Smaller Jewish Agency focuses on emigres

Though he long pressed for reforms within the Jewish Agency for Israel, San Franciscan Ron Kaufman says the time for criticism is over.

Kaufman now sees the Agency's long-time problems — financial unaccountability, over-staffing and political cronyism — as "ancient history."

"It is a much leaner, more efficient agency than it ever was," he said. "We should stop harping on it and focus on immigration."

Kaufman should know. As the only representative from Northern California on the Agency's 120-member board of governors, he helped oversee massive budget cuts and internal changes that took place last month in Israel.

While most of the attention focused on the Agency's decision to hand over its Youth Aliyah department to the Israeli government, Kaufman said he believes another important aspect of the overhaul has been overlooked.

By turning over Youth Aliyah to the government, the Agency reduced its roughly $500 million annual budget by $60 million. This move will allow the Agency to turn more attention to potential immigrants still living in the former Soviet Union. The Agency, a quasi-governmental organization focused on social services, education, immigration and short-term absorption, is funded by diaspora dollars raised through United Jewish Appeal and local Jewish federations.

Among the changes now planned in the former Soviet Union for 1996: Immigration coordinators will increase to 650 in 300 communities from 400 in 250 communities; Jews served by Hebrew-language programs will grow to 23,500 from 16,400; and Agency summer camp enrollment will return to 17,000 after dropping to 15,000 due to budget problems.

And by focusing more energy on emigration from the former Soviet Union, Kaufman said the Agency will be able to act more swiftly if necessary. He sees Ukraine's political and economic instability as particularly daunting.

"That's a witch's brew of bad news for Jews," he said.

But the budget ax isn't finished yet. The Jewish Agency plans to cut another $50 million for 1997. And even with these cuts, the organization's accumulated deficit is still expected to top $100 million by the end of 1997.

Over the next five years, the Agency plans to cut $500 million from its budget altogether.

The cuts will help relieve debt resulting from both declining funding from local federations and the absorption of 700,000 immigrants to Israel in the past five years.

The Agency predicts that another 75,000 Jews will immigrate to Israel in 1996, including 65,000 from the former Soviet Union.

Though 60 percent to 70 percent of the needed reforms have taken place, Kaufman said the Agency still must give attention to two key areas: It must sell off millions of dollars worth of property and stock in Israel, and the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency's partner body, must undergo changes as well.

Though some have called for the merger of the Jewish Agency and the WZO, Kaufman won't say how far he believes the reforms must go.

"The WZO in its human nature doesn't want to commit hara-kiri," he said.

Back in the United States, Kaufman is pushing for two courses of action to complement the Jewish Agency's restructuring. He is asking donors to give 10 percent more for Israel than they did last year. And he is trying to reverse of the trend among Jewish federations of sending only about 40 percent of their campaign proceeds to overseas projects. In decades past, 60 percent of donations went overseas.

Though Kaufman acknowledges that there's no current crisis to handle, he wants Jews to increase their giving as part of their "ongoing commitment" to fellow Jews, especially those in the former Soviet Union.

So when the next crisis occurs in the ex-Soviet republics — and Kaufman is sure it's only a matter of time — the next generation of Jews won't look back and shake their heads.

"I'm hoping my kids won't say: `Why did we leave a half-million Jews in the Ukraine?'"