Jewish National Fund reverses plan to shut S.F. office

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The San Francisco office of the Jewish National Fund has been spared the ax but has sustained some deep cuts.

Over the past year, the Zionist agency cut its U.S. offices from 33 to 21 and the San Francisco office originally was slated for closure.

Instead, in moves announced Tuesday the local JNF office reduced its full-time paid staff from four to two, with further cuts expected. Office manager Leslie Cooper acknowledged that she will be carrying a greater burden, adding, "I'm here for the foreseeable future. I like what we do."

The decision to trim the San Francisco operation and eliminate offices in two other U.S. cities will ultimately mean more money for the Jewish state, said Seth Moskowitz, the group's New York-based development director. "It's part of a trend," he added, noting that American Friends of the Hebrew University closed its San Francisco office April 30.

The primary mission of JNF's San Francisco office is to raise funds for the agency, which reclaims land for planting and forestry, furthers water conservation and prepares land for building. The regional office oversees Northern California, Alaska, Hawaii, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon and Washington. JNF also has a Los Angeles office, where operations won't be cut.

The process of scaling back local operations has been fraught with contention. One of the two eliminated positions became vacated when an employee quit; the JNF, still weighing cutbacks at the time, decided not to restaff that position.

Sparks began to fly after Moskowitz visited San Francisco in April. In an interview with the Bulletin then, Moskowitz said that JNF was planning to close the San Francisco office. Local JNF officials, contacted at the time by the Bulletin, reacted angrily and said they had not been informed of any such closure by JNF's national leadership.

Soon after, Moskowitz found himself fielding a flurry of heated calls from local JNF officials. One caller, local JNF board chair John Rothmann, said last week: "I was promised that they would do nothing without consulting us first. I was supposed to meet with Seth Moskowitz when he came out, but he never called me."

Staffers reached prior to Tuesday's announcement characterized the proposal as an ill-conceived slash-and-burn frenzy. While no local JNF employees would speak for attribution, they also said they had been kept "out of the loop."

Calling the Bulletin after the controversy erupted, Moskowitz said he had not initially informed local officials of the closure plans because JNF CEO Russell Robinson in New York decided to re-examine the finances of the S.F. operation. "The CEO's audit tells me there's reasons enough to not move so quickly," Moskowitz said by phone from New York last week.

Asked why he initially told the Bulletin that the office was closing during his San Francisco visit, Moskowitz offered no explanation for that discrepancy.

While he was

in San Francisco, Moscowitz said the local closing was prompted partly by financial considerations. He said that two years ago, "zero percent" of the money raised here actually made it to its destination in Israel, a statement local officials disputed.

The local cutback is part of a national reorganization effort by the JNF. These efforts were sparked in 1996, when the Jewish community was rocked by reports of shoddy fiscal practices in the agency. At the time, it was revealed that only 21 percent of donations were funding projects in Israel.

An independent audit blamed sloppy accounting practices but found no intentional wrongdoing or fraud.

In a shake-up at the top ranks, cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder was named president and Robinson, a former fund-raising official for the United Jewish Appeal, became CEO. Robinson brought Moskowitz on board.

Moskowitz said $4.5 million has been slashed from the budget during the past two years. Today, JNF sends about 50 percent of the donations it receives to Israel, he said. Its goal for 2001: 70 percent. Now, no more than one-third of an office's revenues may be used to sustain it.

While centralization is high on the agenda, not all offices will face the chopping block — only those that are hemorrhaging money. Although figures were not made available, Moskowitz indicated the local office spent more on self-support than was warranted.

But local officials say the Northern California office performed well under the guidance of former executive director Stanley Bresh, who left the agency in 1997.

"We raised over $10 million during [Bresh's] tenure," said Rothmann, who served three terms as board presiden during the last 25 years.

The primary focus of the local office, Moskowitz said, will now be geared toward the big donors in the area. In Northern California, "we want to focus on big gifts — $100,000 gifts."

In further cutbacks, JNF's West Coast offices will no longer focus on tree sales.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.