Changes urged for Jewish Agency in ex-Soviet Union

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JERUSALEM — An internal Jewish Agency report calling for decentralizing the agency in the former Soviet Union could reshape the way it functions in Russia, Ukraine and elsewhere.

The report received a mixed response recently when the agency's Board of Governors' committee on the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe met during the quarterly meetings of the full board.

Board members formed a subcommittee to study the report and determine how — or if– the recommendations should be followed.

While acknowledging the difficult conditions under which "dedicated employees [work] day and night to rescue Jews," the report is critical of some of the agency's methods.

It calls on the body to decentralize its activities in the former Soviet Union and at the same time to unify all the units' operational budgets.

A primary task of the Jewish Agency in the former Soviet Union is to help Jews immigrate to Israel. It is also involved in Jewish educational and cultural programs, which are intended to strengthen Jewish identity and connection with Israel.

The report, commissioned by the agency, reflects the efforts by Jewish Agency chairman Avraham Burg to reform and consolidate the financially strapped entity.

During its quarterly meetings, the Board of Governors refrained from making further cuts in the agency, which is in the first two years of a five-year austerity plan aimed at cutting $500 million.

Cuts of $110 million in the first two years are now being put into effect.

As part of the plan, agency leaders are conducting negotiations with the Israeli government, which has agreed to take over most of the Youth Aliyah program in exchange for the agency taking over the Student Authority and other responsibilities, for an estimated savings of about $60 million.

Meanwhile, members of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe committee agreed that regionalizing the Jewish Agency's work into four separate missions — Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia and the Southern Caucasus — would streamline the bureaucracy.

Until now, all of the agency's former Soviet Union-related decisions have been made in Moscow.

According to Dan Eldar, a researcher who wrote the report, "Given the present scope of the activity, it is difficult to manage all activities from a single center in Moscow through one central former Soviet Union delegation."

In the committee meeting, Burg said of the task to bring Jews to Israel: "The central question is how best to change with changing realities and bring as many as possible as quickly as possible."

Since 1989, more than 600,000 Jews immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union. Estimates of the current Jewish population vary widely, with numbers ranging from 500,000 to 2 million.

Some committee members, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, questioned the report's proposed restructuring.