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Iosif Ziseles: “A community is an institution which spends, and does not earn”

The large Jewish communities of the Ukraine are run by millionaires and billionaires of Jewish origin. Can this be considered a new model of running a community, and how can the other members of the community by taught to give Tzedakah?

Iosif, as a result of the recent elections at the congress of six all-Ukrainian Jewish organizations, Vaad Ukraine and the Jewish Council of Ukraine was headed by important businessman, Andrei Adamovsky and Alexander Suslensky respectively. Can this be considered a new model of running a community, given that such structures as the All-Ukrainian Jewish congress, the United Jewish Community of Ukraine and others have long been run by millionaires and billionaires of Jewish origin?

In fact this model is accepted in throughout the Jewish world. Practically every year or two, the first number in the organization changes, while №2 – the executive vice-president or executive director – stays in their position, and is responsible for the professional management of the structure. Malcolm Honlein is the head of the Conference of presidents of the main American Jewish organizations, and David Harris is the head of the American Jewish Committee. Both have held these positions for 20 years, the first as the executive vice president, and the second as the executive director. The position of president in both the Conference of Presidents and the AEK is held by a new person each time – a businessman and philanthropist, and not a functionary or public figure.

Few people remember presidents today, they cut ribbons, make speeches, and are the face of the organization, which is actually run by their deputy. This is the way Jewish life is organized, and even for Ukraine it is nothing new. In the mid-1990s, I proposed to for leaders of all-Ukrainian Jewish organizations to use this experience, by giving up their positions to important businessmen who were prepared to take on financing community programs and projects.

This is a natural process, business and community activity were destined to meet sooner or later. Once, for example, my friend and colleague, the head of Vaad Russia Mikhail Chlenov, suggested that we move away from this model, in the belief that a community leader can be sponsored from the outside – for his handsome eyes and bright head. I am not such an idealist.

Before the revolution, there were seven communities in Kiev, each of which functioned from fees paid from ordinary citizens, and donations by major philanthropists. But this was 100 years ago – the continuity has been lost. We’ve been trying to restore it for quarter of a century, but it hasn’t become part of our flesh and blood, a monthly fee for the needs of the community has not become the system.

When people receive 1,200 hryvnia for a pension, and not always on time – what can we talk about? This chain cannot be broken – a pensioner contributes 10 hryvnia to Tzedakah, a young specialist contributes 100, a small businessman 1,000, a middle businessman 10,000 and a major businessman 100,000. This only works together. Without the lower level you can’t build this pyramid, everything will be based on personal relations, when a rich philanthropist gives money to unknown people in unknown amounts. At the congress, the issue was raised about when rabbis would start reporting on the money received from sponsors. This is not the way things are done yet.

I am also convinced that the system of self-financing needs to be restored, but the issue is how to do this. We have gone from the other end, from the tip of the pyramid, trying to attract successful businessmen, Jews who to some extent or another support community life. They currently make up around 10% of entrepreneurs of Jewish origin. Each has their own motivation: the first generation of donators does not yet have the instinct of patronage, but there is an interest, and perhaps it will grow; for their children it will be on the level of an acquired skill, a conviction that they are obliged to donate something to the community.

Nevertheless, with admirable regularity the question is raised about whether the community can earn money. That’s absurd! Nowhere in the world does the community earn money. There are small side revenues that cover part of the budget. For example, the Jewish Museum in Chernovtsy feeds itself by around 25% - by the sale of entry tickets, books, souvenirs etc. But in principle, the community is an institution which spends, and does not earn.

The money is earned by its sponsors and members, who ideally should regularly leave something in the Tzedakah. The community of Dnepropetrovsk, for example, was able to achieve stability of this financing, and its annual budget, which is mainly formed by the 120 members of the Trustee council, is close to $5 million. This is a unique phenomenon, but even in Dnepropetrovsk not everyone gives Tzedakah. It’s another matter that Rabbi Kamintesky has managed to make Jewish businessmen come to the synagogue every morning to put on tefillin…. They were taught to do this, and to give Tzedakah, so the community lives more or less stably, but it’s the exception, not the rule.

We all want the Jewish community of Ukraine to achieve the level of communities of western countries as soon as possible, but this will not happen before Ukraine achieves this level in the economy. We must understand that this will not happen soon.

— You were at the source of community life back in Soviet times. Do the problems that were on the agenda 20 years ago differ a lot from the problems today?

I remember how our fundraising began, in the spring of 1988, when we did our first legal activity – tidying up the Jewish cemetery in Chernovtsy. About 500 people turned up, and happily started work… and we soon realized that we wouldn’t get much tidied up – we would have to buy spades, hoes, pitchforks and wheelbarrows, and where would we get the money from?

One of our activists started taking one ruble from everyone who came to these Sunday activities. Those were the sort of problems we faced back then – gathering 200-300 rubles for equipment.

Of course, the scale and the amount of tasks has changed. Did we ever dream of building a synagogue? Or restoring artworks? We practically started in a vacuum. There were several underground groups for studying Hebrew and traditions, all the other spheres of community life were an enormous blank. I remember that in the Chernovtsy archive we found and translated the charter of the Jewish community passed in the 1930s, under the Romanian regime. And this became the foundation of our activity – so we tried to restore the tradition, the gaps in which are felt to this day.

We need to set real tasks and determine priorities. We were able to restore the professional level of community activity with great difficulty – to train teachers, archivists, social workers etc. This required enormous efforts and funds, but we did it.

At the end of the 1980s, we didn’t even think about the possibility of lobbyist activity in support of Israel – we couldn’t even imagine it. Now we are trying to solve these tasks, and in any event, over the last 6-7 years Ukraine has not once voted for an anti-Israeli resolution at any international forum – whether it was UN, UNESCO or the Interpol General Assembly. Not once. While Russia almost constantly votes in favor.

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