An Israeli idealist

As far as JAFI chairman Zeev Bielski is concerned, the Jewish Agency has an eternal mandate.

Prior to taking up his post as chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization (WZO) in 2005, Zeev Bielski spent 16 years as mayor of Ra'anana. He relinquished the position at the request of then prime minister Ariel Sharon, who believed that the Jewish Agency could use a man with Bielski's talents at its helm. However late last month Bielski announced his resignation at a press conference where he also spoke about the changes that JAFI will introduce to cope with new economic realties while continuing to provide its regular services and develop new projects. Bielski, whose persona still bears traces of the aliya emissary who went to South Africa to persuade South African Jews that their real home was in Israel, is both concerned about and challenged by surveys that indicate that more than 50 percent of Diaspora Jews have never been to Israel and are unlikely to come. It is the Jewish Agency's job to do everything in its power to radically reduce that statistic, he says, citing programs such as Taglit-birthright, Masa and the Israel Experience, which bring young Jews to Israel for varying periods of time and expose them to a panoply of Israel experiences, many of which are inaccessible to casual visitors and most tourists. "But we could do more," says Bielski. He is proud of the Jewish Agency's Nativ program, which enables young soldiers who identify as Jews but are not halachicly Jewish to study for three months at the JAFI campus in Jerusalem. There they learn about Judaism and, if they so desire, can then appear before a rabbinical court. If it is satisfied with the level of their knowledge and observance, the court converts them in accordance with the Halacha. "So far there have been 3,000 converts," notes Bielski. Three months, even though intense, is not really a long enough period for study toward conversion. Civilians who embark on conversion courses have to study for much longer. How can Bielski be sure that such conversions will not be annulled by the High Rabbinical Court? "I'm very close to [Chief] Rabbi [Shlomo] Amar, and I know he would never allow that to happen," asserts Bielski, who would like to convert all those people of Jewish background who are not recognized by the rabbinate because their line is patrilineal rather than matrilineal. ON THE SURFACE, the economic crisis threatens to put a cramp in Jewish Agency activities. Aware that many of its traditional donors will not be as generous as in the past, if at all, JAFI has slashed its budget by $45 million. It has also reduced its payroll from 821 employees in 2003 to its current 678. Bielski himself has taken a voluntary cut in salary, and other JAFI employees have donated a small percentage of their salaries toward the organization's operations. There are also plans to combine two or three departments into one; to have staff take on extra duties; to cut back on local staff in the FSU, the US and South America and have roving emissaries; and to have education emissaries serve as aliya emissaries as well. These and other measures should reduce expenditure by millions of dollars. What's more, Bielski thinks the Israeli government should contribute more toward creating Jewish awareness among young assimilated Diaspora Jews. "For 60 years, the Jewish Diaspora has supported Israel. Now it's time for the Israeli government to become more involved with efforts to ensure Jewish continuity and to work together with the Jewish Agency, the United Jewish Communities and Keren Hayesod." The government can spare a few million dollars to reach out to young Jews abroad, he says. Although it appears that there will be a drastic drop in donations, Bielski remains optimistic, pointing out that major Israeli business leaders such as Nochi Dankner, Avi Naor, Ofra Strauss and Eitan Wertheimer have joined the Jewish Agency Board of Governors, thus demonstrating that Israelis are accepting responsibility for what had been the almost exclusive domain of world Jewry. The Israeli attitude used to be that if Israelis are sending their sons and daughters to the army, Diaspora Jewry can pay for Israel's development, says Bielski. He adds that Diaspora Jews are impressed to see that affluent Israelis are playing their part, and that inspires them to keep giving. Many people already think that the Jewish Agency is obsolete. Can Bielski envisage a day when it will no longer exist? "No," he asserts. "Until the last Jew living outside of Israel comes here, the Jewish Agency will carry out its mission to reach out and connect and bring those from outside Israel to live inside Israel. It is a historic mission, and we will continue to fulfill it."