The Jewish Agency, for years seen as a troubled and declining shell of its former self, may be getting a new lease on life, with a new organizational structure and a new mission.
At the Board of Governors meeting in Jerusalem this week, agency chairman Natan Sharansky, who has been at the helm of the organization since June, laid out a new focus for its mission.
The agency “must be responsible for building the Jewish people into a tightly connected family that has the feeling of a [shared] Jewish identity,” Sharansky told The Jerusalem Post, summarizing his view of that new mission.
“It will become an organization with a unique set of programs, people and ideas working to strengthen Jewish identity – the connection of individuals to communities, communities to Israel, and Israelis to their Jewish roots.”
Speaking to Jewish leaders last week in Jerusalem, Sharansky cited the new focus as a necessary reexamination of the needs of the Jewish world.
“It’s not enough to speak about aliya... It’s almost prohibited for the head of the Jewish Agency to say so, but it can’t be our goal [just] to bring more Jewish people [to Israel].”
With aliya activities in many cases the province of more nimble, private organizations – Nefesh B’Nefesh and Ami already do much of the work in the United States and France, respectively, the largest and second-largest Diaspora communities – the agency has seen its stature decline in the Jewish world as it has sought to justify its existence to increasingly skeptical Diaspora donors and supporters.
“The Jewish Agency built this country,” commented a senior agency official who asked to remain anonymous. “It brought 3 million Jews to Israel,” and helped build many of the institutions in the years before and shortly after the founding the state, the official said.
But the challenge of the 20th century – physical survival in the face of genocidal anti-Semitism and ongoing war – is not the challenge of the 21st, which sees the vast majority of Jews living either in sovereign, well-defended Israel or in the pluralistic, individualistic democracies of the West.
“The challenge now is to sustain and construct Jewish identity in these places,” said the official.
According to Sharansky, “identity is the driving [force] for [present-day] aliya, for Diaspora support for Israel advocacy, for the connection between Israel and the Diaspora, for informal Jewish education [efforts] – for everything.”
The new focus on identity comes alongside a reshuffling of top agency officials. With the exit of director-general Moshe Vigdor, North America head Maxyne Finkelstein, fund-raising chief Jeff Kaye and others, Sharansky finds himself in the enviable position of filling – and, say officials, redefining – a series of crucial top slots in the agency’s complex structure.
He has also forged a close relationship with the Prime Minister’s Office. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu did not attend last year’s Jewish Agency Assembly, apparently out of concern that Sharansky’s chairmanship – supported by Netanyahu – was in doubt. Since then, however, he has visited and spoken at both Board of Governors meetings. According to observers, the message is clear: Sharansky has the support of the Prime Minister’s Office.
He will also be getting a key supporter in the New York branch of the agency: the highly regarded Washington, DC, federation chief executive Misha Galperin. Last summer, Galperin was a key supporter of Sharansky’s bid for the chairmanship, and he will be taking over an expanded North America branch that could be the key to the agency’s survival.
Facing a declining donor base and shrinking budgets, the agency must either raise funds or slowly implode. Hopes are high that Galperin, a Russian-speaking American federation head, is just the man to turn that around.
To avoid accusations that he is leading too aggressively, Sharansky is implementing his plans through the agency’s existing structures and bureaucratic culture. In the coming months, his new mission will be taken up by a strategic committee tasked with creating specific goals and priorities to present to the next Board of Governors and Jewish Agency Assembly meeting in June.
“The Jewish Agency is all about process,” said one senior official, noting that Sharansky needed the support of a Board hailing from many countries and continents to succeed, and the help of institutions and often-competing departments within the organization.
Practically, turning toward identity programming will not involve starting from scratch, say insiders. The agency already runs or supports many education programs, including through the community-partnering program Partnership 2000, as a donor to Taglit-birthright israel and as co-owner with the government of the Masa project.
The new mission will include programs dealing with Israeli Jewish identity, Sharansky has said, a move that comes in response to a widespread perception among Diaspora Jewish organizations that Israeli education systems do not invest sufficient resources in teaching Jewish history and heritage to Israeli youth.