Ex-paratrooper and politician Burg navigates Jewish Agency

Before Avraham Burg was named chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel last month, he was a rising Labor Party politician. Before that, he was a paratrooper.

And his job experience serves him well at the Jewish Agency's helm.

As the agency's chairman, Burg will have to maintain a grueling schedule with military precision. He'll also need to be the consummate politician to navigate the agency out of financial straits.

Burg's skills were on display during a recent Bay Area visit: He dropped into San Francisco on a recent Friday afternoon, and after meeting with a number of key donors, slipped away to observe Shabbat. He reappeared Saturday evening for another meeting, spoke to a small group at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation Sunday morning, and jetted off to Los Angeles before noon.

As chairman of the organization in charge of rescuing Jews from the former Soviet Union and resettling them in Israel, Burg holds a burgeoning miracle in his hands.

"By the end of the century," he told San Francisco's JCF members, "I hope the Jewish Agency will have brought one million emigres from the former Soviet Union to Israel.

"That's the greatest possible gift you could give Israel," he said.

Bankrolled largely by annual fundraising campaigns and Operation Exodus drives at the JCF and other U.S. federations, the effort is under way. Since 1989, more than 600,000 refugees have resettled in Israel. They continue to arrive at the rate of a planeload a day, and the number emigrating from the Ukraine and some of the former Soviet Union's Muslim republics is increasing.

But along with the challenge of resettling the masses of immigrants, Burg also faces a colossal budget crisis.

When he joined the agency as acting chairman seven months ago, he inherited a $30 million budget deficit. He now believes that deficit might reach $80 million.

Asked how he intended to maintain the miracle and mend the budget, Burg displayed the determination you'd expect of a man with his background.

While his staff has shrunk from 5,000 to 1,400, Burg's annual budget is dropping precipitously. As American Jewish communities start refocusing on social services close to home, Burg thinks he can reshape the agency to suit these challenging times.

By determining exactly how much he can expect from American Jewish communities, Burg said, he can balance his budget accordingly. Difficulties, he pointed out, arise when funds fall off from year to year or fail to match projections.

The JCF is an exception. This year, it allocated over $6.88 million from its annual campaign to overseas projects, primarily through the agency — $123,000 more than the previous year.

Former JCF president and Jewish Agency board member Ron Kaufman knows how hard it is to balance overseas allocations against local distributions.

"We've strained our budgets for local services, just like the agency has in Israel," Kaufman said. "But we can't forget how important Israel is to the spirit of who we are as a Jewish community."

Among other significant service cuts, Burg has reduced the number of agency absorption coordinators in Israeli municipalities from 100 to 65.

Burg cites the JCF's own volunteer-driven absorption center in Kiryat Shmona — established three years ago with an annual campaign grant — as a suitable, affordable solution to the loss of agency coordinators.

"The Jewish Community Federation's project in Kiryat Shmona is great," said Burg. "My perception is that this is the way of the future."

This is not the first time a JCF initiative has shown the way for the agency to improve its relationship with the diaspora and change the way it does business in Israel, noted Kaufman.

Twelve years ago, when Kaufman was president, JCF leaders decided to partially circumvent the Jewish Agency and its funding conduit, United Jewish Appeal, directing $100,000 to projects identified by the JCF's newly founded Amuta or volunteer advisory committee, primarily in the Northern Galilee region of Israel.

"The Jewish Agency was a 19th century organization in terms of its ideology then," said Burg. "We were a century behind."

Change was clearly needed, explained Burg, "and San Francisco was one of the places where the revolution started."

Now the Agency hopes to build on that kind of linkage with a new program called Partnership 2000, pairing Jewish communities throughout the United States with regions in Israel, which Burg hopes will raise involvement, as well as donations from the diaspora.

"The Jewish Community Federation raised three times as much as other communities for Operation Exodus," said Burg, indicating that the JCF's level of involvement and knowledge of the situation in Israel set the stage for a strong campaign.

Burg's hope is that other communities will respond favorably to the challenge of Partnership 2000.

Rabbi Brian Lurie, who formerly headed the JCF and now serves as executive director of UJA, shares Burg's dream and believes the new agency chairman is just the person to make it a reality.

"Avraham Burg is intelligent, passionate and committed to Jewish life everywhere," said Lurie. "He believes in our true partnership, and he's the greatest possible advocate for the diaspora."

Looking to the year 2000, Burg sees Israel and the diaspora sharing the same challenge. "This isn't going to be a century of physically distressed Jews," said Burg. "It's going to be a century of spiritually distressed Jews."

Israel and the diaspora need to work together as never before, said Burg. "As Israelis, we have much to learn from you about community building. As Americans, you can bring something home from Israel about Jewish education and belonging to a greater cause."

In the meantime, said Burg, "Our number one challenge for the next three or four years will be the historic aliyah (immigration).

"The former Soviet Union continues to be a bubbling volcano," added Burg of the political and social climate there, and the flow of immigrants will go through the ceiling if the volcano erupts.

Still, since these Soviet Jews are well educated, "this is still the best thing that could happen to Israel," he added.