January 5, 2006
5 Tevet, 5766


Increased funding urged to help Jews overseas

Staff Reporter

Harking back to the days of covert rescues and emergency fundraising drives, North American Jews are being asked to dig deep again – to the tune of $160 million over three years – to help ease the plight of Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union (FSU) and Ethiopia.

Operation Promise is the next great challenge for Jewish federations and appeals in Canada and the United States, the plenary session on international affairs was told at the recent General Assembly (GA) of United Jewish Communities (UJC).

There are more than 232,000 mostly elderly Jews in 3,000 cities and towns scattered across the FSU who live in “inconceivable poverty,” Steve Schwager, executive vice-president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) told delegates.

The JDC has provided them with food, medicine, home care and other aid for years. “We are their only lifeline,” Schwager said.

But recent budget shortfalls have forced the agency to scale back aid to more than 100,000 Jews in the FSU, he added. Meal deliveries have been cut by nearly one-third, while more than 12,000 clients no longer receive any food assistance.

Active in 63 countries, the JDC spends two-thirds of its annual budget helping Jews in the FSU and Ethiopia.

About 125,000 destitute Holocaust survivors in the FSU receive compensation from the New York-based Claims Conference, “but they are just as poor” as those who do not, Schwager noted.

“We owe these poor, elderly Jews the right to live out their lives in dignity,” he said.

Making the case for funding overseas needs has become increasingly difficult for the North American Jewish federation system, which raises money for local, national and international needs, as federations have increasingly put campaign dollars toward local social service and educational priorities.

Today, roughly 30 per cent of funds raised by North American federations go overseas, down from 50 per cent in earlier times.

But the UJC, the umbrella group of the federation system, wants to change that, starting with a new allocations system.

With the 1999 creation of the UJC – a merger of the Council of Jewish Federations, United Jewish Appeal and United Israel Appeal – came the Overseas Needs Assessment and Distribution Committee (ONAD), which comprised a cross-section of federation leaders to determine allocations overseas with the aim of increasing overseas dollars.

But while the federations’ annual campaign, which tops $800 million (US), has increased by four per cent since 2000, overseas funding has dropped by more than 4.5 per cent since 2001.

Last week at the end of the GA, the UJC board of trustees voted unanimously to replace ONAD with a system that allows the system’s major overseas partners, the JDC and the Jewish Agency for Israel – which runs aliyah and Zionist education worldwide – to hammer out their own agreement for the next two years. A group of federation officials will monitor the process and the UJC board must then approve the deal by the two agencies.

Some hope the new format – a modified return to pre-ONAD days, when the Jewish Agency and JDC negotiated their own funds – will restore a spirit of co-operation to the process.

Others call the resolution a compromise that will satisfy no one, and some lament the lack of minimum amounts required by federations to allocate overseas, given past shortfalls.

Ze’ev Bielski, the newly elected chairman of the Jewish Agency, told the plenary there are 100,000 Jews of Ethiopian origin in Israel who have, for the most part, integrated well.

About 22,000 Jews from Ethiopia were airlifted to Israel in two secretive missions, Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1991. The estimated 20,000 left behind are mainly the so-called Falash Mora, whose ancestors were Jews but who were forcibly converted to Christianity over the past 200 years.

In October, Israel announced that Ethiopia has agreed to step up the immigration of the Falash Mora to the Jewish state. The foreign ministry estimated the country could expect 600 of the Ethiopians a month – double the previous immigration rate. Israel wants to complete the relocation of the entire community by the end of 2007.

In September, hundreds of Falash Mora held a hunger strike in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, to protest their plight, and thousands of their brethren marched in Jerusalem last month to protest delays in plans to bring them to Israel.

Funds raised in Operation Promise have already been earmarked:

• $40 million for the initial absorption of the Falash Mora, and expansion of programs and services at absorption centres.

• $37 million to improve educational opportunities for all Ethiopians in Israel.

• $30 million for poor, elderly Jews in the FSU.

• $30 million for programs for younger Jews in the FSU who have little or no connection to Jewish life.

• $23 million for the Falash Mora still in Ethiopia, for food, rent, health care, Hebrew language education and other preparation for aliyah.

Bielski noted that as part of Operation Promise, the Jewish Agency and Israel’s absorption ministry have partnered in a public campaign dubbed Bayit B’Yachad (At Home Together). Delegates viewed ads that are airing on Israeli television touting the successful integration of immigrants from the FSU and Ethiopia, but warning there’s still much to be done.

In a videotaped greeting to the 4,000 delegates attending the GA, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon voiced his support for more immigration to Israel.

“Israel is a homeland not just for our children, but also for yours,” he said. “That is why increasing aliyah is a challenge that we share. We must work to encourage aliyah from the United States, Canada and the rest of the western world.”

Sharon had particular praise for Nefesh B’Nefesh, which encourages aliyah from North America, and for educational programs such as birthright israel and MASA, which supports long-term programs in Israel for young Diaspora Jews.

Opening the international plenary was actor Valerie Harper, who performed a scene from her smash one-woman Broadway show Golda’s Balcony, about the life of former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir.

With files from JTA