February 20, 2019

Feeling the Heat

The ad, which pictures a small child with a worried expression, is one way the UJF is trying to tackle the unfolding “Who is a Jew?” debate in Israel and to limit its impact among American donors to the UJF.

According to Bill Bernstein, an associate executive vice president who oversees the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles’ UJF campaign, donor discontent hasn’t affected local giving. The $30 million plus raised so far this year is on par with the 1996 campaign. But that doesn’t prevent Bernstein and other Federation staff and lay people from worrying about whether that support will remain strong.

Of particular concern is a bill currently making its way through the Israeli Knesset. The measure says that any person converted by a Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbi in the Diaspora could become an Israeli citizen but isn’t considered Jewish in religious matters, such as marriage, burial, divorce and conversion.

“Through all the years that American Jews have supported Israel, there has never been a question about anybody’s Judaism,” Bernstein said. “Now, for the first time, this is becoming a reality — and a problem.”

Todd Morgan, the 1997 UJF general chair, said that the distress signals tend to come from the older donors — those who have intermarried children and grandchildren whose spouses have been converted by Reform or Conservative rabbis.

“These are people who have given money to Israel forever,” said Morgan. “They have a grandchild who wouldn’t qualify as a Jew there. And they say, ‘How can they tell me my grandchildren aren’t Jews? They go to synagogue. And Israel says they can’t be married or buried there.'”

“You can’t expect

American philanthropists who

have given their emotional

heart and soul

and financial resources

to Israel not to feel

offended in some way

by this bill.” Bill Bernstein

Although, for many, the feelings are heartfelt and based on knowledge, for others, the conversion bill may provide an excuse not to give, some Federation leaders believe.

“Some say, ‘If I’m not Jewish, I don’t have to give to the Federation,'” said Herb Gelfand, Federation president. “They say it jokingly, and they know they’re Jewish. But we hear a lot about it.”

While UJF totals remain unaffected, fund-raisers are beginning to hear from contributors who say that they’re considering not giving, reducing their contributions, or not making good on pledges that have already been made. Many are loyal supporters of Israel, “who feel that this is the only way to express their frustration, anger and absolute concern for what Israel might become,” Bernstein said. “You can’t expect American philan-thropists who have given their emotional heart and soul and financial resources to Israel not to feel offended in some way by this bill.”

But, Bernstein stressed, few are aware of how little of their contribution actually goes to support Orthodox-affiliated groups in Israel. In fact, only one-half cent of every dollar contributed to the UJF here goes to such groups. Most money distributed through the Jewish Agency go to humanitarian and service programs, such as aliyah, resettlement and education.

In Israel, as in Los Angeles — where about 60 percent of UJF contributions are spent — much of the spending is on programs that are based not on ideology, politics or religion but on human needs, said Federation Executive Vice President John Fishel. “We have to continuously remind our donors of that.”

Even so, there are those who simply want to send a message with their money. Several donors believe that by withholding their contributions to humanitarian causes in Israel, the government will then have to ante up the difference and will then have less to spend on Orthodox programs.

The problem is much more one of perception than of reality, Bernstein said. “Unfortunately, the Orthodox community has been targeted,” he said. “Many who are Orthodox here and in Israel don’t support this legislation.”

The Federation, so far, has resisted allowing any but the largest donors to earmark part of their contribution to specific local programs. But just this week, the United Israel Appeal, the U.S. governing board of the Jewish Agency, approved allocating an additional $1 million to the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel this year and another $5 million in 1998. The money, some of which comes from UJF dollars, was welcomed by the Federation’s Bernstein as supporting the movement toward greater pluralism in Israel.