Jews prefer local needs to Israel

NEW YORK — It's not just the average American Jew who is feeling less connected to Israel these days — the leadership of American Jewish organizations is too.

A growing sense of estrangement from Israel, which has been well documented in recent surveys of randomly selected American Jews, is also true of professional and lay leaders of Jewish communal organizations, according to Gerald Bubis and Steven Cohen.

They released their study last week in Jerusalem to coincide with the massive gathering of diaspora Jewish leaders at the General Assembly of the UJA Federations of North America.

Cohen, who teaches at the Melton Center for Jewish Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Bubis, a vice president and fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, organized the study.

They found that lay and professional leaders of Jewish federations and other Jewish agencies, community centers and social service organizations consider Israel and other overseas Jewish communities less compelling philanthropic causes than needs closer to home.

About 75 percent of respondents said Jewish social services, human services and education should get strong support from Jewish federations.

Just over half — 58 percent — said the same of Israel and other overseas needs.

About 100 Jewish federations exist in the United States and Canada. They raise money from donors in their local communities and then disburse it to local agencies such as nursing homes, soup kitchens, synagogues and day schools.

A shrinking percentage of the money is sent to Israel for charitable causes there. Some is sent to aid needy Jews in other parts of the world.

When asked how they would like to see funds divided from their own community federation, just 2 percent of respondents said they would keep the local-overseas split the same as it is now.

A majority of the volunteer and professional leaders — 58 percent — said that they would like to allocate more funds locally.

Only 40 percent said that they would like to see more sent overseas.

"This study should serve to provoke those who are committed to a strong relationship to search for ways in which American Jews can develop meaningful relationships with Israel in a philanthropic context," Steven Cohen said from Jerusalem.

"It's reasonable to question whether giving money to UJA-Federation and the Jewish Agency is the best way to use one's philanthropic dollars."

While there are other historical factors at work, Cohen said, frustration with the Israeli government's stance on religious pluralism underlies the attitudes.

"My research shows that American Jews are more concerned about the perceived slap in the face, the rejection of their Jewish identity by Israel than they are with Israel's position on the peace process," Cohen said.

"Evidence of that goes back to the late 1980s, when even during the intifada, people were more concerned about issues of who is a Jew and recognition of Conservative and Reform Judaism than they were with Israel's relationship with Palestinians."

One way to change the declining enthusiasm that American Jews have regarding Israel, Cohen asserted, is to help them build relationships with specific causes close to their hearts. A few federations have begun to do this so-called targeted giving.

"American Jews need to have the opportunity to support institutions, or projects, that speak to their vision of Israel, even if we talk about allowing them to support competing visions of Israel, be it Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, the vision of feminists or of civil rights activists."