April 23, 2010
Written by Barbara Bayer, Contributing writer
Maxyne Finkelstein, CEO of the Jewish Agency for Israel in North America, was in town last week to visit with leaders of the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City. She was invited to speak about JAFI’s core activities and the impact of recent budget cuts on the agency and its clients. The Jewish Agency, which functions in 40 countries around the world, has seen its annual income drop 20 percent in recent years — from $234 million in 2005 to $188.5 million in 2009.
One reason JAFI is facing this budget shortfall is a decrease in funds it receives from North American Jewish federations. For example, in the current fiscal year as compared to last, Kansas City cut the percentage of the funds it devotes to Israel and overseas programming from 34 percent to 30 percent. Todd Stettner, executive vice president & CEO of KC's Jewish Federation, said the board decided to cut the percentage of the funds it devotes to Israel and overseas programming from 34 percent to 30 percent. Todd Stettner, executive vice president & CEO of KC’s Jewish Federation, said the board decided to cut the overseas allocation this year because it wanted to “maximize the dollars we can use here in Kansas City.”
This fiscal year, Kansas City gave $1.07 million to the Jewish Federations of North America, which, in turn, gives money to JAFI and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee for overseas programming. Another $379,428 pays for elective overseas programs that are directly supported by the Kansas City Jewish community in Israel and Eastern Europe, including programs in the Ramla and Gezer regions of Israel. That brings the Federation’s total Israel and overseas allocations to $1.45 million for this fiscal year.
JAFI’s Finkelstein said the agency’s recent financial limitations are on a lot of people’s minds.
“We have had to cut programs significantly in the past few years,” Finkelstein said. “Our hope today is that the community feels good about the money they are spending; feels that it’s a good investment and understands the issues we are trying to address together.”
Former Federation President Karen Pack is a member of the JAFI’s board of governors and is well versed on both the local budget process and JAFI’s global budgetary needs. Armed with that knowledge, she doesn’t believe it’s necessary to make further cuts to the amount Federation reserves for Israel and overseas programming. Pack noted that local needs are also being met by such other funders as the Jewish Heritage Foundation, Menorah Legacy Foundation, Jewish Community Foundation and congregations.
“I am very proud to say that we have the ability, through these dollars that we send to Israel and overseas, to connect with our Jewish family regardless of where they are. That’s not only in times of crisis, but in times of building the Jewish future,” Pack said.
She explained that JAFI is responsible not only for taking care of Jews’ needs around the world today, but maintaining continuity so that there will be a Jewish community tomorrow.
“It’s this opportunity that we have with our overseas dollars to maintain and strengthen this Jewish connection,” Pack said.
Finkelstein said the money JAFI gets from Diaspora communities like Kansas City helps it accomplish its mission “to ensure the future of a connected, committed, global Jewish people with a strong Israel at its center.” This translates, she said, into three key areas of activity:
• Aliyah and klita (Hebrew for “immigration” and “absorption”): JAFI encourages and facilitates the immigration to Israel of Jews from around the world and helps in their initial integration into Israeli society. Enhanced support is given to vulnerable olim — e.g., young adults who arrive in Israel without their families, or olim from countries in distress, particularly Ethiopia.
• Jewish Zionist education: JAFI provides Israel-oriented training and enrichment programs for formal and informal educators, sends Israeli educators to communities and summers camps and through short and long-term education visits to Israel, strengthens young Jews’ sense of identity with Israel and the Jewish people. In the former Soviet Union it provides opportunities for Jews to learn about their heritage and reconnect to their Jewish identity.
• Israel: JAFI provides supplementary educational programs and residential educational frameworks for children and youth at risk, while through Partnership 2000, which creates direct twinning between towns and regions of Israel’s periphery and Diaspora communities, it improves the quality of life in the Israeli community; exchange missions enhance mutual relations. Additional programs focus on social and economic development of the periphery.
JAFI’s mission in North America
While JAFI spends about 75 percent of its funds inside Israel, Finkelstein said it’s a common misconception that JAFI does all its work there. JAFI actually works with federations and day schools, congregations and organizations to help organize a number of programs in North America. One of the largest and most well received is its shlichim (emissary) program.
There are about 400 shlichim in North America, including Matan Rotman in Kansas City. Another 1,500 also work at summer camps. These programs are largely paid for by communities and organizations and, Finkelstein said, continue to grow.
“More and more organizations want to have Israeli emissaries because they feel it really helps to raise the spirit of Israel and the connection with Israel within the community in an informal way,” she said.
Creating Jewish identity
Another JAFI mission is to connect future generations to Israel and develop future Jewish leaders. Along those lines JAFI is the largest institutional partner of the successful Taglit-Birthright Israel program that provides a gift of first-time, peer-group, educational trips to Israel for Jews age 18 to 26. Finkelstein said one of the best things about Birthright is it gives young people a chance to learn firsthand where Israel belongs in their lives.
Over the years, she has noticed that young Diaspora Jews don’t necessarily feel a connection to Israel. But during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, young people showed they are prepared to respond if there is a crisis in the Jewish world by making donations.
“That’s part of the reason we have shlichim here and on campuses, to help people understand Israel in a contemporary way and how they can connect and identify with it,” Finkelstein said.
Another reason for shlichim is to help battle the rhetorical attacks Israel faces regularly on North American college campuses.
“We see ourselves as a very important part of that equation, in terms of both developing capacity for advocacy on campus for young people and also enabling them to feel comfortable with their situation. We help them fully understand the dynamic of the situation in Israel and how it can be best addressed on campus,” she said.
Aliyah remains important
Although the amount of money spent on aliyah has shrunk, last year 16,800 people made aliyah to Israel. That includes about 3,500 from North America.
Helping people in trouble spots around the world is also a high priority.
“There are a number of hot points around the world that are places we are watching very carefully. Although it’s obviously fewer and fewer, we need to be there when people want to emigrate from those places. And when they are ready to go, we have to be ready to move quickly,” she continued.
More Ethiopians coming
After coming to a halt about two years ago, the flow of emigrants from Ethiopia to Israel is about to resume, Finkelstein said. She expects between 4,000 to 6,000 people will be eligible to come to Israel in this newest wave of emigration. Now there are slightly more than 100,000 Jews in Israel with Ethiopian heritage; about 30,000 of whom were born there.
As Kansas City’s Pack points out, absorbing the Ethiopian Jews is a huge responsibility for Israel. When Ethiopian aliyah first began decades ago, it was a process that wasn’t fully understood.
“They have to be taught to read and write in their first language before they can learn Hebrew. So the chance of somebody over 35 becoming fully literate in Hebrew is not very high,” Finkelstein said.
Pack said if this issue isn’t taken seriously and solutions funded properly, “we will have a permanent underclass that will have a negative impact to their own immediate culture and the Israeli culture at large.”