The New Jersey-Israel Commission has lost its executive director as a result of Gov. Chris Christie’s budget-cutting and government reorganization plan.
Andrea Yonah, who headed the commission for nearly eight years, will leave her post on April 9. The move, which surprised longtime members of the commission, was announced Monday, March 29.
Christie’s proposal will withdraw all of the commission’s $130,000 in separate funding and place it under a newly created public-private agency called the NJ Partnership for Action.
The NJ-Israel Commission works to foster trade and cultural ties between businesses and institutions in New Jersey and Israel.
In an interim move, the commission will be housed in another new agency, the Division of Programs, along with several other ethnic-related groups. They include the Amistad Commission on African-American history, the Martin Luther King Commission, and the Office of Faith-Based Affairs.
“Once the Partnership for Action is set up sometime in May, we will be working with them to make a smooth transition of the Israel commission to become a component of the Partnership,” said Sean Conner, the governor’s deputy press secretary.
The cuts eliminate salaries for NJIC’s executive director and support staffer.
“Out of the commission’s current $130,000 budget, only $12,000 goes to programs. The remainder is two salaries,” Conner explained.
Going forward, “we will be looking for in-kind funds and services and working collaboratively with other entities, both in the private sector and the public sector,” he added.
But Conner could not elaborate on the details of the funding of the reorganized venture.
“I am not 100 percent sure as far as what the ratio of public and private funds to operate the partnership. It is a new initiative,” he said.
‘Lack of communication’
Several commission members were deeply disappointed by the news of Yonah’s dismissal.
Leonard Posnock of Monroe Township, who became a commission member in the late 1990s and has served “for longer than I want to remember,” said he was outraged.
“Certainly we knew there were tremendous cuts going on, but we never knew the executive director would be eliminated,” he told NJJN on April 1.
“I don't see anybody being able to put the time and effort in to keep it going on the same plane that it was under Andrea’s tutelage. She was probably the most thorough, dedicated executive director the commission ever had,” said Posnock.
State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Dist. 37), another longtime commission member, was also critical.
“I am shocked,” she told NJJN by phone, interrupting her Passover week vacation. “I think it is a lack of communication from the governor’s office to legislators. Andrea has been outstanding, and for her to have been fired just before Passover makes it even more inappropriate.
“I find this to be another example of the governor coming in and rearranging things when he isn’t sure of the implications,” Weinberg said. “He hasn’t reached out to the people most directly involved to find out if we have another idea or suggestions or to do an evaluation to see what the commission has really accomplished.”
Weinberg said that once the Legislature reconvenes after the Passover-Easter recess, “we’ll be looking into this.”
Speaking about the reorganized commission, Jacob Toporek, executive director of the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations, told NJJN he was “very concerned about [the commission’s] continuity and what resources the NJ Partnership for Action will have in terms of moving the agenda of the NJ-Israel Commission forward in the context of economic development.”
Toporek said Jewish leaders throughout the state are “very much willing to work with the Christie administration in terms of promoting business opportunities in New Jersey.”
He added, however, that “we want to make sure the Christie administration understands the most useful resources of the NJ-Israel Commission are the commission members and the Jewish community.”
David Lentz, [MW] chair of the Community Relations Committee of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ and [AE] a commission member for four years, was more guarded.
“We have to wait to see how the lieutenant governor reconstitutes the work of the commission,” he told NJJN. “The people of New Jersey are up against a very difficult budget year, and we all have to bear the brunt of that.”
Lentz said he will be watching to see what happens with the commission. “If it continues its good work under the lieutenant governor, that would be great. We are concerned that it might be unable to do so without the necessary resources, but hopefully it will have the time and attention from the lieutenant governor’s staff that it gets currently,” he said.
Three days after being given notice of her termination, Yonah declined to comment on her dismissal. But she told NJ Jewish News that sometime in the future she “would be happy to discuss my wonderful experience with the commission for the past eight years.”
The NJ-Israel Commission, established in 1989, has sponsored exchange programs between Israeli and American security and clean energy experts as well as conferences where Israeli industry representatives showed off their wares to NJ executives and public officials. In a 2007 interview with NJJN, Posnock said a dozen or so Israeli companies, shepherded by the NJIC, opened headquarters in New Jersey in the previous four years.
During that same period, he said, the NJIC facilitated five grants — three of them for $1 million each — that were made by the Tel Aviv-based Israel-U.S. Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation to underwrite joint projects involving NJ and Israeli firms.