BUENOS AIRES – Members of a Jewish Agency for Israel committee engaged in a
heated debate at its Board of Governors meeting in Buenos Aires on Tuesday over
its set of priorities and whether the organization has neglected
The chairman of the group’s Aliya and Rescue Committee, Rabbi
Yechiel Eckstein, launched an all-out offensive following a report that said
several hundred Russian-speaking Jews want to move to Israel this year but can’t
because of lack of funds.
“There are 800, 900 young academically trained
people in St. Petersburg, Moscow and Kiev ready to come to Israel tomorrow,” he
said. “What’s the cost? Two million dollars. To me it is absurd, maybe
even obscene, that a $300 million organization cannot afford to bring olim from
Moscow and St. Petersburg to Israel.
“I would come back to ask this body
that if it’s not being done on this level, if this body is not committed to
having aliya as the sin que non of what the Jewish Agency does, then what does
Two years ago, the Jewish Agency introduced a strategic plan that
expanded its historic role from focusing on bringing Jewish immigrants to Israel
to strengthening Jewish identity in the Diaspora through
Eckstein’s scathing criticism of the new set of priorities
caught many of the committee members off guard. He carries much weight because
his fundraising group, the Fellowship of Jews and Christians, gives the Jewish
Agency $10m. per year.
CEO of International Development for the
agency Misha Galperin fired back at Eckstein, saying the difficulties bringing
immigrants from urban centers in the FSU to Israel were unacceptable, but he
vehemently rejected the claim that the Jewish Agency has abandoned Jewish
“I absolutely agree that we need to get to the point where
the Jewish Agency needs to assess its brand in lots of different places and put
it in conjunction with what our strategic plan is,” he said. “I personally tried
to debunk the myth at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly
that somehow the agency is out of the aliya business, that what we have done is
switched from being focused on aliya to being focused on Jewish
“But in my mind we have added to the focus of the agency and
refreshed its mission. In order for people to make aliya you have to have
Jews and strengthen their identity but this is all over and above part of our
central mission, which is aliya.”
He concluded by saying, “If we don’t
have additional budgets we can’t do additional things.”
Aliya and Rescue
Committee Deputy Chairman Danny Lahm argued that funds need to be reshuffled to
causes of sha’at hadhak
, the Hebrew term for hour of need, but Jewish Agency
chairman Natan Sharansky said the money was tied up elsewhere.
giving money to Nefesh B’Nefesh,” he said, referring to the group that
facilitates aliya from North America.
“They raise 40 percent, which is
good, and they get 60% from the government and us. We asked them ‘Can they raise
more money?’ and they said forget it. Federations don’t want to
The impassioned conversation became chaotic at one point until
John Ruskay, CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York, interjected, saying that
aliya and strengthening Jewish identity was not a choice of one or the
“Aliya was a means not an end,” he said. “Building the Jewish
state and the Jewish people were at the center of that and I would urge care on
that.” He then suggested the Jewish Agency free up money by making cutbacks
“All these choices are difficult and are triage choices,” he
“We make them in federations all the time. I would urge this
committee to make this an example.”
Committee members then threw out the
names of causes whose budgets they would cut.
“Nefesh B’Nefesh is
chartering flights from North America,” said one.
“The Hebrew ulpanim and
it has already been recommended,” suggested another.
then came back to Eckstein who reiterated his position.
“If we can’t find
in the whole world a Jewish group to give what Christians are giving to bring
olim to Israel then that is a shandeh,”
said Eckstein, using the Yiddish word
He said his organization was willing to donate one million
of the $2m. needed to bring the group of Russian-speaking Jews to Israel leading
to a proposed compromise.
“This is about a million dollars,” said Ruskay.
“If [Eckstein finds] another half-a-million then Jerry [Silverman of the Jewish
Federations of North America] and I will get another half-a-million and it’s the
last time I’m coming to one of your meetings,” he said in jest.
can see,” Eckstein responded jokingly, “I don’t know how to be a
Following the spirited debate, Haviv Gur, Jewish Agency
director of communications, issued a statement that he requested be printed in
“The committee heard from our professional staff that 800 young
Jews from the FSU can’t afford to participate in our incredible Israel programs,
programs that often lead to aliya,” said Gur.
“Our board members come
from very different places and bring very different views to the table. So
obviously there was a spirited debate, something we welcome and believe in as a
“In this case, the debate ended with a promise from
the committee members of $2m. in additional donations. You asked if this
debate reflects ‘discord’ over the Jewish Agency’s priorities. Nobody disagreed
that our fundamental commitment is aliya, only about what to cut in order to
bring those young people on aliya-encouragement programs.
“In the end,
the problem was resolved not by the shrinking of any other important program but
by a net growth in funding. I can only wish for other Jewish organizations to
have a board of governors that, when it can’t bear to cut something precious,
takes on itself the challenge of growing the pie.”