UJIA chief executive Michael Wegier: Israel is extraordinary but unfinished

UJIA chief executive Michael Wegier: Israel is extraordinary but unfinished

UJIA chief executive Michael WEGIER reflects on the importance of continuing the story of the Promised Land.[divider]

Youngsters on a UJIA trip to Israel.

Despite living in a fast-paced, increasingly-anonymous world, I find myself continually reminded that human beings are essentially storytelling creatures.

Given a platform or an ear, we tell the story of our own lives and find meaning in the lives of others.

And if what we hear makes us feel compassion, admiration and/or sympathy, we want to respond to it in a positive way. At UJIA we hope that the response will be to engage with Israel and donate, so that we as a charity can help young people in the UK and Israel to construct a new part of their story.

It is only by telling the true stories of those who benefit from our work, both as individuals and as communities, that we can show the impact we have on giving people a better future.

I have been involved in the Jewish charity sector for 25 years and there has never been a more important time to talk about how the wider landscape is changing. As the leader of a major Jewish communal charity, I am constantly aware that it is a privilege to receive people’s charitable donations and not a right.

I am not sure the days of charitable Jews just giving to a handful of big charities ever existed and it certainly doesn’t depict the landscape today.

Incredibly, some 2,000 local and international charities now operate in our community, but they are also competing for our attention, time and money.

Recent figures show 45 percent of Jews in the UK are currently prioritising non-Jewish causes, compared with 37 percent who are prioritising Jewish ones.

The increased level of competition Jewish communal charities face means it is even more urgent to be seen clearly as visionary, effective and transparent. This is the only way a charity, and certainly a major one, can hope to flourish.

We can sustain and grow our campaigns only if we can demonstrate to you, the community, that your donations are contributing to something worthwhile and will have a direct and lasting impact on the lives of those who benefit.

In difficult economic times, it is only natural that more and more, people want assurance that the money they donate goes towards securing long-term change and not just a quick fix that will come undone the moment the charity takes a step back. The task of influencing change in a chosen area is one hurdle.

The next is making sure the giving public knows about what you have achieved. Big charities such as UJIA must prove we are not just a “big pot” where money is raised and distributed anonymously. We must find ways to tell the true stories of our beneficiaries and bring their lives, in an appropriate way, into the lives of our donors.

UJIA Annual Dinner 2013
UJIA chief executive Michael Wegier. Photo: Blake Ezra Photography.

So how do we choose where to spend our charitable funds in the community?

I like to distinguish between “collective” and “elective” giving. A collective gift is one given to the “bread-and-butter” charities without which the Jewish community could not flourish. Education, Israel, welfare and security are the key criteria here.

The four or five big UK Jewish charities that make a huge impact in these areas can do so only with massive community support and by making a collective gift, you are effectively playing your role in sustaining the Jewish community for the next generation. An elective gift is different (but not less important).

It is given to one of the many hundreds of local, Israeli or international Jewish charities that touch our hearts. Most of us have such charities that we support and our community’s generosity in funding them is breathtaking.

In fact it never ceases to amaze me just how much people are willing to give. Of course, to encourage donations we know we have to communicate our mission clearly and really inspire people. UJIA’s “Make Your Mark on the Jewish Story” campaign for 2014 is a nod to the art of storytelling and is driven by our belief that Israel is extraordinary, but unfinished.

Closing the massive social gap in the Galil is a major priority for Israel, and British Jews have a responsibility to join the Israeli government and private Israeli donors in making this vision a reality by our collective investments in education, health and employment.

In the Galil, 45 percent of children live below the poverty line and earnings are the lowest in Israel – just 70 percent of the national average. Thanks to the generosity of the Jewish community, UJIA has had the privilege of helping to transform the landscape for tens of thousands of Israelis.

Young people in the Galil now have new and improved schools, more scholarships, a medical school, new higher-education buildings, an early-childhood centre and special educational programmes to help those with learning difficulties.

In the UK, our huge investments in informal education mean young people find new ways to connect to Israel and their Jewish identity in youth movements, campus, Israel tours, gap year and schools. We are working hard on retention to make sure those we engage stay engaged. Without community funding, none of this would happen. The big communal charities such as UJIA are not “fair-weather friends”.

For generations, we have assumed the responsibility for making sure people are physically safe, educated, housed and looked after. As long as we continue to demonstrate to the community the impact and importance of our work, I am confident in our collective ability to secure the Jewish future.

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