said.

The JDC estimates that it will need to assist 21,000 Jews this year — and, perhaps, for many years.

The delegation also met with Jews preparing to emigrate to Israel who were in the Jewish Agency office. The office is in the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) building, the central address for Argentine Jewry.

According to the Jewish Agency, about 4,600 people have inquired about moving to Israel since the beginning of 2002. In January, 210 Argentine Jews arrived in Israel, another 330 are ready to depart in February and 500 more are expected in March.

Both Jews staying in Argentina and those leaving need help, Bernstein said.

After touring Comedores, the group was on its way to the Hebraica Jewish Institution, a social and cultural center, when a young student stopped them.

Apparently needing to vent his frustration, he told them about his lack of hope for the future.

During another part of the trip, in front of the AMIA building, a man was handing out pamphlets for Hebrew classes.

"Hebrew classes for emigrants for five pesos" — approximately $2.50 — "each hour," the low-quality, photocopied pamphlet read.

David Sarnat, the Jewish Agency’s executive vice president, who was on the mission, picked it up.

"You will speak Hebrew in two weeks. Guaranteed,” said the man, who apparently was looking for a way to survive the economic crisis.

At the same time, his classes also serve the needs of those Jews reacting to the economic collapse by moving to Israel.

UJC’s Challenge


The outgoing chairman of the United Jewish Communities (UJC), Charles Bronfman, has challenged the UJC leadership to "change the perception out there that rich, old guys who write big checks are the only ones who count."

"There are rich young men and women, who may or may not write big checks but who may have a wealth of ideas," he said. "They may even have a desire to become more involved with the Jewish community. Will we give them the opportunity to lead?" Bronfman, said in his departing speech to the North American Jewish federation system.

"If a person in his 20s or 30s can lead a major corporation, why can’t she or he run a federation project or an agency or, indeed, a federation?"

Bronfman made his comments Monday at the UJC’s annual General Assembly, held this year in Washington, D.C.

Bronfman pointed out also that private Jewish foundations, which now have assets in excess of $25 billion and distribute more than $1 billion annually to Jewish and non-Jewish causes, have surpassed the federation system in their distribution of dollars. Last year, federations in the United States and Canada raised $920 million; its endowment funds total $8 billion.

"These numbers have to tell us that we are living in a very new Jewish philanthropic world," said Bronfman. "Are Jewish foundations a threat to us or can we collaborate with them, now and in the future?"

In an interview, Bronfman said the "big question is how will the federations locally and nationally take advantage of good-hearted people who want to do good. Federations offer an infrastructure and delivery system and most foundations don’t have that."

UJC Launches Campaign


The umbrella of North American federations is set to unveil a multipronged, $4-million solidarity campaign titled "Israel NOW — and Forever."

The United Jewish Communities (UJC) project — which should receive final approval by late July — combines various advocacy, education and fundraising activities and will last until winter, said Gail Hyman, UJC’s vice president for marketing and public affairs.

"We understand there’s a great desire for a national program," Hyman said. "We have a responsibility to listen to our community and to offer the kind of program that will resonate from coast to coast. And unfortunately, that takes a little time. But now we have the support, and we’re ready to act."

The first step will be this weekend’s "Solidarity Shabbat" of UJC leadership in Jerusalem, where the group will meet with Israeli leaders and hammer out final details of the campaign.

Among the other campaign highlights:

  • Heavy promotion of solidarity missions to Israel.

  • Advocacy- and media-training for campus and community activists, in conjunction with local Hillels and Jewish community relations councils, "to train their leadership to become strong advocates on behalf of Israel," Hyman said.

  • A fundraising initiative to assist all Israeli families directly affected during the violence by death, injury, property destruction or psychological damage — and perhaps even economic support for small-business owners. "We understand there are lots of children having great difficulty," Hyman said.

  • A media tour that will take Israeli spokesmen and U.S. Middle East experts — scholars, journalists and other opinion-shapers — into key communities across North America to meet with local media.

  • A major mission to Israel, called "Journey to Solidarity I," to be held Sept. 9 to 14.

  • Production of 1 million leaflets, to be distributed Sept. 17 in all synagogues during Rosh Hashanah, to remind Jews of the need for solidarity. "As we sound the shofar this year, it will also be a call to action for every Jew in North America," Hyman said.

  • A Solidarity Shabbat on Sept. 22 and 23 that will reach out to synagogues, churches and university campuses to show that "support for Israel extends beyond the Jewish community," Hyman said.

  • A major outdoor rally in New York on Sept. 23, with a concurrent rally possible in Los Angeles. New York was chosen not only because of its huge Jewish community but because it is America’s media capital, Hyman said. The UJC also "wants our voices heard by members of the United Nations," which will be convening their General Assembly just days later.

Briefs


UJC Taps Tisch for Top Post

The United Jewish Communities (UJC) offered its top volunteer position to the president of UJA-Federation of Greater New York, according to a member of the UJC nominating committee.

The source said James Tisch of New York was asked to replace fellow philanthropist Charles Bronfman as chairman of the board, but has not yet responded.

Other UJC officials declined to confirm the nomination, saying they have been talking to “a whole host of people to see who’s interested.”

Shoah Denier Denied Platform

A student group at Oxford has canceled a debate on freedom of speech that was to feature Holocaust denier David Irving.

The Oxford Union debating society decided to call off the May 10 event at the last minute after intense pressure from a range of groups including the Union of Jewish Students, the Association of University Teachers and Oxford’s own Student Union.

High-Speed Train to Serve Tel Aviv

Israel’s rail authority inaugurated a double-decker passenger train that will serve suburban communities surrounding Tel Aviv. The train can seat 505 people and reach speeds of 87 miles per hour.

Shoah Deniers Meet in Jordan

The Simon Wiesenthal Center condemned a Holocaust deniers conference held Sunday in Jordan.

The meeting, sponsored by the Jordanian Writers Union, was “yet another step in a systematic effort under way in the Arab world to deconstruct Jewish history,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the center’s associate dean.

Last month, Lebanon’s prime minister blocked Holocaust deniers from holding a similar meeting in Beirut.

Israel Nixes Panel Call

Israel rejected a portion of a United States-led commission’s report that called for the end of settlement construction.

Speaking last Friday after U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said he hoped the report could serve as the basis for an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire, Israeli Cabinet member Danny Naveh said ending construction meant to accommodate a settlement’s natural growth was “impossible.”

On Sunday, Palestinian negotiator Nabil Sha’ath said the Palestinians will not return to the negotiating table unless Israel halts all settlement construction.

In a separate development, Powell said he has not ruled out the idea of appointing someone to replace Dennis Ross, who served as President Clinton’s special envoy to the Middle East.

But Powell said that given the current state of Israeli- Palestinian violence, he does not see a reason to have someone “shuttle back and forth on a constant basis” between Washington and the Middle East.

Briefs courtesy of Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Meet Me in St. Louis


My First Impression

From the start, I liked the sound of it. Six hundred Jewish professionals my age, flying in from places such as Los Angeles, Cleveland, and my own town, Detroit, for a Jewish-themed weekend at the posh St. Louis Ritz-Carlton.

I was drawn to the United Jewish Communities’ (UJC) Central Region Young Leadership Conference because of the mid-March gathering’s promise of deepening spiritual and cultural ties. Of course, as a young single woman, it wouldn’t be a bad thing if I were to meet a nice Jewish guy. After all, the theme was “Architects of Our Jewish Future: Building Tomorrow, Today” and what better way to build a future than with a mensch? (I think my mom and grandmother would agree.)

As a TV news reporter in Metro Detroit, I spend my days running from point A to Z, reporting live from countless locations with a Fox 2 microphone. I was really anticipating stepping out of that role and blending in with others my age looking to add meaning to their Jewish lives.

Saturday Morning Fervor

At the opening plenary, I stood among hundreds of my peers. “Six hundred Jews in one place! It’s like the High Holidays,” said Mark Levine from Indiana, who was sitting beside me. Our keynote speaker was Rabbi Bradley Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism. Artson urged us to look into our souls to make a difference in our community. “God has no other hands in the world except yours,” he said.

Artson talked about walking to synagogue with his son, Jacob, a protracted process, since Jacob is autistic. The rabbi said these initially burdensome, overlong Saturday morning walks ultimately reinforced the true spirit of Shabbat by forcing him to really notice the world around him. As a roving TV reporter guilty of rushing through life at breakneck speed, I was really struck by Artson’s message.

Love in the Afternoon

Our afternoon breakout session was much more lighthearted. It probably won’t surprise anyone to know that the lecture titled “Sex is a Mitzvah, and What Is Heaven, Anyway?” drew at least 100 people. By contrast, a concurrent discussion on Middle East policies drew a small crowd. Of course, rabbis Jay Perlman (Reform) and Phil Miller (Modern Orthodox) knew that the word sex is what drew us in. “Some of you probably thought we were going to have sex. Sorry to disappoint,” Miller joked.

Despite their denominational differences, Perlman and Miller had great rapport, bouncing between them traditional and liberal perspectives on abortion, the afterlife, premarital sex. Both rabbis agreed that while sex is a mitzvah in marriage, premarital sex may not be. And, they added, since they “know what goes on in today’s society,” they advised us to reserve intimacy for loving, monogamous relationships. We figured as much.

On Saturday night, I went to the “Get Your Kicks on Route 66” party at the City Museum. There, I actually stumbled into an attractive, intelligent West Coast man. Let’s call him “The Caveman,” because we ended up hanging out inside a massive cave in the center of the room, watching others bump around in the dark. I also sat with a palm reader, who informed me that I’d have my next serious relationship before I turned 40. What a relief.

The Final Analysis

So did my friends and I achieve our goal of finding Jewish enrichment while having a fantastic time? Let’s just say that we’re all looking forward to Washington 13, the UJC’s political action-themed national conference in February. By Sunday’s closing plenary — as I watched an on-stage medley of first-person testimonies and success stories by UJC-assisted individuals — I realized that the weekend had passed too quickly.

Gary Stone, a friend I had met from Indianapolis, summed up the conference as “a good balance of socializing and learning.” Others told me that they would have preferred longer panels. In the final analysis, there is something really empowering and fulfilling about being among those with whom you share so much common ground. On the cab ride back to the airport, I remembered what Patti Schneider, the Los Angeles-based Youth Leadership director for the UJC’s Western Region, had told me.

“Everybody talks about how young people don’t want to be involved — how they don’t care about being Jewish, but people just do,” Schneider said. “Basically, I don’t care why people come, whether it’s to attend the lectures or hang out. I’m just glad they’re choosing to be here, because a lot of what we are is in our souls; it’s just a matter of rediscovering it.”

Robin Schwartz lives in Detroit, where she works for WJBK-TV Fox 2 News. Staff Writer Michael Aushenker contributed to this piece.

Mission Impossible?


On a brisk night in early January, hundreds of American Jews from throughout the United States, still jet-lagged from their arrival in Israel that morning, are filing into a large airplane hangar at Hatzor, an isolated air force base near Ashkelon.

After a few moments of announcements and greetings, Shlomi Shabbat, a top Israeli pop singer, takes the stage, to the excited applause of the young Israeli soldiers present, and launches into a long, loud and enthusiastic number, combining rock and Sephardi beats.

As the music begins to blare, I look around the room and wonder who planned this extravaganza. What was he or she thinking? All around me are more than 900 exhausted Americans in the middle of nowhere, no doubt wondering what they are doing here and when they can get some sleep. This is going to be a disaster, I think.

But, almost instantly, the soldiers, singing along to the Hebrew song, are out of their seats, clapping their hands, and dancing to the beat, some pressing toward the stage to dance. To my astonishment, they soon are joined by the Americans, rocking and shimmying along with their newfound dance partners, not a yawn to be found in the vast crowd.

So much for my assessment of what makes a United Jewish Communities (UJC) Solidarity Mission a success — or at least what was considered a success until this week.

The central figure behind this and about 150 other UJC missions a year has been Nechemia Dagan, a retired Israeli general with more than 30 years of service in the air force, who watched the proceedings from the back of the hangar with a smile.

Why a rock performance at Hatzor to kick off a five-day visit for the Americans? "It was a salute to the [Israel Defense Forces]," Dagan explained several weeks later at his office in New York. "I knew the soldiers would enjoy it," he said, and he figured correctly that the visitors would be caught up in the enthusiasm of the moment.

Dagan, 60, speaks with emotion about his sense of personal mission: to bridge the widening gap between American and Israeli Jews. "My two goals are to bring Americans to Israel and to expose them to real Israelis," he says.

Today, with tourism down 90 percent due to sometimes misplaced fears about the renewed intifada, solidarity missions — whirlwind briefings with Israeli leaders for American donors — account for the great majority of American visitors to Israel and are seen as critical to maintaining support in a time of crisis. Since October, some 3,000 people have participated, 900 of them on the early January visit.

But the new leadership at UJC is reviewing and re-evaluating the missions program, trying to break the mold of what some see as a tired formula of "canned speeches from political leaders and tours of Jerusalem," according to one official, who said that current missions "are an experience, not an outcome."

Enter Arthur Naparstek, a former academic in social work who in January was named senior vice president of UJC and director of its Israel and Overseas Pillar. He hopes to convince the majority of American Jews to visit Israel and plans to appeal to the "20 percent who sort of identify" Jewishly, through affinity groups (trips based on professions or special interests) or other programs that will be part of an overall goal of "strengthening community, here and in Israel," exploring religious, cultural and social similarities and differences.

More power to him. Surely more can and should be done, particularly to instill a sense of urgency among American Jewry about the undeclared war going on in Israel, which may get worse before it gets better. Only now, after almost six months of bloodshed, are American Jewish leaders worrying about the overall silence of the community and discussing a major rally in Washington to express solidarity with Israel.

Maybe it’s time for new faces, and for missions to be more than fleeting opportunities for the elite to hobnob with Israel’s prime minister. What is certain is that the disconnect between American Jews and Israel and between communal leaders and the majority of American Jews is growing wider. Bridging those divides should be the primary mission.


Gary Rosenblatt is editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week. His e-mail address is
Gary@jewishweek.org

Reaching Consensus


When leaders from 119 North American Jewish federations met here this week, they did not make any earth-shattering decisions or vote on anything binding.

Instead, they did what many involved described as even more revolutionary: They listened to each other, building trust and beginning to explore what it will mean for them to be “owners” of their newly formed umbrella organization, the United Jewish Communities.

“I’ve begun to see a trusting relationship start,” Charles Bronfman, chairman of the UJC’s board, said at the meeting’s closing plenary on Monday.

Robert Aronson, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, observed as the meeting closed: “I don’t think the decisions themselves were as important as the opportunity to sit and talk together.”

Spawned from the merger of the United Jewish Appeal and the Council of Jewish Federations, the UJC says it is attempting to transform a system that had traditionally been top-down and somewhat mysterious in its decision-making to one that is more open.

Indeed, at this two-day “owners’ retreat,” which ended Monday and was followed by a series of meetings, the most oft-repeated words were “transparency,” “consensus” and “change.”

What happens with the UJC is significant because its 189 member federations across North America raised almost $882 million last year for domestic and overseas Jewish needs — everything from day schools to rescuing and resettling refugees.

The federations have long been considered the central address of Jewish philanthropy and social services, but in recent years have been devoting larger portions of their funds to local causes rather than overseas needs.

What remains to be seen is whether — in this climate of openness and without coercion — they will be able to come together and agree on enough to form a cohesive system.

At this week’s retreat, representatives from the various federations spent time breaking into small groups for lengthy discussions and debating among the entire body.

Following the retreat, the UJC’s board of trustees on Tuesday approved:

* A two-year nonbinding plan for federations to maintain at least their current contributions to the UJC and to overseas needs. The board also passed an amendment that would require UJC to come up with a formula by Dec. 31, 2001, that would determine the “fair share” contributions of individual federations in the future.

* A decision to work with local federations and the Jewish Agency for Israel to become partners of Birthright Israel, a program started by philanthropists Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman to send unaffiliated Jews on a free trip to Israel.

The board set $39 million as the target amount to contribute over three years — $15.6 million from the UJC budget, $15 million from federations and the rest from the Jewish Agency. So far, more than 70 federations — representing more than 83 percent of the North American Jewish population — have indicated they are prepared to participate, according to Stephen Solender, UJC president and chief executive officer.

In addition, leaders from within the UJC system agreed as a result of their discussions on their top three priorities for what they want the new organization to accomplish: coordinate overseas needs, help with training for lay and professional leaders and assist with fundraising.

During the retreat, UJC leaders updated their constituents on their accomplishments — getting up and running, establishing pillars, or focus areas, and forming tentative recommendations for a budget and overseas allocations.

They also outlined some goals for the future, including recruiting more women for top leadership positions, stepping up planning, identifying and publicizing “best practices” and developing training programs for federation leaders.

All in all, they seemed to be seeking the buy-in of federations and attempting to persuade them why they should be involved.

But there remain many points of conflict and uncertainty:

* Many small and middle-sized federations feel they do not have a large enough voice in collective decisions and have expressed fears that proposed budget cuts — particularly to regional offices that assist smaller federations with things such as fundraising and personnel matters — would adversely affect them.

* Issues of obligation and enforcement — particularly on the issue of financial commitment for overseas needs and the national system’s overhead — were considered so divisive that they were moved off the agenda weeks before the retreat. Nonetheless, the UJC committee charged with assessing overseas needs is requesting federations contribute at least 105 percent of what they gave last year.

* Federations agree that they want to trim the budget — which is approximately $40 million — for the national system but cannot agree what programs and services should be cut to achieve that goal.

Despite the difficulties, participants from both large and small federations overwhelmingly voiced satisfaction with the retreat, even if some were skeptical about what will happen next.

“We have the opportunity to speak up, and everyone’s being heard,” said Daniel Chefjec, executive director of the Central Kentucky Jewish Federation.

“Small communities have a history in which we’ve felt neglected and been forced to go into decisions we didn’t like. But much of that is being dispelled by the fact that this is being kept clean.”

Jeff Levin, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Washtenaw County in Ann Arbor, Mich., said the meeting was strengthening federations’ commitment to the larger system.

“There’s a growing recognition that whatever comes, everyone making Shabbos for himself is not a good thing,” he said. “That’s the main theme, and all the rest is commentary.”

Shelly Katz, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Santa Barbara, Calif., described the process as “a real turning point for the small cities.”

“We feel we’re being listened to, especially in the small groups,” she added.

For Joel Tauber, UJC’s executive committee chairman, “We’re building a culture of oneness, and people are beginning to look beyond their own federation.”

Despite the sense of growing confidence, leaders — particularly from smaller federations — noted that they were still not certain what the long-term impact of their discussions might be.

Sara Schreibman, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Charlotte, N.C., described the retreat as a learning process but noted that “the real test” will be “if the board really listens.”

Arthur Paikowsky, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix, agreed, saying, “The devil is in the details. Once you figure out how you want to do it, what’s the implementation?”

Transforming the Jewish Community


North American Jewish community federations decided years ago that it was time to change the way they relate to one another and the rest of the Jewish world.

Last week in Atlanta, the formal transformation began to take shape.

But its real effects may take years to reverberate throughout the United Jewish Communities, which represents nearly 200 federations and some 400 independent communities.

People generally “have a feeling” that a change is afoot, but “they don’t know what it is,” Richard November, the president of the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond, said at the end of the UJC’s inaugural event here.

The UJC, formed through the merger of the Council of Jewish Federations and the United Jewish Appeal, became legal Nov. 17, according to papers filed with New York State.

The event capped off more than six years of deliberations over how to promote efficiency and give communities a greater say in the way the funds they raise are allocated for Jewish needs at home and abroad.

As more than 5,200 delegates from North America and Israel converged on the southern capital, the UJC’s governing bodies met for the first time, beginning the business of reorganizing a social-service and fund-raising system that raised $790 million in the 1999 annual campaign.

But for all of the structure now in place, much of the groundwork still lies ahead.

The key to the merger is federation “ownership” of the system, with federations making up the majority of representatives on the UJC’s governing boards and committees.

Even among the federations’ volunteer and professional leaders, however, no clear consensus exists on what the UJC should aspire to do.

Moreover, the federations have yet to define what ownership entails, actively and financially.

To shape the UJC’s future course, a two-day retreat for representatives from all member federations is being planned for next spring. Discussions of what is being termed “critical governance issues” — such as dues, responsibility for supporting overseas needs, decision-making and defining UJC’s aims and scope of activity — will provide the basis for the UJC’s future bylaws.

The retreat idea grew out of interviews conducted among 130 federation presidents and executives over the past month by McKinsey & Company, a New York-based management-consulting firm.

The McKinsey report, made public at the General Assembly here, found that “clearly articulated priorities and a vision of what UJC will be and accomplish have not been embraced by the system.”

As one interviewee, quoted in the report, put it, “You can’t start using a road map if you haven’t decided where you are going.”

Federations agreed that “a national system is needed to enhance the effectiveness of local federations,” but differed on its role, McKinsey found.

Some of the people interviewed envision the UJC as a kind of “trade organization” for federations, providing a way for communities to work together on common issues.

Others believe the organization should take the initiative in setting a continental Jewish agenda.

The interviews also revealed a tension between overseas relief and local needs, an issue that was one of the driving forces behind the merger of the UJC’s predecessor organizations.

But Charles Bronfman, the philanthropist who serves as the UJC’s first chairman, told the first meeting of the 123-member Board of Trustees that “this is not simply a merger. This is a new institution.”

Joel Tauber of Detroit, the chairman of the executive committee, counseled patience. Noting that 1,000 board and committee appointments have already been made, he said at a news conference that the definition of ownership “was left aside because it is so controversial.”

Bronfman said that even though questions remain, the high attendance level at the UJC’s kickoff event was “an indication of the tremendous groundswell of interest and the desire to be part of it.”

Young and Committed


When leaders from 119 North American Jewish federations met here this week, they did not make any earth-shattering decisions or vote on anything binding.

Instead, they did what many involved described as even more revolutionary: They listened to each other, building trust and beginning to explore what it will mean for them to be “owners” of their newly formed umbrella organization, the United Jewish Communities.

“I’ve begun to see a trusting relationship start,” Charles Bronfman, chairman of the UJC’s board, said at the meeting’s closing plenary on Monday.

Robert Aronson, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, observed as the meeting closed: “I don’t think the decisions themselves were as important as the opportunity to sit and talk together.”

Spawned from the merger of the United Jewish Appeal and the Council of Jewish Federations, the UJC says it is attempting to transform a system that had traditionally been top-down and somewhat mysterious in its decision-making to one that is more open.

Indeed, at this two-day “owners’ retreat,” which ended Monday and was followed by a series of meetings, the most oft-repeated words were “transparency,” “consensus” and “change.”

What happens with the UJC is significant because its 189 member federations across North America raised almost $882 million last year for domestic and overseas Jewish needs — everything from day schools to rescuing and resettling refugees.

The federations have long been considered the central address of Jewish philanthropy and social services, but in recent years have been devoting larger portions of their funds to local causes rather than overseas needs.

What remains to be seen is whether — in this climate of openness and without coercion — they will be able to come together and agree on enough to form a cohesive system.

At this week’s retreat, representatives from the various federations spent time breaking into small groups for lengthy discussions and debating among the entire body.

Following the retreat, the UJC’s board of trustees on Tuesday approved:

* A two-year nonbinding plan for federations to maintain at least their current contributions to the UJC and to overseas needs. The board also passed an amendment that would require UJC to come up with a formula by Dec. 31, 2001, that would determine the “fair share” contributions of individual federations in the future.

* A decision to work with local federations and the Jewish Agency for Israel to become partners of Birthright Israel, a program started by philanthropists Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman to send unaffiliated Jews on a free trip to Israel.

The board set $39 million as the target amount to contribute over three years — $15.6 million from the UJC budget, $15 million from federations and the rest from the Jewish Agency. So far, more than 70 federations — representing more than 83 percent of the North American Jewish population — have indicated they are prepared to participate, according to Stephen Solender, UJC president and chief executive officer.

In addition, leaders from within the UJC system agreed as a result of their discussions on their top three priorities for what they want the new organization to accomplish: coordinate overseas needs, help with training for lay and professional leaders and assist with fundraising.

During the retreat, UJC leaders updated their constituents on their accomplishments — getting up and running, establishing pillars, or focus areas, and forming tentative recommendations for a budget and overseas allocations.

They also outlined some goals for the future, including recruiting more women for top leadership positions, stepping up planning, identifying and publicizing “best practices” and developing training programs for federation leaders.

All in all, they seemed to be seeking the buy-in of federations and attempting to persuade them why they should be involved.

But there remain many points of conflict and uncertainty:

* Many small and middle-sized federations feel they do not have a large enough voice in collective decisions and have expressed fears that proposed budget cuts — particularly to regional offices that assist smaller federations with things such as fundraising and personnel matters — would adversely affect them.

* Issues of obligation and enforcement — particularly on the issue of financial commitment for overseas needs and the national system’s overhead — were considered so divisive that they were moved off the agenda weeks before the retreat. Nonetheless, the UJC committee charged with assessing overseas needs is requesting federations contribute at least 105 percent of what they gave last year.

* Federations agree that they want to trim the budget — which is approximately $40 million — for the national system but cannot agree what programs and services should be cut to achieve that goal.

Despite the difficulties, participants from both large and small federations overwhelmingly voiced satisfaction with the retreat, even if some were skeptical about what will happen next.

“We have the opportunity to speak up, and everyone’s being heard,” said Daniel Chefjec, executive director of the Central Kentucky Jewish Federation.

“Small communities have a history in which we’ve felt neglected and been forced to go into decisions we didn’t like. But much of that is being dispelled by the fact that this is being kept clean.”

Jeff Levin, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Washtenaw County in Ann Arbor, Mich., said the meeting was strengthening federations’ commitment to the larger system.

“There’s a growing recognition that whatever comes, everyone making Shabbos for himself is not a good thing,” he said. “That’s the main theme, and all the rest is commentary.”

Shelly Katz, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Santa Barbara, Calif., described the process as “a real turning point for the small cities.”

“We feel we’re being listened to, especially in the small groups,” she added.

For Joel Tauber, UJC’s executive committee chairman, “We’re building a culture of oneness, and people are beginning to look beyond their own federation.”

Despite the sense of growing confidence, leaders — particularly from smaller federations — noted that they were still not certain what the long-term impact of their discussions might be.

Sara Schreibman, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Charlotte, N.C., described the retreat as a learning process but noted that “the real test” will be “if the board really listens.”

Arthur Paikowsky, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix, agreed, saying, “The devil is in the details. Once you figure out how you want to do it, what’s the implementation?”