Maxyne Finkelstein, the new CEO of the Jewish Agency in North America, represents the face of change within an organization that has been trying to revitalize itself for a number of years. A rare woman at the helm of a Jewish communal institution, the New York-based Agency head is also the first North American to take a seat traditionally held by a senior Israeli shaliah (emissary).
Previous heads of the Agency in the US have included former major-generals Moshe Nativ and Uzi Narkiss and current Kadima MK Amira Dotan. Says Finkelstein: "The Jewish Agency has changed its profile; it's modernized and become part of contemporary Israel in a very different way."
Finkelstein, who is from Toronto, brings more than 25 years of experience in the field of Jewish communal service to her current position. She previously served as executive vice president of the UIA Federations Canada, a national organization that serves as the central body for the federations and regional Jewish communities of Canada. The organization is responsible for financial resource development as well as advocacy for Israel and Jews. During her tenure, the organization saw an increase in financial and service capacity of more than 150 percent.
More than anything, Agency officials say the decision to put a North American in charge reflects a strategic change decided upon several years ago to make the Jewish Agency in America more accessible and user-friendly to Jewish American constituents. The thought was that the American office should be led by someone of the same background as the community it serves.
"Maxyne is somebody who relates to the ideology and is also a product of the North American community," said Carole Solomon, chairman of the JA Board of Directors. "She is a serious professional and authentic voice who can marry two points of view."
The establishment of the JA as a permanent, customer-oriented entity in North America is very important, said Solomon. "It's not just about a message from Jerusalem; we are a connecting mechanism, translating the needs in Israel to the North American community, and translating what concerns the North American community back to Israel."
But the shift in nationality raises questions about whether such a change also reflects a deeper shift in priorities.
Agency officials rejected claims that the organization is moving away from its focus on aliya and instead placing greater emphasis on Zionist and Jewish education. "The Jewish Agency is a global entity, that may have a lot of different components, but it's connected by the centrality of Israel, and that hasn't changed," said Solomon.
Neither has the JA become less committed to aliya, said Boaz Herman, head of the Aliya Department at the JA. "We haven't put aside our Zionist flags," said Herman. "Maxyne is highly supportive of aliya and she understands the important role it plays in the JA and for the State of Israel. The fact that she can raise more contributions for aliya is more useful and has an added value for our operation."
The 2007 budget allocates 49% of total moneys (roughly $420 million) to aliya. And according to director of public relations Jacob Dallal, the budget allocations for aliya have remained consistent over the years. "It's clear by the mandate and the budget that the biggest allocation is for aliya," he said.
There has been a steady growth in aliya since 2001. In 2006, 3,200 North Americans made aliya, a 10% increase over the previous year. A similar increase is expected this year. And in 2008, the 60th anniversary of the State of Israel, the Agency's goal is to reach 4,000 olim from North America, said Herman.
But while aliya remains central to the JA's mission, the approach has changed over the years. "The old Israeli shaliah who said everybody must make aliya is no longer appropriate," said Dallal. "The world has changed, and the outlook towards aliya has changed."
In the '90s the focus of the JA in Israel was on the Soviet Union. Today aliya is referred to as "aliya of choice." "The way you approach aliya of choice is very different than the way you approach thousands of people crowding around to get visas in Moscow," Dallal said. "We are in a different marketing environment, a different world, and we need a different face to express what we do in the best possible way. This is an attempt to crossover between the American and Israeli experience, whereas before the Israeli experience dominated."
In the following interview, Finkelstein speaks about what it means to be a non-Israeli promoting a Zionist directive.
How did you come to this position?
It's a long story. I had connections to the Jewish Agency through the years. They had been looking for someone for a while and came to me two and a half years ago and asked if I would consider it. I wasn't interested in moving at the time, but it triggered something in my head. I always had a positive connection to the organization. They were doing wonderful work, and going through a lot of changes, modernizing and restructuring. I said I wasn't ready for a change, but they should come back in a year if they didn't find someone. I was joking.
In the early to mid-'90s they decided to hire someone to work alongside the shaliah, who would be responsible for fund-raising. They then realized that business model didn't work, and that they should hire someone responsible for the whole operation, which would subsume fund-raising, as well as act as the head of the delegation.
They were negotiating with someone, but it didn't work out. They came back to me and asked if I was interested. I said yes, but said I couldn't leave my job for another year. They said they would wait. It was a very nice compliment to me.
You are the first North American to head the JA. What is the significance?
That was a big change. Because the question is, does it make sense to have a North American working here to represent the JA, which is fundamentally an Israeli organization and has a strong Israeli character? It's not like a hi-tech company that just Americanizes and looks like everything else here, because of the work we are doing every day.
The core of what we do relates to aliya. Fundamentally, [there are also] two other prongs: Jewish Zionist education and Partnership - building bridges from the Diaspora to Israel, people-to-people connections...
The question was whether it is better having someone who is from here doing those things, or is it better to have someone from Israel? I think it's best to have a combination of the two. It's a balance.
I am able to live and work here in a way that is very different than an Israeli. On the other hand, having Israelis here complements that and brings the Israeli spirit and soul into what we are doing and makes it more real.
One of the programs we have is to send young shlihim into communities. They come for a year or two; there are 100 of them on the ground today. I'd like to see 1,000. It's not something any North American can do. I can't bring Israel to the communities in the way that a 23-year-old Israeli can; they understand 24-year-olds in North America in a way I don't, introducing a unique element that you can't do by just having North Americans. The combination of the two makes it better.
Does your appointment reflect a change in terms of the direction of the Jewish Agency?
In terms of aliya, North America has always been an important focus, and it will continue to be. JA has for many years had a big program for kids to go to Israel. The configurations have changed over the years, but not the emphasis.
Part of it is the world has become smaller. Communication is different today. The way we talk to each other is different. The shift is stylistic in part, [relating to] the way we want to engage with communities here.
The federations went through a big transformation in terms of their funding a number of years ago. In the late '90s a decision was made, since funds usually come through the UJC system, that the federations would change their funding patterns. The primary recipients of funds have been the JA and the Joint Distribution Committee - 75 cents came to us, 25 to them. Two organizations with different mandates.
Then there was a decision to change that. They would fund 90% of the fixed budget, [but the other] 10% of budget was called elective, and we would have to go to the federations and make our case for that 10%. [In fact] you have to make your case for the whole 100% because it's a voluntary thing: No one has to give the money to one organization or the other, although the long tradition of these being the primary partners is very, very grounded in the organizations.
When that [budget change] happened it became much more important for us to be there, be present, and be part of the discussion in terms of allocation. It was important for us to talk about what we are doing so people could touch it, feel it. And that wasn't a job that a shaliah would be the front person in doing. It is often done with the shlihim, but you needed to be there to speak to your colleagues and peers. From that point of view, the level at which you need to communicate is different from the past.
Our constituency today is much more involved in wanting to dialogue, be part of decision making. Philanthropy has changed tremendously in the past decade. People want to be part of the decision making at a level they weren't before, particularly with younger people. They are more consumer oriented; they can pick and choose, and they don't connect to institutions so easily. We have to provide opportunities - to make it more inviting, more engaging - and we have to provide opportunities for dialogue.
Is it hard as a non-Israeli to convince Americans that they should make aliya?
No, because I see it personally as an option for me. I have been very connected to Israel all my life, and though I have chosen to stay here up until now, I know I can always go if I choose to. I think it's part of your conscious consideration every day whether I should be here or there.
How would you guide a young person who is thinking about moving?
Generally the Israelis who speak to people try to give them the biggest picture possible. We know that making aliya isn't about one thing. Often people approach it first through ideology, but you have to consider the practical things as well. Can I get a job? Will I be socially comfortable living there? Where do I want to live? We have pilot programs for people interested.
I would advise anyone to spend as much time as they can exploring it. I know today there is a situation where people go to Israel, then come back for a little while, then go back again. It's a different world today. The world is small, and it's easier to move back and forth.
You may decide you want to live there for 10 years and come back to North America for three years. Israel has to present itself also from that perspective. People don't see things as "Okay, I've closed the door on America, or I've closed the door on France." They feel, "I can go back and forth; the world is open to me."... When you think about aliya, it can be a lot more flexible than it was at one time.
What do you make of all the recent claims about American youth being disengaged with Israel? Has Israel become less of a connecting point?
I don't believe it. People need to have an exposure. That why birthright is so wonderful because it opens up people's eyes. That's why our program of bringing shlihim to summer camps is so wonderful because it opens up kids' eyes to the fact that Israel is real, and they can speak to Israelis.
Israel is not in people's minds the same way as it was when I was growing up, because I was nine years old in the '67 war and I remember that it was such a big part of my focus. Seeing Israel in that way, the country seemed to be in jeopardy and everybody was worried about it. Times change and people regard things differently. You have to introduce Israel differently today.
Can you say a little about how Israel should be introduced, and how it's different from the way it was introduced in the past?
Israel is a normal country today. And when people see it that way, they will look at it like every other place. So part of it is trying to take those normal things and engage people around them so they begin to understand the significance of Israel to them as a Jew, and the significance of Israel in the world, the importance of its role in the Middle East, the importance of its role as a democracy, as a place for Jews to live if they choose to, or to connect with if they don't.
It's very important to go to young adults and say "You can connect to Israel through art, you don't have to connect to Israel in a crisis mode. It's not just about war, it's a real place that's something very special and different for you." And I've seen when young people go to Israel on a birthright trip or other opportunities, they feel it quickly. They get there and they "get it." And how do they get it? They get it by talking to Israelis. They speak to people who are their peers and they begin to understand the significance of the country and why it's important and why the state is unique.
We have to understand that they are going to come to it very differently. Their vision is not going to be the Holocaust and the wars; their vision is going to be a complex country, it's complicated and you don't always understand it easily, so you have to find those points of engagement that are going to be significant. Maybe through hi-tech. It could be through music. I know when Israeli musicians come here, lots of people go and listen to them even if they are not Hebrew speakers. If you see the amount of stuff on the Internet today from young people who are connected with Israel and their Judaism, it's huge, it's massive. So I don't think that people don't care about Israel, and that they are fully disconnected. We just need to make a greater effort to make that connection happen.
You talk about Israel being a normal country. There have been all kinds of complications with how we treat the political situation in North America, and how Israel is introduced politically. What's okay and what is not okay? What do you make, for instance, of the recent controversy over the Breaking the Silence program [bringing soldiers to campuses who talk about the damaging impact of their service in the territories]?
This has been an issue since day one, since the creation of the state. Israel's a democracy and you have to be able to open your mouth and criticize in a democracy if you choose to. These young people on campus are Zionists and they were expressing this in a context of Zionism, and as long as it's done in that context, it's a legitimate dialogue. They are not the only group that has spoken up and said they are not that happy with what's going on in Israel around a particular issue.
Last time I was on campus here, there was a huge demonstration about the environment, and one of the groups participating was Hillel. One of the things they were talking about was what's good and bad in the environment in Israel, which is a big issue now. You are always going to find issues that people will be critical about, but that's what a democracy is.
How involved should American Jews be in Israel's affairs?
As involved as they can be. Look what happened during the war in Israel in the summer. In a matter of weeks the system of UJC collected $350 million. It shows you how engaged people are with Israel. When there's a problem, they connect with it. And sometimes it's with talking and dialogue, and sometimes it's with money, philanthropy. The more ways there are to get involved and feel part of the dialogue and environment of Israel, and connecting with your Judaism in that way, it's terrific.
There's a governance structure of the JA, and it's made up of people from all over the world - part of it is from North America, and part of it is from the rest of the world, from Keren Hayesod and the World Zionist Organization, which brings both Americans and Israelis to the table. There's been also an increasing emphasis in Israel and in the JA on putting more Israelis on the board in terms of volunteers who are high-profile people, perhaps in business and the social sector, and getting them more involved. You now for the first time have philanthropists in Israel who are involved in the JA.
How do you feel being a rare woman in this type of position?
The issue of women in Jewish communal institutions has been an issue for the past decade to 15 years. People have been talking about it - how it's been slow to change, slower than a lot of other fields. I grew up with it in my career, because I was generally working among men more than women in senior positions. When I came into my last position, I was in a senior professional position and I would connect with the men who were the federation executives from large cities. I would go to their conferences and be the only woman there. It was interesting; it brings a different dynamic sometimes to have women at the table. They were very welcoming. It's not that I felt they didn't want me there. But you could see that the proportion is not what we would hope it would be.