With no fanfare and little debate, the Claims Conference has overturned its controversial 17-year policy of setting aside 20 percent of its allocations for Holocaust education.
As a result, the group has decided to pump another $112 million into social-service programs for survivors over the next four years while freezing funds for educational, documentation and research projects at $18 million annually.
The 80/20 formula — 80 percent for survivor benefits and 20 percent for education programs — will be applied only to $90 million of the conference’s yearly allocation, the amount it had been distributing since 2003.
Julius Berman, chairman of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, said the action was taken last month at the group’s annual meeting “because of the crying need for social welfare programs as survivors get older and sicker.”
But Roman Kent, a survivor and the group’s treasurer, said the move was in response to “pressure” from survivors. He said he spearheaded the effort to revise the allocation distribution.
“As long as survivors are in need, they come first,” Kent said he has argued. “Even the rabbis acknowledged that if you have a sick man, you could break the sanctity of the Shabbos to help the sick.”
Samuel Dubbin, a Miami lawyer who represents survivors, noted that the Claims Conference board met just a month after an Op-Ed article in The New York Times questioned the millions of dollars the group had spent for education, including “$700,000 to a ‘consultant’ — a friend of the organization’s president — who, in an interview with The Jewish Week, couldn’t recall what he had been asked to consult on.”
“While the conference supports many worthy projects, it is controlled not by survivors but by surrogates, and operates with limited oversight and financial accountability,” wrote Thane Rosenbaum, a professor of law at Fordham University.
“They obviously decided that when it hit The New York Times, it was time to act,” Dubbin said. “This decision just sharpens the focus on the continued expenditure for non-survivor needs and demands justification in light of the suffering those expenditures permit.”
The 80-20 split has been the subject of debate even outside of the Claims Conference. In 2002, Israel Singer, then president of the Claims Conference, defended the allocation, telling the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “The survivors are not the only heirs of Jewish property. They are the first beneficiaries, but not the only heirs. The Jewish way is to take care of those in need, but also to educate our children.”
But as medical costs of survivors have increased as they aged — most are now about 80 — more and more people questioned the split. Just last year, Wolf Factor, chairman of the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel, told JTA that Holocaust commemoration and youth trips to Poland are not as immediately relevant as help for survivors.
He said he hoped that the Claims Conference and the State of Israel would “come to their senses and understand that honoring the memory of the Holocaust is not only to remember the dead, but essentially to remember the living who still need us.”
The number of needy applicants approaching the foundation has increased by more than 60 percent since it was created in 1994. The foundation said that 40 percent of Israeli Holocaust survivors lived below or just barely above the poverty line. And it was reported that one-fourth of Israel’s 280,000 survivors could not afford medications or the cost of a home health aide.
Just this week, the State of Israel announced that some 100,000 survivors would receive a $285 increase in their monthly allowance. But no decision has yet been made about increased assistance for another 150,000 survivors in Israel who fled the Nazis by escaping to the Soviet Union.
Dubbin said that in 2004 there were a reported 175,000 survivors in the United States, at least 85,000 of whom were living at or below the poverty line or considered poor.
Berman, the Claims Conference board chairman, said $18 million annually for education “is a good hunk of money” that would be sufficient to meet the “competing needs and priorities.”
Since 2003, the Claims Conference’s annual allocation had been $90 million. It was increased this year to $100 million and will jump to $110 million next year, $122 million in 2009 and $135 million in 2010.
“The board usually makes its decisions year by year, but we decided that because of the [growing] needs we should tell social welfare agencies and the people that they will have more money,” Berman said.
“The cost of living of a sick person is becoming astronomical,” he added. “People are living longer and they are sicker and they need financial support in greater dimensions.”
Menachem Rosensaft, founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, called the Claims Conference’s decision a “welcome step in the right direction.
“I’ve been aware that discussions were going on for years,” he said. “The overriding mission of the Claims Conference is and must be to ensure that Holocaust survivors can live out their remaining years in dignity and with their basic needs met,” he said. “Once that is accomplished, one can have a discussion as to how to apply remaining funds.”
Asked if he supported allocations to educational projects, Rosensaft replied: “There are very legitimate Holocaust remembrance projects. Having said that, it is very clear that medical care and food for an elderly survivor trumps any cultural or educational project.”
There are so many other organizations that also fund Holocaust education programs that funding from the Claims Conference is not necessary, maintains Leo Rechter, president of NAHOS (National Association of Jewish Child Holocaust Society).
He said he had just received the magazine of a major organization that is spending more than the Claims Conference on Holocaust education.
“We are very much in favor of educational efforts and we survivors go to classes and speak to high school and junior high school students” about the Holocaust, he said.
But Rechter maintained that some of the educational projects funded by the Claims Conference are nothing more than “pet projects” of board members who get them funded “for their own glorification.”
He cited capital investments in St. Petersburg and Kishinev in Russia, cities in which “there were no survivors.”
“St. Petersburg was not occupied by the Germans,” Rechter said.
However, Eli Zborowski, another survivor and chairman of the American Society for Yad Vashem, said he supported the 80-20 mix because much of the money distributed by the Claims Conference comes from the sale of German Jewish property owned by Jews who had no heirs.
“Shouldn’t part of the money go to remembering them?” he asked.
But David Mermelstein, president of the Miami Holocaust Survivors, said he believes the $18 million annual education allocation should either be eliminated or cut in half to provide more money for needy survivors.
“The needs gets worse as we get older,” he said. “Until now we didn’t have to worry about wheelchairs. But today I helped a man get a wheelchair” who could not get to the synagogue without it.
“If they would only take a person who would go from state to state and visit some of the cities and see the need of the survivors, they would understand better,” he said. “We tell them, but it is not the same as being there.”
Asked what could be done if all $18 million were allocated for the care of survivors, Mermelstein replied: “Just give us $1 million and we could add to the hours of homecare” and other services.