The Light at the End of the Tunnel

Beyond raising and dispensing money, the United Jewish Communities (UJC) fosters close ties between Jews in Israel and in North America.

At a time when intermarriage and a perceived weakening of Jewish identity are causing concern over the future of the Jewish community in North America, it's reassuring to learn that Jewish philanthropists are donating more than ever to Jewish causes.

"The amount raised last year was about $900 million through UJC," says Nachman Shai, Senior Vice-President of United Jewish Communities (UJC ) and Director-General ofUJC Israel. "Every year, the amount increases by about 2-3%."

Nevertheless, he notes, there have been changes and new challenges on the philanthropy scene. Donors are getting older. Many Jews with means are choosing to donate proportionally more to non-Jewish projects and even those who give to Jewish causes sometimes choose to support independent projects rather than the local Jewish Federations.

Perhaps the biggest change is that Jewish donors today are much more hard-headed than those of a previous generation about demanding an accounting of exactly how the money is spent.

Once, the image of the Jewish philanthropist was of a generous but naive donor who shelled out "for Israel," leaving the details of where exactly the money went to the professionals.

That image spawned a host of jokes, including the evocative scene in the 1964 film "Sallah Shabati," in which a donor plaque was whisked away and exchanged for onewith another name each time a rich donor turned up to see "his" project.

Today, donors demand not just a plaque, but a partnership as well. And that is what the UJC provides. "It's all absolutely transparent. We provide the reports the donors want and keep a close watch on how the projects are maintained," Shai says. "Because we're familiar with thelocal scene, we can also recommend specific areas of need."

As an example, he cites one project in the Israel Emergency Campaign during last summer's Lebanon fighting, which raised $350 million in total.

"During the war, I happened to meet an IDF officer serving in the north and asked him what was needed. He said that there were hundreds of bomb shelters with no air conditioning, no television, no toys for children to play with and sometimes not even emergency lighting. We decided to run a weekend campaign and contacted 2,500 shuls in North America, asking each one to sponsor a bomb shelter. On Sunday, we made the technical arrangements and by Wednesday, 2000 air conditioners had been installed. The system produced results."

Other funding from UJC helped Sderot residents under attack, particularly those most vulnerable, such as the elderly, disabled, recent immigrants and the disadvantaged.Funds were allocated to keep children in shelters occupied and provide money for summer camps. After the war, funds were provided for repairs and trauma counseling, amongother needs. Many local businesses, such as bed and breakfast establishments, had lost their customers and income during the two months of the war. Financial help from UJC kept them from going bankrupt.

Colleges in the north and south also suffered, since manyparents were unwilling to see their children in danger. This affected college staff, many of whom then had no jobs. Scholarships helped students at those colleges as well as students who had served in the IDF during the fighting and as a result couldn?t work to raise moneyfor tuition.

Many of those aided were Druse and Arabs, who suffered just as much in the north as did Jews, and sometimes more, since their towns often lacked bomb shelters. "We have to help everyone who is a victim of indiscriminate terror," says Shai. "Katyushas don't know the difference between Arabs and Jews."

Umbrella organizationTo anyone unfamiliar with the Jewish philanthropy scene, the world of Jewish organizations is a confusing alphabet soup of titles. They include the Jewish Agency (JAFI ), JDC (Joint Distribution Committee ), Keren Hayasod and UJC (United Jewish Communities ) - not to mention the manyprivate non-profit organizations. No wonder many Israelis, indeed many Jews around the world, are confused about what all these organizations do, where the money comes fromand where it goes.

Today, The United Jewish Communities (UJC ) is the umbrella organization uniting some 156 federations and 400 independent Jewish communities, which represent over six million Jews in North America. The organization raises money for projects in Israel and elsewhere, encourages connections to Israel and the Jewish people and acts as anadvocate.

UJC was formed in 1999 through the merger of the Council of Jewish Federations (formed in 1932 ), United Jewish Appeal and United Israel Appeal (formed in 1939 ).

Its overseas partners are the Jewish Agency, which deals with immigration and absorption, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which runs relief and welfare projects for Jews abroad.

Joe Kanfer, Chairman of UJC, has likened the Federation system to a page of Talmud, which highlights a text in the center and surrounds it with rabbinical commentaries. Similarly, he says, the Federation system is "an amalgam of voices and visions, working together to understand and resolve shared questions affecting our people."

For the last five years, Nachman Shai has directed the local branch, UJC Israel. Shai is probably still best known as the Prozak of the sealed room - the IDF spokesman who calmed Israelis during the Gulf War of 1991 - but he has also held a variety of other positions since then, including Chairman of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, Director General of the Ministry of Science, Culture and Sport, and Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Israel Television News Company.

His current job involves keeping tabs on literally hundreds of projects, large and small. High on the agenda is the Ethiopian National Project, which unites organizations assisting the Ethiopian-Israeli community. Much still has to be done to integrate this 100,000-strongcommunity, including a focus on teens aged 13-18. Indeed, a project geared at Ethiopian youths helps them fulfill their academic potential, rescues those at risk of delinquency and strengthens the community by fostering leadership. The ENP-Atidim initiative (within the framework of a broader Atidim program investing in education) provides enrichment and scholastic interventionfor the top one-third of Ethiopian junior and senior high schoolers, while the Scholastic Assistance Program helps students achieve good results in matriculation examinations.

More than 6,000 students were part of the Scholastic Assistance Program in 2006-7, at a cost of some $7.5 million, and nearly $4 million was budgeted for 29 Youth Outreach Centers.

Other programs include the Negev initiative, the UJC Mandel Center for Leadership Excellence, Jewish Renaissance and Operation Promise, which helps bring remaining Ethiopian Jews to Israel, helps feed poor, elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union and strengthens Jewish identity among young Jews there.

Of course, the Israeli aspect is just one side of UJC; the other side is the North American wing. Few members of the general public know just how much it does.

As an advocate, for example, the JDC lobbies for tax incentives for charities, for the elderly, for Ethiopians in Israel, for Argentine Jews, for the Negev's developmentand, of course, for Israel?s interests. UJC has launched, on behalf of captured Israeli soldiers Gilad Shalit, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.

The UJC/JCPA Israel Advocacy Initiative (IAI ) promotesinterfaith dialogue, works with student and faculty groups to address anti-Israel rhetoric and generally undertakes outreach on behalf of Israel.

Other projects, such as support for the people of Darfur and for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, range further afield. Some might question why, with so much need in theJewish world, Federation funds are spent on general disaster relief.

According to Shai, "Many Jewish philanthropists give to both Jewish and other causes. Their money is earned in the general community and they feel they have to give back to the community. That's the tradition in America. With Katrina, for example, there was a Jewish community in New Orleans and also many other Americans who were in deep trouble. It's a question of tikkun olam. The money given wasn't at the expense of Jewish causes, but in addition to them."

Jews are experts at community responsibility through fundraising, and organizations like UJC have developed many vehicles for successful fundraising. These include the annual campaign, naming opportunities, planned giving, venture philanthropy and capital and special campaigns. Much also comes from federal, state and local aid programs, such as services to seniors and caregivers.Of major importance is the annual General Assembly, which attracted more than 5,000 participants last year and will be held in Israel next year, coinciding with Israel?s 60th anniversary.

UJC Missions to Israel and organized group visits are sometimes taken lightly by Israelis, but in fact they are a well-tested way to strengthen Jewish identity and the ties between Israelis and Diaspora Jews. They alsohave an effect on fundraising, because they show the donors just where the money goes, and how it is needed.

"Missions are important because they attract people to Israel," says Shai. "Seventy percent of Americans have never been here."

Today, there are innumerable kinds of missions - for singles, couples, families, synagogue groups, politicians, interfaith groups, and so on. Name an interest, and chances are there's a mission to accommodate it.

Strengthening connectionsOn the Israeli side, the UJC maintains strong connections with the government, the business community, volunteers, Israeli opinion makers, the media and the general public.Nachman Shai himself writes a regular column, "Shai From Jerusalem," dealing in a straight and honest way with various issues affecting Israel, even controversial ones.

This is no whitewash; in a recent column, for example,he discussed scandals in government institutions, noting that "many Israelis feel anger and even rage."

His rationale is that while once Israelis preferred to keep their problems to themselves, today there is no way to sweep things under the carpet. "People overseas know everything anyway. I talk about Israel?s difficulties because the family should share its troubles."

Conversely, he feels that Israelis should know more about what it means to be a Jew in America. ?They have a lot to teach us. In some ways, they know more about Judaism than we do. That's why I take a group of journalists with me to the General Assembly, so that they can learn about the Jewish community. It's not all about money."

How does one ensure that a new generation of young Jews will continue to support Israel and Jewish causes? "Education," says Shai, "is the key. Everything starts with education, in my opinion. It's clear from surveys that those young people who attend Jewish day schools have a greater tendency to continue to live a Jewish life, to contribute to Jewish causes and to feel an attachment to Israel."

But even for those who don't have the benefit of a solid Jewish education, there can be an attachment to communal life and to the family of Jews, which often expresses itself in philanthropy.

According to Shai, "Philanthropy is a way that North Americans identify themselves as Jews and as members of their communities. That's what the UJC is about. It's an umbrella organization for Jewish life. In spite of all the problems facing the Jewish people today, Shai is confident about the future. "There is light at the end of the tunnel and it isn't the oncoming train," he jokes. "The Jewishpeople have survived everything. History has taught us that whatever we went through, we survived. Each generation has its own crisis. There is always hope, and our leaders should be conveying this hope." That hope is largely the support of fellow Jews.

Shai feels strongly that "we can't always count on other countries as allies. I am not so sure that if you were to bring Israel's existence to a vote at the UN today, it would pass. At the end of the day, the only people we can count on to support Israel spiritually and financially are Jews." And that is why, in his opinion, "nurturing relations between the Jewish people and the State of Israel should be considered a national duty of the utmostimportance. We don't have another Jewish people and we can't let ourselves neglect this relationship." With a smile, he likens Israel today to "a used car, which has had an accident or two, but is still in good shape. It hasn't stopped."

If the UJC has anything to do with it, that vehicle will continue to roll along, full speed ahead.