Defending the Jewish Agency: A Conundrum

In a little over a week, the Jewish Agency (JAFI) Board of Governors is set to meet. And, as has been the norm for the past few years, high on the agenda will be balancing the budget (which the Agency is required to do).

These are not fun times for JAFI. They are continually coping with declining donations from the Diaspora; the Hebrew media – mostly at the behest of disgruntled employees (past and present) and the immigrant associations – are daily questioning the Agency’s commitment to aliyah; and personal vendettas are, to JAFI’s detriment, always playing out.

Such is just some of the background for a biting article on compensation that appeared in today’s Haaretz.

The salaries listed in the article are correct. The assumptions made range from ill-informed to vindictive.

Let’s look at a few facts. According to Haaretz, “For decades, the unofficial arrangement was that the head of the Jewish Agency would make as much the prime minister of Israel, but Sharansky’s pay in 2010 totaled $214,000 – 30 percent more than Benjamin Netanyahu, the man who appointed him and made $164,000 pre-tax in 2010.” Now, since Sharansky is being paid the same as Sallai Meridor (who stepped down from JAFI in 2005), one wonders why this is news to Haaretz in 2012, or more correctly why Haaretz is making this news in 2012?

Next; according to Haaretz, “… part of a new strategic plan that included merging the agency’s key departments, a further $20 million were cut. In the process, 180 employees were made redundant. Last June, the firings of a further 50 workers were prevented through a deal with the union which saw every employee giving up a day of paid vacation and forced to take unpaid leave in August.” True enough – the Jewish Agency [since 2009] has reduced their staff by over 25%. What Haaretz does not mention is, according to JAFI, no programming has been lost due to these staff reductions. Makes one wonder what the redundant staff was actually doing (but, that’s another story).

Perhaps what is most striking about the article is why is Haaretz picking on the Jewish Agency alone? Is their compensation out-of-line with what other comparable organizations are paying? If so, fair game. Let’s take a look at just two, both – like JAFI – with a significant Jerusalem presence [information culled from public records]:

Joint Distribution Committee (2009, per 990; including other compensation)

Steve Schwager, Executive Vice PResident $544,266.
Eugene Philips, Chief Operating Officer $359,178.
Judy Amit, Global Director, International Development Program $261,367.
Alberto Senderey, Regional Director $234,290.

Arnon Mantver, Director General of JDC Israel, had a taxable income [in 2010] of $322,682. Significantly more than JAFI’s Director General.

Nefesh B’Nefesh (2010, per 990)

Erez Halfon, Co-chair $225,373.
Danny Oberman, Director of Operations $189,287

One wonders why Haaretz is zeroing in on JAFI. A vendetta perhaps? Related to a well-publicized, and incorrect story, Haaretz ran last month about JAFI no longer funding the student authority (which provides grants to olim for university education)? Even the Government disputed the facts of the story – but did Haaretz back down? No. Not even that, they didn’t allow comments on the original article that disputed their hypothesis. Is this professional journalism? No. Is this the current state of most Israeli journalism related to the Jewish world? Unfortunately, yes. Not one major paper in this country has a staff journalist who understands the Jewish world segment. No wonder the public shows disgust when most of what they read is filled with incomplete information (at best) and inaccuracies (at worst).

If Haaretz wanted to do us all a favor, they would take a lesson from the Forward and provide a compensation comparison of the 15 largest Israeli nonprofits. Of course, that means they might bring to light salaries at their big advertisers, including Magen David Adom, KKL (Jewish National Fund) and Meir Panim. Let’s see what senior professionals in these organizations are being paid. Where will JAFI end up on the 15? Frankly, I have no idea, but I suspect more likely in the bottom 3rd than the top 3rd.

As to salaries, the simple fact is, nonprofit professionals need to be compensated fairly and a free market does just that. Jewish nonprofit professionals, most of whom work excessive hours, should not be expected – as all too many believe – to be compensated at the lowest level because they are “doing a mitzvah“. In a similar vein, Israeli amutot need to be professional and not expect to receive services for free just because they are a nonprofit with a minimal budget. Is a $700k. package just compensation? That’s a fair question. But so is, are we competitive – can we hire the best possible individual, at a proper compensation level, for the position and the organization.

Some closing thoughts on JAFI. As mentioned above, a week from Sunday the organization’s Board is set to meet. There are, as usual, serious discussions to be had. The one subject not on the agenda, that should be, is the culture of the organization. Putting it mildly, it’s in the tank. Senior professionals continue to undermine each other as a matter of course. The organization has almost no respect for employees, and the employees feel likewise about the organization. One employee provided a journalist with employment contract details that really are proprietary to the employer – and probably thinks nothing of the ethics of what he/she did. The Board itself consists of way too many individuals (including senior professionals and lay leaders of constituent organizations) whose only interest is self-interest.

Begs the question, is this any way to run an organization?

This article reflects the personal views of Dan Brown, the founder of eJewishPhilantrhopy.com, and should not be regarded as a statement of the views of eJewish Philanthropy, its volunteers, advisors or funders.

Update February 21: According to paperwork submitted by JDC Israel to Rasham Ha’amutot [Israel’s Registrar of Charities], Arnon Mantver’s taxable salary for 2110 was 1,1777,792 NIS. It is show above in dollars (3.65 conversion rate) for comparison. The article was adjusted accordingly.