Major Jewish Agency reform begins to take shape

Sharansky to up support for birthright and Masa, bring together Jewish youth to help Third World.

May 26, 2010 09:09
4 minute read.
Natan Sharansky

Natan Sharansky 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)


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One month after the Jewish Agency announced a new strategic process to rethink its purpose in the Jewish world, details are emerging of a plan to transform the ailing organization into a transnational educational platform whose task will be nothing short of reacquainting the fractured Jewish world with itself.

Officials at the agency are hard at work developing the new mission, which is being explained inside the organization as “cultivating Jewish identity and reconnecting Jews from different cultures and places to each other.”

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The 87-year-old organization has a storied past as the Zionist movement’s pre-state administrative arm and the post-independence facilitator of aliya for some 3 million immigrants.

But these original functions – nation-building and aliya – are no longer central processes in Jewish life. Aliya is easier than ever, yet has dried to a trickle. The vast majority of the world’s Jews live freely in individualistic liberal societies, so fewer and fewer now need the protection of international Jewish institutions.

In this world of freedom, a new challenge has arisen, according to agency leaders. The future strength and cohesiveness of the worldwide Jewish community will be determined by Jews’ identification with their Jewishness, by a sense both in Israel and outside it of belonging to a broader Jewish people.

“The next big challenge of the Jewish people is that the bonds between Jews have significantly weakened, and that has significant repercussions for Israel and the Diaspora,” explains Dr. Misha Galperin, the new head of the Jewish Agency’s newly expanded North America division.

Indeed, cultivating identity is the path to success in traditional arenas such as aliya, according to agency chairman Natan Sharansky, who last year initiated the process to reconceive and retool the organization for its new mission.

“Strengthening Jewish identity will mean that more people express [their identity] by making aliya. Identity is the main driver of aliya, of Israel advocacy, of a better Jewish education,” Sharansky told The Jerusalem Post this week.

The plan is still in its nascent form, officials say. In the Board of Governors meeting in Jerusalem next month, the leadership will examine and decide whether to accept the new plan, and will even be voting on a new mission statement for the organization. Once they have won the board’s approval for the broader strategy, agency staff will begin piecing together its nuts and bolts. A plan of action, with detailed programs, policies and budgets, will be presented for approval at the following Board of Governors meeting in October.

While officials were hesitant to go into details at such an early stage, some clear directions are already evident from discussions at various levels of the organization.

The agency will focus on straddling the gap between the world’s major Jewish communities. This includes a much larger effort to “partner” communities, such as with the Partnership 2000 program that connects Israeli towns with Diaspora communities.

“We’d like to use ‘P2K’ to do more,” said an official familiar with the discussions.

But first and foremost, the agency’s plan will see a massive focus on developing new ways for Jewish youth worldwide to interact. “Programming that speaks to younger audience will have higher priority,” said one official. “The goal is to develop a continuum of engaging programming into the 30s for young people – with Israelis interacting with Diaspora [youth] and Diaspora with Israeli.”

Talk is rampant about upping the agency’s support for – and use of – the Taglit-birthright israel and Masa programs as platforms for new educational and identity programs.

Several officials spoke of a program that would bring together Israeli, American, European and other Jewish college-age youth on joint aid missions to Third-World countries.

“The idea is to do service work that will also serve [as a demonstration of] the Jewish value system that guides this behavior, and to incorporate the ‘peoplehood’ element by bringing all kinds of Jews together to do it,” another official said.

As part of the plan, the agency has undergone a significant reorganization in recent weeks, most prominently the transformation of its New York office into a major center of gravity for the organization, which is now in charge of “global public affairs and financial resource development.”

It is this office that is tasked with finding money to fill the agency’s shrinking coffers, including helping the organization’s main funders, the American Jewish federations and Keren Hayesod/United Israel Appeal, to fund-raise better for its operations. The New York office’s new head, Misha Galperin, is a former chief executive of the Washington, DC, federation and was brought in for his experience in the American Jewish organizational and fund-raising world.

The New York office will also be the home of the agency’s new “chief communications officer,” charged with repairing and invigorating what many believe to be a weak brand. The position will be filled by former ISRAEL21c executive vice president Larry Weinberg.

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