JCF ceases funding of Bay Area Council

joe eskenazi | staff writer

The Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal can’t stress this enough: They are not looking to burn any bridges.

Yet, on the other hand, even the most diplomatic council supporter couldn’t pretend to be thrilled (or even indifferent) after being cut off as a federation beneficiary, which is what has happened.

After receiving nearly $71,000 in the opening years of this decade, $33,000 two years ago and $16,000 in the past year, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation has opted to cease funding the Bay Area Council.

Spurred by this development, the organization is changing its name to the Climate of Trust Council — the same name of its most successful project. By dropping Bay Area from its name, the organization hopes to seek foundation funding throughout the United States.

The loss of federation funding wasn’t entirely unexpected for the council, which was founded nearly 40 years ago during the height of the Soviet Jewry movement.

“Over the last two or three years, they pretty much decided to ‘wean us.’ I think that was the phrase they used,” said Sheldon Wolfe, the council’s board president.

“Even with small money, and it was very small at the end, I thought it was important to have a connection. … We’re successful at what we do, have a great link to the law-enforcement community and we’re a historical part of [the federation’s] heritage that they’re not going to have anymore.”

The decision to cut off the Bay Area Council wasn’t an arbitrary or malicious one, according to the JCF. There just wasn’t room for the agency anymore.

“About a year ago, the JCF did a community study where we examined our priorities, and we learned some things, such as there are a lot of Jewish poor and hungry people living locally. We had to realign our priorities,” said Julie Gold, the senior associate for the JCF’s Israel and overseas department.

“While it’s amazing work the council does, it’s no longer in our mission. Building civil society in the former Soviet Union is not what we’re in business to do.”

Gold emphasized that the council wasn’t just pushed out the door with a handshake and imitation gold watch; they were awarded a $20,000 closing payment ostensibly in hopes of hiring a part-time fund-raising consultant, and have access to the federation employees as development consultants.

Still, losing federation money puts the council in an awkward position, said Pnina Levermore, the agency’s executive director.

That $16,000 was only about 2 percent of the Bay Area Council’s budget last year, about $700,000 annually, so the federation’s decision is hardly the death knell of council programming. In fact, the United States Agency for International Development generously funds the Council’s Climate of Trust program — an exchange between legal and law-enforcement officials in California and the most troubled portions of the former Soviet Union — to the tune of $1.9 million over five years.

But that money is earmarked down to the paperclips, Levermore noted, so even a slight drop in funding affects the council’s other programming. For example, the council can no longer help Bay Area synagogues to bring over members of their Russian sister congregations.

“What’s being dropped is the outreach to the Jews. USAID doesn’t pay for outreach to Jews. We used to provide physical security to Jews. In the town of Borovichi [a city of 80,000 between Moscow and St. Petersburg], we hired a security guard to watch over the shul. There had been a number of arson attacks there.”

Now there’s no money for that guard, and the shul is on its own, she said.

Wolfe and Levermore are hoping the new name will prime the fund-raising pump, as they can’t stress enough that the story of Jews in the former Soviet Union isn’t over — and, without outside aid and pressure, may not end happily at all.

“People have a feeling that they’ve been there, done that and helped the Russian Jews,” said Levermore.

Added Wolfe, “So many American Jews think there are no problems in Russia. ‘What’s this all about? Didn’t all the Jews get out?’ No, they didn’t.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.