Pluralism spurs U.S. donors to seek more control over federation allocations

NEW YORK — A six-figure donor to the Jewish federation in Louisville, Ky., decided he did not want his money going to Israel because he was angry about conversion legislation pending in the Knesset.

Like many other U.S. Jews, he believed the controversial measure would delegitimize Reform and Conservative Judaism by reinforcing exclusive Orthodox control over conversions in Israel.

The Jewish Community Federation of Louisville routinely sends 40 percent of all annual campaign contributions to the United Jewish Appeal for distribution to Israel and elsewhere overseas.

But, to accommodate one of its top givers, it did something it had never done before: It allowed the donor to earmark his entire contribution for programs at home.

It was a decision accompanied by misgivings, however.

Withholding the money from UJA "has a significant effect on Israel at a time when immigrants are still coming and it's needed," said Alan Klugsman, the federation's associate director.

And its significance is made even greater by the fact "that someone of this prestige in the community" could become the model for others, he said.

In fact, the Louisville donor's decision reflects a nationwide trend of contributors seeking more control over where their philanthropic dollars go and assurances that they are being spent in ways that reflect their values.

This is a particular challenge to the Jewish community, whose hallmark has been a collective process of identifying need and of raising and allocating money worldwide through the UJA-federation system.

Nowhere is this trend toward a direct philanthropic relationship more pronounced than among donors to Israel, creating tension within the central fund-raising system and its annual campaign.

Its guardians fear that fragmenting Jewish giving, whether or not it happens to be in protest over a political development, marks the breakdown of a historic Jewish mandate and tradition.

At the same time, they are devising ways to keep donors within the fold and meet their changing needs, because the trend is expected to intensify.

Already, Jewish federations in communities from Cleveland to San Francisco are responding to donor demands.

Indeed, a new study of Jewish baby boomers commissioned by the UJA identifies the changes and calls on the system to adapt.

Done by Gary Tobin and Joel Streicker of Brandeis University, the study shows a decreased identification with the Jewish state and recommends new ways of "nurturing support of Israel."

These include creating a new orientation toward Israel marked by "people-building" and environmental and social issues. It recommends "projects that promote Jewish culture and identity in Israel" and that "help American Jews build their own identity through connections to Israel."

For its part, UJA, which funnels its Israel allocation to the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, is trying to achieve a balance.

"We're not fools," said Richard Wexler, national chairman of UJA. "We recognize the donor-driven concept," and "we need to be responsive or we will be irrelevant."

But inherent in the trend "is a danger to the bedrock concept" of federated giving, he said. There is a risk that the community's "central planning and priority-setting role will get overridden by the individual."

That UJA has felt pressure from mounting grassroots anger over the religious pluralism conflict in Israel was evident in an advertisement it ran last month in the national edition of the New York Times.

The ad showed a child's face, accompanied by the caption: "He's Orthodox. He's poor and hungry."

The copy below read: "Wherever you stand on the debate about religion in Israel, he's not the enemy. Don't make your Federation and UJA the battlefield. Your annual campaign gift is still the better way to rescue the imperiled, care for the vulnerable and strengthen the entire Jewish community."

UJA also has tried to contain potential damage through talks with leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements who have implied that their constituents are prepared to bypass the campaign to give directly to their institutions in Israel.

UJA has offered to help the Reform, Conservative and modern Orthodox movements raise up to $10 million each in joint supplemental fund-raising projects, apart from the annual campaign.

If the plan wins the endorsement of UJA's owners, the United Israel Appeal and the JDC, the money would be funded through the Jewish Agency.

But here, too, UJA faces constraints. Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, believes "no UJA money should be given to any project with the word `pluralism' attached to it."

He said Orthodox Jewish contributors "will have a problem" if the funds go beyond the realm of "religion and Jewish unity" to support "political or partisan causes."

In a separate initiative, the Council of Jewish Federations has recommended doubling the $2.5 million in annual funding to projects of the various religious streams that come from the Jewish Agency's program allocations budget.

The UJA approved the recommendation and will propose it as a resolution to be voted upon later this month at the Jewish Agency's annual assembly in Israel.

"We plan on doing everything we can to prevent polarization and to bridge the gap" created by the conversion issue, said Martin Kraar, executive vice president of CJF.

But "we don't believe the federation system should be the battleground for this terrible problem," he said. "We don't believe that people with serious human needs should be sacrificed in the name of Jewish unity."

Fallout from the pluralism furor slowed the pace of the UJA campaign after Passover, said Bernie Moscovitz, UJA vice president and chief operating officer.

Nonetheless, he said, the campaign has ridden it out. Pledges are up 9.1 percent over this time last year and could finish with a 4 to 5 percent increase, or between $735 million and $750 million.

That would reflect the largest single increase in a campaign year in non-emergency times, said Moscovitz.

He said the anticipated increase reflects the efforts of UJA and federation solicitors, who have done five to six times the number of face-to-face solicitations than in the past of donors whose gifts range between $15,000 and $100,000.

The increase would come in spite of increased pressures on federations to bypass the national system and give directly to Israeli projects and programs.

In Cleveland, considered a bellwether community, the Jewish Community Federation is about to formalize a decision to decrease its UJA allocation from $11 million to $8 million.

The change is being made because "we have questions about how national decisions are made for international needs and because of greater concern about whether the system can provide an opportunity for the people-to-people connections essential to the Israel-diaspora relationship," said Stephen Hoffman, the federation's executive vice president.

"It is very important when there is a crisis to have the ability to act collectively," said Hoffman. But by allocating some money directly to programs in Israel, it expands the number of local people who are involved in decision-making from "the current cadre of half a dozen to hundreds."

Cleveland is not alone.

In San Francisco, the Jewish Community Federation decided to decrease its UJA donation by $1 million, with half of that to be spent directly on progressive projects in Israel and half to remain at home.

And the Jewish Federation of Greater San Jose changed its policy this year by allowing donors for the first time to designate their gifts for groups that support religious pluralism and Jewish-Arab coexistence.

"It was not an easy decision," said Jyl Tanowitz, campaign director. While it reflected an effort to "respect the priorities" of the donors, there was no way of knowing how it would affect other "critically important programs we've supported in the past," she said.

Said Hoffman of Cleveland, "We believe the time has come for the national system to recognize it should do things differently if [donors] are going to have the same connection that the previous generations did."

That is a call the system has heard.

One of its most popular programs is the Jewish Agency's Partnership 2000, which allows federations to team up with residents of an Israeli development region and build "people-to-people projects" to strengthen Israel-diaspora understanding.

They range from e-mail pen-pal projects between schools to exchange programs for doctors.

UJA also recently has expanded its program of supplemental giving, which allows donors to designate their gifts to a wide variety of projects through the Jewish Agency and JDC.

But these options are limited to federations and to top donors who must maintain their gift to the annual campaign in order to participate.

Meanwhile, smaller, more targeted philanthropies, like the New Israel Fund, are seizing on the hunger of Jewish donors to give directly to causes in Israel that mirror their immediate concerns.

From its earliest days, the underpinning of the New Israel Fund was that "donors should have a more direct relationship with the institutions on the ground that they support than was traditionally the case," said Norman Rosenberg, the charity's executive director.

The fund last year raised $13 million, or 20 percent more than the previous year, for projects fostering religious pluralism, Arab-Jewish coexistence, women's rights, social justice and civil rights.

Now it is running 21 percent ahead of where it was at this time last year. The growth is fueled in part by American Jewish anger over the controversial conversion legislation, said Rosenberg.

The fund's "lead theme" since June has been religious freedom. It recently mounted a petition drive calling on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to thwart the legislation and denounce religious extremism.

"There is no issue I've seen that has provoked more anger and outrage among American Jews, including the peace process," said Rosenberg. "And people know we've been fighting for religious pluralism for 18 years."