UJC considers money for settlers, official says here

United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group of U.S. federations, is considering whether to allocate funds to Jewish settlers living in the disputed West Bank and Gaza Strip.

According to an article in the New York Jewish Week, some U.S. federations — most notably Cleveland and Bergen County, N.J. — have recently bought armored school buses and ambulances for Jewish settlers. Concerned for their safety, the UJC is debating whether to provide aid, although its predecessor, United Jewish Appeal, had a longstanding policy against it.

"The IRS regulations have always required that money stays within the Green Line," said Stephen Solender, president of UJC, referring to the 1967 border.

"But we recognize that circumstances are changing, and we might need to reconsider our position," he continued, just two days before settlers linked to the banned anti-Arab Kach movement claimed responsibility for the fatal drive-by shooting of three Palestinians near Hebron, including a three-month-old baby boy.

Solender, who will remain in his position until November when he will become president emeritus of the Jewish super-agency, was in San Francisco recently to talk to the local federations about ways of working together. And it was clear that the No. 1 topic on his agenda was Israel, although some of the issues were less controversial than that of settler aid.

Federations throughout the country, together with the UJC, are launching a "National Solidarity Initiative," with several goals: educating the public, both Jewish and non-Jewish, about Israel's position; advocating on Israel's behalf; increasing tourism to a virtually tourist-free Jewish state; and launching a fund-raising effort to express solidarity. In addition, a large solidarity rally is planned for New York for September.

Despite differing opinions in the Jewish community when it comes to Israel, Solender believes, the Jewish community is united on Israel's right to exist, and "we can unite around helping those who are victims of terrorist attacks."

On a recent solidarity mission, Solender went to Tel Aviv's Ichilov Hospital to visit Russian emigre teens, survivors of the June 1 disco bombing.

"Despite current circumstances, we are truly our brothers' and sisters' keepers," he said. "Even if we disagree, we need to show solidarity."

Solender talked about other projects the UJC is currently involved in, many of them related to Israel. One is capitalizing on the success of the Birthright Israel program, which is sending young Jewish adults to Israel free of charge. Noting that now there are 18,000 alumni of the program, he said, "We have to integrate them into their communities as volunteer lay leaders. We have the opportunity of a lifetime."

Recruiting and training the next generation of Jewish educators and communal leaders is another priority, he said, as is increasing social services for the elderly.

A national population study is also under way, similar to the one that was released in 1990, but this one will be even greater in scope. Due for release in 2002, the sample will be much larger. "We plan to apply and adjust our programs and services to lessons learned," he said.

But again, the conversation turned to Israel, with Solender bringing up the plight of Ethiopian emigres. Saying that since their arrival in Israel, they have become a kind of "permanent underclass," UJC is working with the Jewish Agency to develop vocational training programs to help them become fully functioning members of Israeli society.

Solender, 63, has spent his entire career in the Jewish communal world. Over the years, he said, he has seen the priorities of the organizations shift to reflect the changes in American Jewry as a whole.

The community's "deepening [Jewish] identity…has become a more essential issue for the federation system," he said. "When I started, it was more peripheral on our agenda."

Solender described overseeing the UJA-federation system merger, which was the largest ever among religious or ethnic philanthropies, as being a rewarding experience but at the same time, a frustrating one. He has headed the organization since 1999.

"UJC has accomplished much in its short existence," he said, "but I think people expect too much too soon. There needs to be more understanding and patience in giving the new entity time to develop."

Solender said that in his time left at UJC he hoped to strengthen relations with the federations west of the Rockies. "It's one of our major priorities in the next period of time," he said, "and part of our challenge is to develop a big enough tent to be a central address for the largest number of Jews."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."