Plan to merge major Jewish fund-raising groups is priority

NEW YORK — A dramatic proposal to merge the main American Jewish fund-raising organizations has surfaced as the latest effort to make communal institutions more responsive to changing Jewish needs.

The plan could profoundly affect the distribution of American Jewish money to Israel, Jewish communities worldwide and to programs at home.

It calls for consolidating the Council of Jewish Federations, the United Jewish Appeal and the United Israel Appeal, the agencies that oversee a $725 million annual fund-raising campaign for both local needs and humanitarian projects abroad.

The plan will be high on the agenda of the CJF quarterly meeting next week in Detroit.

The architects of the proposal say it is only preliminary, and that serious concerns must be addressed before the plan can gain the consensus needed to institute it.

The biggest challenge is to ensure that enough money will still flow to Israel and to Jewish projects overseas at a time when local Jewish needs are assuming a higher priority. Pressure to direct more funds locally will only intensify as pending federal budget cuts are put into place.

Most insiders say a resolution of this issue is the key to winning support for the plan from organizations whose primary focus is Israel.

Critics fear the plan could jeopardize the Israel-diaspora partnership by not providing enough representation in the governing bodies for advocates of overseas interests. They also express concern that too much power will be concentrated in too few hands.

But proponents maintain the current national structure is outmoded, and that not making a dramatic change risks rendering the organized Jewish world immaterial.

Leaders from key agencies were in Chicago last week to press their concerns with the authors of the plan before the CJF session.

The proposed merger is the latest plan by the Committee to Study the National Structure, formed last spring under CJF and UJA auspices.

Members were charged with examining the major national philanthropic organizations: the UJA; CJF; United Israel Appeal; the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Israel. They also studied the relationship of these organizations to local federations.

After concluding that a more efficient national structure was needed and would save considerable money, the committee devised a series of models for change.

The merger idea, unveiled this summer, reflects the most radical proposal.

"What's occurring in the Jewish world is cataclysmic," said Joel Tauber, president of the UJA and co-chairman of the committee. "If we do nothing" to react, "the organized Jewish community could become irrelevant."

The Jewish organizations have aided Jews for 50 years, but now Israel is stronger and anti-Semitism is waning, he said.

"We now need to rescue our spirituality" and identity, he said.

For Tauber, the Israel Experience program illustrates the need for reorganization. It targets 50,000 U.S. Jewish youths annually, but only 5,000 to 6,000 are participating. The program needs a marketing campaign, massive community outreach and "interesting programs in Israel to attract the kids," he said.

"We need one organization responsible" to avoid bureaucratic repetition, he said, noting that the UJA, CJF and UIA are all involved in these programs.

The CJF is the association of Jewish community federations that raise money in concert with the UJA. Federations decide how much money to keep at home and disperse for local needs, and how much to allocate overseas, to the independently-run UJA.

This year that overseas allocation was 42 percent of the gross amount of money raised, down from the traditional 50 percent. This angered some who believe Israel is the biggest fund-raising draw.

The UJA decides how much it needs for operational expenses and divides the rest between the UIA and JDC, which provides humanitarian relief for Jews around the world, including Israel.

The UIA distributes and monitors its share of funds to the Jewish Agency for Israeli social services. The UJA also gives money to the New York Association for New Americans, which helps resettle immigrants in the United States.

Federations, in turn, are increasingly preoccupied by the question of Jewish continuity in the United States and will be further pressed to meet local community demands to compensate for expected sharp cuts in federal aid.

The proposed merger was outlined in an Aug. 2 memo to federation leaders by Tauber and his committee co-chairman, Charles Goodman, an immediate past president of the CJF. Goodman was unavailable for comment.

Under the plan, the UJA, UIA and CJF would become a single organization. The JDC, as a direct-service organization, would remain independent. The plan calls for a breakdown of the new mega-entity into departments for fund-raising, domestic affairs, overseas affairs, and finance and administration.

Each department would have a lay and professional head and a lay board, and each department would be accountable to an assembly, a "superboard" and an executive committee headed by a lay chair and a professional.

The proposal emphasizes that the governing bodies of the new organization would "be balanced between representatives of the federation system and of overseas interests."

Local federation executives were reluctant to discuss the plan, and many are expected to resist a specific commitment to overseas programs at the expense of local needs, such as day schools, Jewish community centers and family services.

Under the current proposal, federations would continue to decide how to divide funds between local and overseas needs. But they would be urged to give overseas programs half of any monies collected above current levels.

Some who favor the plan hope federations will embrace the responsibility for overseas interests when they see the UJA and UIA as true partners accountable to the same governing bodies.

But UIA chair Shoshana Cardin said scrapping the group would pose a "serious risk" to the UIA's stewardship over $80 million in annual U.S. government grants for the Jewish Agency.

She also criticized the restructuring study as "flawed" because it failed to consult all of the players.

Rabbi Brian Lurie, UJA executive vice president, said he believes the community cannot afford to miss this chance for reform.

"Conventional wisdom [calls for] incremental change, change at the edges," he said. But "we are at a new point in Jewish life" when it is "time for dramatic change. It's a once-every-50-years opportunity and we have to seize it."