The cabinet on Sunday approved the government’s World Jewry Joint Initiative, a program backed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett intended to finance Jewish identity programs around the world to the tune of billions of dollars over the next two decades.
The initiative, first announced at a Jewish Agency-convened summit of international Jewish leaders in Jerusalem last November, has been touted by proponents as overturning the old Israeli-Diaspora paradigm in which Israelis negated the legitimacy of Diaspora life and the rest of the Jewish world viewed the Jewish state as a poor relation in need of aid.
“In Israel we typically view the world as a source of aliya and a big, fat wallet, and that’s got to change,” Bennett told Jewish leaders during that meeting. “Clearly things have got to change. It’s got to work differently.”
The new initiative, he said, will usher in a more collaborative relationship between Israeli and Diaspora Jews.
Finance Minister Yair Lapid voted against the new program, while Science, Technology and Space Minister Yaakov Peri abstained.
At the center of the plan is a new, as yet unnamed non-governmental corporation to be composed of representatives of the philanthropic world, the Israeli government and Diaspora communities who will oversee funding and projects.
According to Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry director- general Dvir Kahana, it will be modeled after Taglit-Birthright Israel, which utilizes both private sector and government funds but is not controlled by Israel. Instead, it will be controlled by a leadership team of 10 people and a steering committee of representatives of the government, the organized Jewish world, Jewish/Israeli public figures and private investors, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
Each program will have a similar structure, with a board of directors in addition to a professional leadership team that oversees the various projects.
A committee made up of the directors-general of several ministries and chaired by the prime minister will have an oversight role and determine government policy toward the new body.
Funding for the initiative is expected to be split three ways, among Diaspora organizations, Jewish philanthropists and the government.
According to the ministry, part of the plan is to create a centralized database for Jews around the world that will rely on existing databases from organizations such as Masa and Birthright. This would allow for follow-up with participants after they return to their communities abroad.
“The efforts will focus specifically on identifying the unaffiliated and working to engage them through innovative programming,” according to the ministry.
It is likely that some of the funds will be earmarked for Jewish social startups.
In a statement following the cabinet meeting Sunday, Bennett reiterated his enthusiasm for the project, calling it a “revolution in the State of Israel’s relationship with the Diaspora” and asserting that the new body would work on forecasting world Jewry’s needs for the “next 25 years” in order to “strengthen Jewish identity and bolster ties between the State of Israel and the Diaspora.”
Asked if the private donor money was already lined up, a ministry spokesman said that as far as he knew, it was not.
Earlier this year, Misha Galperin, senior North American fund-raiser for the Jewish Agency, told the Post that there had been “a great deal of interest from philanthropists.”
In a speech last year in Kiev, Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky indicated that Netanyahu had met with “potential donors” who could fund the proposed initiatives, a possible reference to American Jewish billionaire and close prime ministerial confidant Sheldon Adelson.
Sunday’s decision, the Diaspora Affairs Ministry said, was the first of two stages. In 2016, after the corporation is fully up and running, the government will call for an annual budget of NIS 800 million.
Bennett previously stated that the plan would more than double current government spending on programs aimed at instilling Jewish identity among Diaspora Jews, to NIS 1 billion a year.
A budget of NIS 187m. was approved by the cabinet for the interim. Together with Diaspora funding, a total of NIS 540m. is now being invested in the initiative.
Diaspora Affairs Ministry officials have been careful to emphasize that this money comes in addition to, rather than in place of, funding already earmarked for projects such as Birthright and Masa.
“The big news is the establishment of the new entity and the new budget that will go toward getting the initiative off the ground and starting to create long-term programming,” an official from the ministry told the Post.
The initial announcement of the initiative came as the Pew Research Center released a major study of Jewry in America, the largest Diaspora community, in which the findings indicated accelerated rates of intermarriage and assimilation among millennials.
According to the study, which surveyed almost 3,500 Jews between February and June 2013, there has been a generational diminution in identification as “Jew by religion” and that “among Jewish respondents who have gotten married since 2000, nearly six-in-10 have a non-Jewish spouse.”
The program is intended to “bring world Jewry to Israel and bring Israel to world Jewry” in order to stem the hemorrhaging of members from organized Judaism, according to an internal Jewish Agency document on the project.
Aimed at younger Jews between 12 and 35 years old, the initiative is looking to create programming in seven content areas: immersive experiences; follow-up; Israel and peoplehood education in formal institutions; Israel education in informal settings; serving “the global good”; Jewish life and Israel engagement on campuses; and the immigration of young professionals.
Following November’s Jewish Agency-convened summit of international Jewish leaders, participants formed a number of working groups to generate potential projects for the initiative to fund. They were later debated during a multi-day open online “jam session.”
The Jewish Agency, which has played a central role in organizing the initiative and that will hold a seat on its steering committee, applauded the initiative’s approval by the government. Quoting the cabinet decision, an agency spokesman stated that the organization would “be the government’s partner in spearheading the initiative.”
“This government decision, which comes during a difficult period of budget cuts, is the strongest expression of the centrality of Jewish identity as the cornerstone of Israel- Diaspora relations,” Sharansky said during the cabinet meeting. “Enhancing Jewish identity is at the heart of the Jewish Agency’s strategic plan, strengthening both Israel and the Jewish world.”
While the agency has played a central role in getting the initiative off the ground, the formation of an independent body with a significant budget does create a powerful outside channel for reaching Diaspora Jewry, and it is unclear how this will affect its long-term operations.
Speaking with the Post after the cabinet meeting, Sharansky said the government decision indicated a change in perceptions of the importance of Diaspora affairs in Israel. He compared the vote to the contentious battle that accompanied the establishment of Birthright.
“Now, everybody understood that this was very important and in the interests of Israel to have strong Jewish identity in the Diaspora,” Sharansky explained. “At the time of Taglit, the debate was much more difficult.”
He added that Lapid, the only holdout, was against the initiative due to an opposition to spending Israeli taxpayer money abroad rather than on citizens.
The next step, Sharansky continued, would be continuing the dialogue with Diaspora communities in order to approve an initial run of pilot projects within the next several months. Part of the Jewish Agency’s continuing role, he stated, would be to “make sure that there is no paternalism on either side.”
The program comes at a “critical time,” Prof. Steven M. Cohen, a Hebrew Union College sociologist and participant in one of the working groups, told the Post.
“When 82 percent of Reform-raised Jews in the US are marrying non-Jews, and when just 9 percent of the grandchildren of the intermarried are being raised in the Jewish religion, Diaspora Jewry clearly could benefit from dramatic investment in all forms of Jewish education: camps, youth groups, campus engagement, day schools and, of course, trips to Israel, both short-term and long-term,” Cohen explained. “All these experiences are effective. We just need to increase participation, and this initiative promises to do just that.”
Barry Shrage, president of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies, said the initiative created a “real opportunity for innovative thinking” to the benefit of all.
“The idea is great,” Shrage said, although he cautioned that “everything will depend on execution.”
Alex Selsky, CEO of the World Forum of Russian- speaking Jewry, expressed satisfaction to the Post about the program.
“I’m happy to see the government of Israel takes more responsibility for the future of the Jewish Diaspora,” he said, adding that he hoped to see a special focus on “the 1.5 million Jews who immigrated from the former Soviet Union to the Western countries,” as they are “more pro-Israel than any other Jewish group.”
The Jewish Federations of North America welcomed the cabinet decision, calling it a “critically important response” in a statement.
“The Jewish Federations of North America have been pleased to work alongside many other organizations in thinking about how to bring this initiative to the forefront,” it quoted executive director and CEO Jerry Silverman as saying. “Today, the government of Israel has taken a historic leap forward...
Throughout history we have seen what we can accomplish when we speak as one voice, and we are looking forward to working with the [Israeli government], foundations, the Jewish Agency and others to act now and maximize the opportunity we have in front of us.”
While Jewish leaders in general were optimistic at the announcement of the cabinet vote, some did express reservations about the ability of Israel to implement such an ambitious program.
According to philanthropist Jay Ruderman of the Ruderman Family Foundation, the government has gone about organizing the initiative “a little bit backwards.”
“I applaud the Israeli government for saying our relationship with the Diaspora is important to us and is crucial to our future,” he said, “but I think it would have been better to sit down with the partners and hammer out a program that people could actually know what it was about before making such an announcement.”