Jewish Agency Budget Cuts Could Drown Smaller Absorption Assistance Groups

There are about 15 private groups helping new immigrants find their way in Israel that receive funding from JAFI.

Budget cuts approved by the Jewish Agency for Israel this week may jeopardize the existence of smaller immigration assistance groups, according to aliyah professionals. Nonprofits serving native English speakers, however, say they are financially strong enough to continue operating as usual.

There are about 15 private groups helping new immigrants find their way in Israel that receive funding from JAFI.

But the Agency recently shifted its funding priorities toward fostering Jewish identity, which it says is an alternative route toward promoting immigration.

At the Agency's Board of Governors meeting in Buenos Aires, Argentina, this week, the group approved another round of budget cuts, from $330.9 million in 2011 down to $322.4 million next year.

The budget line for immigration and absorption is dropping from $2,294,000 to $1,668,000, Agency spokesman Haviv Rettig-Gur told Anglo File.

"Most aliyah organizations will continue to exist, but some just won't be able to afford a full-time, professional aliyah coordinator anymore," said Esther Blum of the Council of Immigrant Associations in Israel, whose budget is almost entirely covered by JAFI.

Blum pointed to a number smaller groups, many of which are just one-man operations serving immigrants from small communities, which may find their situation unsustainable with the budget cuts.

Currently, the Agency gives between $6,000 and $20,000 to each organization annually, based on the number of immigrants, she said.

"This money promises that every immigrant has someone to help him or her in their native language. At the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, they don't have staff that speaks Turkish, Spanish or even English all over the country. Somebody needs to make sure that every newcomer has at least one person paid for being there to help him in his mentality and mother tongue," she said.

Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver told Anglo File Wednesday that she was ready in principle to pick up the slack and increase funding for immigrant organizations.

"But it's all a questions of budgets. This has to be decided by the government and the prime minister, I cannot make such a decision alone," she said.

Officials from English-speaking immigrant assistance organization are confident they will not be significantly affected by the budget paring.

"Cuts hurt - raising additional money is never easy. But we will still be here next year," said David London, the executive director of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel. "We've been weaning ourselves off the Jewish Agency for many years now. It's been difficult but we were successful. We've accepted that the world is changing and that the Jewish Agency is changing, and so we started projects to find other sources of funding."

Today, AACI has an annual budget of $1 million, which is paid for by membership dues, donations, and a $25,000 grant by the Immigrant Absorption Ministry.

The largest part of the budget, London said, comes from the money the nonprofit generates through its various cultural programs and activities.

The chairman of the South African Zionist Federation (Israel ), Dave Bloom, said that his organization had been raising independent funds for some time and would not be "greatly impacted" by losing Agency money.

"We have several initiatives in the pipeline to ensure our financial commitments are met and amongst them we are also in discussions with the Immigrant Absorption Ministry," he said. "The current climate in the world of Jewish philanthropy is challenging to say the least and donors, quite rightly, want to ensure that their contributions are being used effectively."

Natie Shevel, who directs the local branch of the U.K.-based United Jewish Israel Appeal, said: "Whatever the outcome, we will continue to work with the Jewish Agency to ensure British [immigrants] benefit from a continuity of service to ensure a successful aliyah."

Rettig-Gur, the Agency's spokesman, told Anglo File that JAFI supports the aliyah groups' "important work," adding that he "personally was incredibly helped by AACI as a lone soldier in 1999 and 2000" and that Agency chairman Natan Sharansky was the founding chairman of their umbrella body.

"But the Agency lives on philanthropic dollars," he wrote in an email this week, "and the financial pressures affecting global Jewish philanthropy generally have taken their toll and forced cuts in some important programs. A cut must be made, and [immigrant] organizations are not immune."

JAFI management will soon meet with the immigrant groups "to implement the cuts without prejudicing the work of the organizations," he added.

The Jewish Agency's financial woes were compounded last week when the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America passed a new plan that may significantly cut their financial support of the Israeli organization.

In the past, the Agency automatically received 75 percent of the Federations' overseas funding, while 25 percent went to the Joint Distribution Committee.

Starting in 2013, though, the Agency will be just one among many organizations competing for Federation money, as representatives of North America's 157 Jewish Federations - the so-called Global Planning Table - will decide which overseas programs are worth funding.