The Pittsburgh community shaliach program became a casualty of the economic recession in 2009. The United Jewish Federation cut the position in order to hold the line on its funding levels to beneficiary agencies.
The program now goes away for two years, while a committee of lay leaders evaluates the impact of the decision as well as all the UJF’s Israel-related programming.
“The commission has agreed to do a review of all Israel support as part of this budget-saving effort,” said Todd Rascoe, a member of the committee. “As a city, Pittsburgh is one of national leaders in Israel programming.”
He said the committee’s staff member, Sue Linzer, left for Israel this week, partly on a fact-finding mission for the panel. She will meet with leaders of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which oversees the shaliach program.
“We’re exploring the whole shaliach program in general and where we want to go with it,” UJF President and CEO Jeffrey Finkelstein told The Chronicle.
Finkelstein said the federation was forced to make some painful cuts when setting its 2009-10 budget last year.
“In last year’s tight economy, where our campaign was reduced slightly, we had to make some decisions,” he said. “Our main goal was to keep the beneficiary agencies’ allocations even with the prior year. We accomplished that by reducing the federation’s internal budget by over 4 percent.
“And then we had to reduce a couple of the program lines,” he added. “One of them was the shaliach line.”
The UJF freed up more than $82,000 this year to support the agencies by cutting the shaliach post.
Meanwhile, the UJF increased its support for the city’s two youth schlichim — young Israeli emissaries who conduct education programs in area schools and synagogues.
Maintaining a community shaliach in Pittsburgh is an expensive commitment, according to Finkelstein.
“You have to pay to fly the person over … and if there are kids in day school we have to pay for the day school,” he said, “so there’s a lot to it.”
Pittsburgh is not the only city cutting back on its shaliach program, said Judy Wein, also a member of the lay committee as well as the international JAFI board.
“We’re not the only community in the United States to do this,” said Wein, who also chairs the UJF’s Israel and World Jewry Commission. “Other people in the country are doing the same thing.”
The community shaliach is something of an unofficial emissary for the Jewish state. While on a two-year stay here, he (or she) does Israel advocacy work and organizes major community programs such as Yom Hazikaron (Israel’s memorial day) and Yom Haatzmaut (Israel’s independence day).
Maymon Peer, the most recent community shaliach, completed his term this last spring and has returned to Israel.
The federation has hired a part-time employee to perform some of the more significant Israel programming, including coordinating plans for marking Yom Haatzmaut and Yom Hazikaron.
“We can do them at a much lower cost by hiring local people,” Finkelstein said. “It’s not that we’ve given up the program. It’s that we can accomplish just as much by hiring local people.”
Eliminating the shaliach program was a painful decision for Rascoe, who chaired the UJF Israel Programming Committee for five years.
“I’ve worked very closely with the last four schlichim, and it was a very personal matter for me,” he said. “It was a difficult decision that the federation reached. I said we can only support it if we review the entire Israel budgeting process to determine what the maximum benefit to Pittsburgh would be.”
He said the UJF Israel programming is significant, including its Partnership 2000, missions, advocacy work, donor-directing giving. The new committee, which has not yet meet, will conclude its work by 2011. One of the many recommendations it could make is to bring back the shaliach position.
Finkelstein said the elimination of the community shaliach here does not represent a pullback by the UJF on Israel engagement.
“Pittsburgh continues to be engaged in Israel connections,” he said. “We’re really seen as a leader across the country. Our iconnect program has gotten lots of recognition for what it’s done.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-687-1005.)