Later this summer, Jews around the world will be learning about Parshat Pinchas.
While it would be better for me to comment on this parsha in July, Isi Leibler’s
recent column denouncing the Jewish Agency for having “sidelined aliya from
being a primary objective” makes it impossible for me to wait.
parsha, the five daughters of Zelophehad appeal to G-d to allow them to receive
their rightful inheritance, even though they were women and, also, Moses did not
hold their father in the highest esteem. Nevertheless, G-d looked at the
daughters’ case objectively and decided in their favor, indicating that neither
their status as women nor any misdeeds of their father should prevent them from
obtaining what was rightfully theirs.
Moreover, G-d was furious with
Moses’s poor leadership. He was passive, stubborn and hopelessly behind the
curve. G-d essentially canned Moses, despite his having led with success for so
long. Fair or not, collective confidence in Moses as a leader had become an
With major challenges ahead, G-d was taking no
What does this have to do with the Jewish Agency and Leibler’s
misguided attack? The answer is easy for anybody who has been to North America
The Jewish community remains extremely vibrant and rich with
opportunities for Jews of all ages to find their pintele yid. At the same time,
more opportunities exist than ever for Jews to find alternative paths for
fulfillment. And to an alarming extent, that is exactly what many young Jews are
Gone are the days where a shaliach could hand out copies of
Exodus, hold a slideshow and successfully recruit olim by the planeload. Young
Jews are not gathering in any single place where old engagement models would
have a chance to succeed. They are scattered on campuses, where they are
bombarded with negative messages about Israel; they are social media
entrepreneurs trying to raise venture capital; they are inventing electric bikes
and dancing in professional ballets; and they are studying law or medicine in
happy fellowship with their Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and atheist
Sure, they would be make great Israelis, but it takes more these
days than Exodus and pictures of kibbutzniks tending to Israel’s
Far from abandoning aliya, the Jewish Agency has embraced its
But we are doing so with a 360-degree view of the
underlying, multi-dimensional issues facing the Jewish world. The fragmentation
of Jewish identity and community prevents us from even getting into the batter’s
box unless we tackle that challenge holistically.
To connect with young
North American Jews today, we need the most dynamic, web-savvy, creative and
personable emissaries we can find. And we need to increase their ranks. This
past year we had talented and charismatic young Israelis on 50 of North
America’s most “Jewish” university campuses, where they helped affiliated Jewish
students develop ways to “Talk Israel” with their unaffiliated friends. Next
fall, there will be 60 campus shlichim, and in a few years there will be
But truthfully, the disconnected Jewish college students are hard to
reach, even for the best shaliach. So we need to connect with young Jews before
they become hopelessly “jaded.” This past year, we sent more than 200 shinshinim
to Jewish communities throughout North America, many with a particular knack for
connecting with the smart-asses in the back of every Hebrew school
This summer, more than 1,000 young adults will be bringing
Israel to Jewish summer camps. These younger shlichim, as fantastic as they are,
So we have increased the number of professional shlichim
in North America by 20 percent.
Yet, without a product to sell a master
salesman or saleswoman will still fail – especially in a “try before you buy”
culture, where we feel entitled to sample a few spoonfuls of frozen yogurt
before committing to a full bowl. Because of the Jewish Agency, shlichim can
offer young Jewish adults the chance to travel to Israel without it being a
We all know it doesn’t take long to “get it” once
somebody is on that tour bus or walking up Mount Herzl. Still, who can blame
that person if he or she has not concluded that a 10-day bus tour is sufficient
basis for a monumental life change. And it is so easy to forget that intense
feeling of belonging once back in the grind.
Our shlichim are responsible
for making sure that doesn’t happen, and again the Jewish Agency has brought the
disruptive product to market. Thousands of young adults each year have taken the
next step in the continuum of commitment.
For five months to one year,
they are immersing themselves in Israeli society.
Whether its interning,
studying, volunteering or training for a triathlon, they are living their lives
in Israel – with minimal financial cost – through more than 200 Masa programs
that the Jewish Agency has made possible. Without the Jewish Agency, the range
of programs that fill this need would not have the funding, incubation or
infrastructure to operate at a necessary scale.
In 2010, Stephen Cohen of
Hebrew Union College and New York University found that 65% of young adults who
followed their Birthright trips with a Masa experience have given serious
thought to aliya.
Does this strategy of gradually cultivating deep ties
work as an alternative to lecturing sophisticated young people about their
obligation as Jews? A recent Jewish Agency study found that 52% of young North
American olim were influenced by campus activity, 21% were significantly
influenced by Birthright and 45% were significantly influenced by longer
programs, such as those that are part of the Masa framework.
also bolster the notion that we need to reach Jews before
Thirty-seven percent said they began to consider aliya between
the ages of 15 and 19. Finally, when dealing with a population outside of
orthodoxy, the Israel experience is indispensable. Fortythree percent of young
non-Orthodox olim were influenced by a visit and 45% lived in Israel for an
extended time period before making aliya.
With the data staring us in the
face, and the reality that life in North America is comfortable for both
affiliated and unaffiliated Jews, why would we do anything but calibrate our
strategies with reality? When Steve Jobs looked at the rapidlychanging ways by
which people were consuming information, did he invest in manufacturing more
desktop PCs? No, he left that to Hewlett-Packard and went about reshaping media
as we know it. His goal did not change; his strategy did.
Like Jobs, in
order for the Jewish Agency to become more involved in the lives of Jews
everywhere, we have had to adapt.
We still serve as the first address for
Jews whose lives may depend on making aliya.
Moreover, we remain deeply
engaged in the actual aliya process. Our partner, Nefesh b’ Nefesh, counsels
those who have gotten to the point where aliya is a real possibility, while we
open and maintain the pathways to that point. Our shlichim work with the
government to verify eligibility, we arrange the flights and many young North
American Jews form the lifelong friendships, critical to their success, in our
The Jewish Agency remains deeply committed to aliya. But too
much is at stake for us to approach our challenge with tunnel vision. The task
before us requires real leadership, and that is what we intend to
Joshua A. Berkman is the associate director for communications
of the Jewish Agency for Israel.