Warning about funding cuts leaves BBYO in limbo

NEW YORK — One of American Jewry's oldest — and most financially beleaguered — institutions is expected to slash funding for a program repeatedly described as its "jewel in the crown."

B'nai B'rith, which has seen its membership and financial resources plummet in recent years, may stop subsidizing regional programming of its youth group, B'nai B'rith Youth Organization.

No final decisions will be made until a May 18 board meeting of B'nai B'rith.

With an estimated 20,000 members, BBYO is one of the largest Jewish youth groups in the United States. Its regions currently receive approximately $2 million from B'nai B'rith.

The anticipated cuts come as B'nai B'rith is decentralizing much of its operations and is also expected to significantly cut funding for Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

Hillel, which until the early 1990s was funded almost entirely by B'nai B'rith, expects to receive $50,000 from the organization in the 2002 fiscal year, down from $300,000 this year.

Gary Saltzman, chairman of B'nai B'rith's national youth commission, sent an e-mail to regional BBYO leaders in March, warning them that they may lose all B'nai B'rith funding by July 1.

The memo "said that we should anticipate no money coming to any of the regions effective July 1 and should plan for it," said Robert Groman, chair of BBYO's Nassau/Suffolk region, in suburban New York.

Sources said the memo urged regional leaders to explore other sources of funding, such as Jewish federations, foundations and local B'nai B'rith chapters.

BBYO's 39 regions vary considerably in their dependence on B'nai B'rith. Some get most of their funding from B'nai B'rith, while others supplement their allocations with money from local federations.

Some regions have arrangements whereby they receive office space, staff and in-kind services from local Jewish community centers.

It is possible that the national arm of the federation system and JCCs will step in to help BBYO.

In an April 12 memo to federation leaders and Jewish community centers, the executives of the federation umbrella organization — the United Jewish Communities — and the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America say they anticipate "important consultations regarding the future of BBYO." They are asking federations to implement a moratorium until May 31 on funding decisions concerning BBYO.

"We believe that acting in concert will ultimately be in the best interest of all local communities and the BBYO program," continues the UJC/JCCA memo.

B'nai B'rith is expected to continue funding BBYO's international office in Washington, including its international director. However, BBYO has had only an interim director since last summer, when the director resigned. It also has been operating since last summer without a chief financial officer.

Saltzman and several other B'nai B'rith officials declined to comment on the funding situation, emphasizing that the youth group's funding is still under discussion and that nothing will be decided until his organization's May 18 board meeting.

"The expectation is that undoubtedly regions are going to be asked to assume greater responsibility in raising funds, but in terms of the actual numbers and formula, that's something yet to be decided," said Daniel Mariaschin, B'nai B'rith's executive vice president.

Amid the uncertainty about the level of cuts, a feeling of widespread confusion reigns inside B'nai B'rith, whose officials are complaining privately that Saltzman's memo was sent out without permission or endorsement from the top. Meanwhile, several high-level BBYO officials and regional chairs are complaining that they feel out of the loop, both about the anticipated cuts and about the consultations with the UJC and JCCA.

"We don't know who is running the show, and meanwhile we don't know what to do July 1 when the money runs out," one regional BBYO leader said.

The expected cuts mean there will be "much more need for local fund-raising," said Hal Polon, who chairs BBYO's New Jersey region. "That's something we don't have enough experience with — and it's happened very quickly."

Polon, whose region has received hundreds of thousands of dollars a year from the national office, said his board members are frantically trying to secure new funding by July 1.

"I'm not sure where it's going to shake out yet," he said. "It's a little bit of a scary time."