Less than a month ago, some 150 Jewish Agency shlichim (emissaries) from around the world gathered outside Baltimore to be updated on the professional issues they face in their day-to-day work.
Among the matters discussed was how these representatives of Israel can most effectively present their country to the world and specifically to international Jewry. The issue is serious, indeed, at a time of decreasing international support for Israel, and a sense in Israel that the country is often misrepresented in the media, on university campuses and beyond.
But what also needs to be addressed is whether these emissary-ambassadors, chosen by the increasingly weakened Jewish Agency, are the ones who should be doing much of this crucial job.
After more than 40 years of embedding Israelis into Jewish communities around the world, apathy towards this country is at an all time high, with a larger proportion of funds raised abroad going back into local projects rather than being directed towards Israel. In addition, assimilation continues to grow as Jewish identity weakens.
Information posted on the Jewish Agency's Web site explains that the goal of shlichut is to "strengthen the unique and multifaceted significance of Israel in the community and connect the next generation of the Jewish people to its people and homeland."
The shaliach, the text continues, "works with the various community bodies and organizations, namely: synagogue, day schools, Sunday schools, community centers and youth and student organizations" to present a positive image of Israel.
The emissaries are carefully chosen by a special team at the Jewish Agency's offices in Jerusalem. Those who run the selection process claim they appoint only those with experience in informal education and Zionists with a clear knowledge and understanding of the global Jewish community and Israeli life and culture.
Many emissaries are truly suited to the complex task. Others, all too plainly, are not.
What is sometimes overlooked in the selection process is whether appointees have all the correct tools to fully understand the diverse communities in which they are placed. Obviously, language is a barrier, but it is not the only barrier; there are also many cultural and religious concerns too. In fact, it has long been a standing joke in international Jewish circles that these emissaries are sometimes "too Israeli" to bridge the wide Israel-Diaspora divide.
Now that divide is bigger than ever, and the diversity of opinions and beliefs in Israel can hardly even be summed up by one single person. At the same time, in this age of instant communication, access to the kind of basic information that shlichim have traditionally provided about Israel is far more easily available, and negotiating the bureaucracies necessary to plan for a home in Israel is much more straightforward. All this intensifies the question of whether it makes strategic and financial sense for communities and/or organizations to continue supporting these shlichim. Can the $40,000-$130,000 needed by a community to bankroll a shaliach be better directed?
Already communities such as Boston, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, West Palm Beach and Denver have opted not to hire an Israeli emissary in their community. But what is the alternative?
IN OCTOBER, birthright israel, the program that brings thousands of young Jews from around the world to Israel for a free 10-day trip, published a first-of-a-kind study highlighting that its alumni are 57 percent more likely to marry a fellow Jew than those who have not participated in the program. The report also found that even this short stay in the holy land has a "profound long-term impact on Jewish identity and connectedness to Israel."
Here then, surely, is the beginning of an answer to the dilemma over the continued focus and spending on shlichim: Reallocate efforts, and funding, to bring more Diaspora Jews to Israel, even if it is only for a short stay, so they can see and understand for themselves the beauty and importance of a Jewish state - so they themselves can hear the range of voices and feel the magic of Israel.
While birthright focuses on the Jewish student population, its achievements can easily be translated to both younger and older Jews, to professionals directly connected to the organized Jewish world, and to those who are less involved.
Birthright's successes are quantifiably impressive. Rather than individual Israeli shlichim struggling from their overseas postings to convey a sense of Israel, those successes highlight the imperative for a shift to encouraging and enabling more Jews of all ages to enjoy an Israel experience first-hand.