Merger plan faces test as federation leaders convene

NEW YORK — A plan to merge the central American Jewish fund-raising organizations is facing a critical test, hinging on a proposed guarantee that Israel will not get short shrift when money gets allocated.

Architects of the proposal hope to win support for a three-year guaranteed flow of money to Israel and elsewhere overseas, which they have termed the linchpin of the plan.

But this guarantee will be a hard sell when the plan is aired in detail for the first time before the leadership of the nation's local Jewish federations at meetings this weekend in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

The plan's success or failure may well set the course for how large sums of American Jewish money are raised and distributed as the millennium approaches.

No formal vote is slated for Florida, planners said. They hope that at least five or six major federations will commit themselves to the proposal to build momentum for broader support.

But it is unclear whether that commitment will be secured by the Council of Jewish Federations' 1996 Leadership Institute this weekend.

"We're presenting a plan that's coherent and that deserves support," said Charles "Corky" Goodman, a co-chairman of the committee that has worked for two years on the restructuring effort.

But it could be "blown out of the water," which would mean that "it's back to the drawing board," said Goodman.

The overarching plan calls for the consolidation of the Council of Jewish Federations, the United Jewish Appeal and the United Israel Appeal, agencies that oversee a $725 million national fund-raising campaign annually for local Jewish needs and humanitarian projects in Israel and elsewhere abroad.

The proposed reforms aim to invigorate flat fund-raising campaigns and improve the efficiency and accountability of the central Jewish philanthropic structure.

"If this whole thing doesn't provide more impetus to develop more resources, it's a failure," said Goodman, who is also the chairman of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

The Jewish Agency is the principal recipient in Israel of UJA funds and is suffering a budget crisis caused in part by sluggish diaspora campaigns.

For his part, Joel Tauber, president of the UJA and the other committee co-chairman, was more upbeat about the plan and played down the drama of Florida.

"The make-or-break" period will come "in the 60 days after Florida," he said.

Tauber stressed that the meetings would be only "to get the information out. There will be no votes." Feedback would be more systematically sought in the weeks after the meeting in individual and regional consultations with federations, he added.

The committee's mission is widely supported in principle by federations, which recognize that the current structure is outmoded and must keep pace with the rapidly changing needs and priorities of the Jewish world.

"There is a tremendous eagerness to get into the issues and a hunger" for reform, said Jacob Solomon, executive vice president of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.

The planners' thorniest challenge has been to find a way to ensure that the new consolidated entity provides sufficient money for Israel and Jewish projects elsewhere overseas at a time when there is so much competition for funds at home.

Local federations across the country run their fund-raising campaigns in concert with the UJA, but they have zealously protected their autonomy when it comes to dividing the campaign money between local needs and overseas needs.

The money federations ultimately allocate overseas goes to the UJA for distribution to both the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, for humanitarian projects abroad, and to the UIA, which funnels it to the Jewish Agency.

The portion of allocations to Israel has been dropping in recent years, to less than 40 percent in some communities.

Left alone, the federations would be unlikely to reverse this trend. They are now girding for federal budget cuts that could leave gaping holes in some of their local social service agencies. And they are guarding their resources for efforts to promote and preserve Jewish continuity at home.

It is precisely this downward trend in overseas allocations that has alarmed the UIA and the JDC in particular, and has sparked the call for a temporary guarantee, without which the current plan clearly would not fly.

"We will make the best effort to have every community sign on that they will give us the same cash as '94, but the entity will go forward if 90 percent of the dollars are guaranteed," Tauber said.

For Barry Shrage, president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, "there is a real need to create a fix for the system" and "the notion of a merger is a positive move."

But, at this historic juncture for the Jewish people, Shrage continued, "it's hard to give away power to make decisions" even for a three-year period.

"The world may be moving too rapidly to sustain that," he said. "Especially in these times, federations are going to look for and need some flexibility."