Debt-burdened WUJS Faces Shutdown

The group struggles to stay alive as years of cutbacks and poor financial decisions take their toll.

Saddled with over one million shekels in debt, the World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS) is in danger of closing and will be evicted in the coming days from their headquarters in Jerusalem, leaders of the organization said.

The staff has been cut by half in recent weeks, outgoing phone calls have been blocked and the organization is three months behind on salary payments.

"Unless we take care of our deficit, we can't continue to exist," newly elected WUJS chairperson Tamar Shchory said in an interview this week. "Without more funds, we'll need to close the organization."

Last month, Shchory fired half the WUJS staff and the office is down to just four employees. But no one, including the former employees, has received their salaries for the months of December, January or February. WUJS also owes money to the National Insurance Institute (NII), as well as the Tax Authority.

In recent weeks, all staff cell phones except one were disconnected. Computers and office furniture will soon be sold and the organization's car has been returned to the leasing company.

"When I came in [two months ago], I planned to do activities, bring various groups together, and expand our programs. But at this point, my main goal is to save the organization," Shchory said.

The WUJS budget has been slashed in recent years, as funding continues to decline. The Jewish Agency, for example, gave the organization $60,000 a year in the past two years, a 50-percent cut from the $120,000 grants of previous years; the World Jewish Congress has been giving WUJS $50,000 annually for the past two years, down from past grants that topped $100,000. WUJS also receives funding from the Joint Distribution Committee, as well as the World Zionist Organization.

But cutbacks have been compounded by reckless financial decisions, insiders say. In June, for example, WUJS moved to a new office space. Along with renovation costs, the organization purchased new office furniture, including imposing wooden desks and dark leather chairs that cost "thousands of dollars," according to WUJS sources. Facing eviction, the organization will be forced to sell the recently-purchased furniture and leave the renovations behind, essentially throwing away the money it invested just a few months ago.

"They acted like they had money when they didn't," a senior source in the Jewish community said. "It's an organization of students, but the new office was designed as if it was a high-tech company.

"These are nice people with good intentions, but Jewish organizations won't allow themselves to waste public money," the source also said.

WUJS has been going through a tumultuous period, with three heads in just two years. Viktoria Dolburd was elected chair of the organization in December 2004, but was subsequently ousted by the organization's executive in a no-confidence vote with just six months left to her term. She was replaced soon after by Colombian-born Daniel Translateur, an activist in the Spanish-speaking Jewish student world. Translateur headed the organization until the end of December, when he lost his reelection bid to Shchory.

In December, the WUJS board also fired the executive director, Jonny Cline, after they learned the extent of the organization's debt. Cline, sources say, earned an unusually high salary for an employee of a student-run nonprofit.

"Going through this many changes in so short a period of time would be a trauma for any organization," said Hadas Grinvald, the WUJS program manager. "There were many changes that caused the situation to deteriorate the way it has. I wouldn't point to one factor."

The reckless spending and rapid leadership turnover have chipped away at the WUJS' image, the Jewish community source said. "The organization has become less relevant for some Jewish organizations. It needs to be rehabilitated and it needs to be a long-term process. If not, it will lose its right to exist."

Based in Jerusalem, WUJS works closely with Jewish student unions around the world to strengthen Jewish identity and ties to Israel. The organization was founded more than 80 years ago, with Albert Einstein as its first president. Other notable leaders include A.B. Yehoshua and current Haifa mayor Yona Yahav.

In recent decades, WUJS was active in the campaigns to free Soviet Jewry and bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel. The organization's members also protested against the racism conference in Durban and were active during the International Court of Justice proceedings over the legality of the separation barrier in The Hague.

Shchory, who was not active in WUJS prior to her election, is the former student union head at Ben-Gurion University, where she gained a reputation as a consensus builder within a politically divided student union.

She says she has initiated structural changes within the organization to improve transparency and has already made the organization "more modest" in its spending - a plan that includes moving into a rent-free room in the Jewish Agency offices in the coming days.

Shchory is also working to create a WUJS board of governors that would include community members and WUJS alumni to institute greater stability and raise funds.

"WUJS has a huge potential power to unify the Jewish student voice," she said. "This is an old organization with a rich history and if it closes, it would be a great loss to the Jewish people."

Peleg Reshef, former WUJS chairman who is also director of the future generation division at the World Jewish Congress, said that the WJC "will continue to strengthen young and authentic Jewish leadership, while examining and overseeing the quality of the programs it supports."

A Jewish Agency spokesman said that officials within the organization are in negotiations to assist WUJS with solving its financial problems.