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Restructuring by AJC will mean removal of staff from local chapter

The changing demographics of the nation's Jewish population are leading the American Jewish Committee to dramatically reduce its presence in Western New York.

A week after the Jewish Community Center of Greater Buffalo announced plans to close its Getzville facility, an official with the AJC confirmed that the national organization is removing staff from its Buffalo Niagara chapter by the end of June.

The change is part of a broader restructuring effort within the think tank and advocacy organization, which in Buffalo is noted especially for its annual community seder that draws hundreds of people from various faiths.

The national organization could no longer maintain staffing levels at its smallest chapters while other parts of the country with large Jewish populations were understaffed, said Jonathan Levine, the AJC's director of community services.

Along with the Buffalo Niagara chapter, offices in St. Louis, Detroit, Cleveland and Dallas will be losing either staff or programs. Chapters in Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Portland, Ore., have decided to become independent agencies.

Meanwhile, the AJC hopes to beef up staffing in places such as San Francisco, San Diego and Phoenix, which have experienced growth in their Jewish populations, Levine said.

The organization was spreading itself too thin among 32 chapters nationwide, he said, and "our sense was that we just can't serve them all."

The AJC has maintained a Buffalo Niagara chapter for more than 60 years, working behind the scenes to fight anti-Semitism and bigotry and encourage separation of church and state.

But its office at the Jewish Community Center in Getzville will shut down at the end of June, coinciding with the phased closing of the center.

Laura Abate, the most recent executive director of the Buffalo Niagara chapter, already has resigned and has taken a job at another local Jewish agency. An administrative assistant will work in her place until the office closes.

The changes were disappointing to the board of the local chapter, said Hal P. Kingsley, president of the board.

"Most of the board is very upset about it," he said. "Our voice is going to be highly diminished. We're going from a real presence to a much more minor presence, and it's sad."

The local chapter operates on a budget of about $150,000, raised through Western New York members of the AJC.

The chapter climbed out of financial trouble about seven years ago and did not cost the national organization any money, Kingsley said.

With the restructuring, the chapter will continue to exist, under a regional director based in Chicago or Detroit.

The AJC is looking to hire a part-time coordinator/administrative assistant based in Western New York to help the regional director.

"We want to do the very best we can to maintain some type of presence," Levine said.

The Buffalo Niagara chapter sponsors the annual Gellman Lecture on Jewish-Christian relations in cooperation with Niagara University; the annual Interfaith Community Seder; the Polish American/Jewish American Council; "Hands Across the Campus," the annual Institute of Human Relations Award luncheon; a voter-awareness program; and Project Interchange, which sends local community leaders to Israel.

The group also monitors racial and anti-Semitic actions in Western New York and responds to them in the public and private sector.

Levine said that the quantity of the Buffalo Niagara chapter's programs may be reduced, but not the quality.

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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