Israel tops agenda at federation confab

Israel tops agenda at federation confab

For local participants, chance to examine ways to ‘engage’

If you wanted to illustrate the difference between Israelis and American Jews, said Amir Shacham, take a look at the local reaction to last month’s freak snowstorm.

“On the same weekend a snowstorm hit New Jersey there was a storm of Kassam missiles on Negev towns from Gaza,” said Shacham, director of the Israel office of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ. “My friends from New Jersey would say on Facebook, ‘Trees are falling and my house is snowed in. My kids cannot go to school.’ In the Negev they would say, ‘Kassams are falling and thousands of kids are not going to school.’ It was the same agenda, and people showed solidarity with each other because of that.”

Shacham was among the speakers at a panel discussion, “What do Israelis care about anyway?” held Nov. 7 in Denver during the 2011 General Assembly, the annual gathering of the Jewish Federations of North America.

Israel’s place in American-Jewish consciousness was one of the major topics of the three-day GA, the year’s largest gathering of Jewish federation professionals and lay leaders. That focus pleased Shacham and other members of the UJC MetroWest delegation, including Leslie Dannin Rosenfeld, cochair of Major Gifts at the MetroWest UJA Campaign.

“I thought it was great. What is exciting about the GA is the conversations it provokes,” she said in a phone interview a week after returning from the gathering. “This GA provoked a lot of conversation around North American engagement with Israel, which is so important.”

Jacqueline Levine of West Orange has been attending the GA for 47 years. She found this year’s convention “very open. It appealed to all generations, young people as well as those of us who have been involved for a long time.”

She made particular note of discussions that entertained varying points of view, something, she said, that “wouldn’t have been expected in former years.” “Everybody at the GA understands young people don’t want pat formulations” not only on Israel, but on any issue.

While attendees were pleased at the dialogue about Israel, some remained uncertain about a new allocations plan that could change the way local federations fund the Jewish Agency for Israel, which has long served as a conduit between federation fund-raising and various projects in Israel, including immigrant absorption.

A new proposal called the Global Planning Table will compel the Jewish Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which supports overseas development projects outside of Israel, to compete for some of their federations’ funds with other groups.

“The Global Planning Table is a way for us to develop an approach to study what our needs are and maintain the Jewish Agency and Joint Distribution Committee as our overseas partners,” said UJC MetroWest executive vice president Max Kleinman. “They are the only agencies that receive unrestricted core allocations, which are very significant.”

According to the process dictated by the GPT, he said, “a committee will take a look at needs and allocating for JDC and JAFI. It also allows federations to develop joint projects in Israel that no single federation can do on its own. That gives us greater flexibility.”

UJC MetroWest president Lori Klinghoffer said she was unsure how the Global Planning Table would affect fund-raising and planning until it is up and running.

“There is concern about the continuing ability to keep our overseas partners, JDC and JAFI, whole,” she acknowledged. “But this is an opportunity to increase donor interest in the overseas projects and federation interest in being good overseas partners.

“We are among the leading federations in our overseas commitments,” said Klinghoffer, “but for us, it may just make some differences in the way we put our budget together. We will not be giving up any of our partnerships or our initiatives.”

Shacham, who works out of MetroWest’s Jerusalem office, thinks the change is a positive one.

“It will bring more vitality to the funding process,” he told NJJN. “Right now, the money goes to our historic partners, the Jewish Agency and JDC. While we have to keep these organizations healthy and alive, it is good to keep more people involved in the process and bring to the table more organizations and more discussions. That is healthy for the system.”

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