Federations nationally show drop in overseas donations

For every dollar a donor gives to the North American federation system, about 30 cents is sent abroad.

That proportion has remained steady the last few years, but marks a sharp decline from a time when federations contributed about half of their donations overseas.

"It used to be that you would have your campaign, take the expenses off the top and split the remainder in half. Half stayed local and the other half was international," recalled Marjorie Wolf, president of the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay.

"That's how it was when I first got involved in the federation 20 years ago. We've definitely slipped in our community, more so than elsewhere."

The East Bay federation sends a quarter of its allocations overseas, a shift that began about 15 years ago nationally and has continued on a downward slide ever since.

Across the Bay, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation allocates 38 percent of its funds overseas, well above the national average. But this too marks a dramatic decrease from decades past, when the federation earmarked nearly two-thirds of its funds for Israel and overseas.

With pressing needs in Israel, Argentina and throughout the world, the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group for North American federations, is forming an advocacy committee for its overseas operation, which reflects a growing sense by federation leaders that the system is failing to effectively fund its overseas partners.

For many local federations, who foot the bill for the UJC, "overseas needs are remote," said James Lodge, director of the Overseas Needs Assessment and Distribution Committee, known as ONAD.

"We as a national system have an obligation" to help people understand overseas needs, he said.

ONAD's major partners include the Jewish Agency for Israel, which handles immigration and absorption in Israel, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which delivers international relief and welfare for needy Jews.

According to Gary Tobin, president of San Francisco's Institute for Jewish and Community Research, a confluence of factors is responsible for declining overseas donations:

*The early 1990s were a time of peacemaking and prosperity for Israel, whose politicians along with federation leaders told Americans to keep their money at home.

*The Jewish Agency, the federations' largest overseas partner, was seen as a "symbol of bureaucratic inefficiency."

*Donors began designating dollars for specific Israeli programs outside the federation system.

*The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey revealed a 52 percent intermarriage rate among those who had married the previous five years, prompting federations to spend more on Jewish education and identity-building programs.

The collapse of the peace process, Israel's sliding economy and "anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism all over the world, forces the federation system to pay more attention to Israel again," Tobin said.

Also, the growth of local Jewish organizations has resulted in the need for funding, explained Sam Salkin, CEO of the S.F. federation. "In our community's flowering and growth, a whole variety of institutions have come into being which are now supported by our annual campaign."

Salkin's East Bay counterpart, Ami Nahshon, agreed. In the past decades, he said, American Jews have perceived Israel as becoming "more economically self-sufficient. There has been a growing urgency to invest in the kinds of Jewish education and involvement programs locally that help ensure a vibrant Jewish future."

The 25-member ONAD committee, composed of representatives of various federations, the Jewish Agency and the JDC, was created to give federations more ownership and, consequently, buy-in of overseas decisions.

Many criticize the system, saying it is plagued by political gridlock, with millions of dollars at stake for the overseas partners.

Salkin says the system is too inflexible; ideally it would be able to send money to Israel in times of increased aliyah or to other parts of the world when specific needs crop up.

In an attempt to reassess needs and allocations, ONAD representatives visited Russia, Israel and Ukraine last spring and summer.

A committee to discuss the findings was slated to be formed in the fall, but the group met only once in October, without making any concrete decisions.

The issue reflects a larger problem — a dearth of overseas funding, according to Jay Sarber, president of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis and a member of the ONAD committee.

"A rising tide would raise all ships," he said. The UJC must "take it out of the realm of partisan politics, and put it in the realm of problem-solving.''