Linking the chain of ‘Am Yisrael’

Assimilation threatens to create a lost generation of Jews in the Diaspora, says Keren Hayesod chairwoman Johanna Arbib Perugia.

Johanna Arbib Perugia 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Johanna Arbib Perugia 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Johanna Arbib Perugia has two user names on the computer in her office in Rome, where she is a high-powered executive for a private equity fund investing in European real estate.
One is her Keren Hayesod user, the other is for her “regular job.” But it is the Keren Hayesod user that she always switches on first.
The 41-year-old chairwoman of the World Board of Trustees of Keren Hayesod sees her work for the organization in almost spiritual terms.
“When God creates people, everyone has his own mission,” she says. “I’m not very religious, but I’m orthodox in terms of my upbringing and mentality and I think that God created me for this mission.”
While Keren Hayesod’s mission has traditionally been focused on aliya, education and helping the underprivileged, Arbib Perugia sees her calling very much as fighting the battle to maintain Jewish identity in the Diaspora in the face of assimilation that threatens to create a “lost generation” of Jews.
Jewishness is at the forefront of her own, personal, identity. So much so that Arbib Perugia, a mother of three, whose family originally came to Italy in 1948 with the objective of continuing to the nascent State of Israel, says that when she is asked where she is from, her answer is “I’m Jewish. I’m glad that Italy received us very well and I’m grateful to Italy because my family was able to rebuild status in Italy, but what really defines myself and my family is Jewish identity.”
She has been involved with Keren Hayesod, otherwise known as the United Israel Appeal, since she was a teenager, rising through the ranks at meteoric speed until her appointment as head of the Board of Trustees last year. Here recently for the board’s annual meeting, Arbib Perugia sat down with The Jerusalem Post to discuss Keren Hayesod’s goals and strategies for the years to come.
What is your biggest challenge as chair of Keren Hayesod?
I think the best answer to that is to be found in what frustrates me the most and what I would like to achieve the most. What frustrates me the most is knowing that around the world – and Keren Hayesod covers the world with the exception of the United States – philanthropy lately is very popular and that a lot of major philanthropists are Jews, yet we as a Jewish organization and even the Jewish Agency, our strategic partner, don’t get even 10 percent of that Jewish money. So the challenge for us over the next 10 years is to concentrate our efforts on trying to obtain 20% of the Jewish money going to philanthropic causes.
The message that I sell, for lack of a better term, is that people have to realize that giving to an organization like Keren Hayesod means that we are going to be here, that our children are going to have that strong identity that people who were born before Israel’s creation have, while people of my generation and the generations after me think is Israel is a given...
Our real strength is that today there is a State of Israel so we have a responsibility toward the State of Israel, and this message should be transmitted in a wide sense of the word. This is our challenge, to try to modernize Keren Hayesod in order to be able to obtain not only the money but also the involvement of important Jews who today are far from activity, community and Israel.
What do you see as Keren Hayesod’s mission today?
Keren Hayesod’s mission is to strengthen the State of Israel mainly. I have to say that we are the strategic partner of the Jewish Agency, therefore most of our effort is concentrated on funding the core budget of the Jewish Agency, which for the last 10 to 15 years has been focused on aliya, on education and on helping vulnerable populations. Today we are modernizing the Jewish Agency, we are bringing it into the 21st century and we want to focus on the next generation, on the Jewish identity of the generation that is today in its teens and 20s.”
Do you then agree with Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky’s strategic shift away from a focus on aliya? I
 agree with the vision of Jewish identity. Aliya is very important but what Natan Sharansky is trying to focus on is trying to tell Jewish leaders, and the government of Israel for that matter, that the big waves of aliya unfortunately are over. We may have an emergency aliya, but the big waves of aliya are finished. He is making an argument that strengthening Jewish identity will result in aliya or will result in having a Jewish family...
What is most important is that we connect the Jews of Israel to the Jews of the Diaspora. Because there is a problem that I think we should be very transparent about – and there is also a Jewish [identity] problem in Israel, and the Jewish Agency will try to work with the young generation in Israel to instill in them the Jewish identity that, unfortunately a lot of the time, is not there. The connection between the young generation in the Diaspora and the young generation in Israel is key to show both links in the same chain that we are part of one Am Yisrael.
What are you doing to connect Israel and the Diaspora?
“We are working on projects like Ayalim, for example, which are student villages in the Negev and Galilee, where Israeli students settle these areas which are unfortunately less settled. At these projects we are trying to instill in the young generation of Israelis the ideas of social activism. What we are doing in in these projects is that we are going to match them with young people from the Diaspora to live the same experience of social activism. As part of this project they have to give a number of hours every week to vulnerable populations in the communities where they settled. This is an example of what we are trying to do.
Why do we need extragovernmental agencies that do jobs that the government is failing to do, such as building playgrounds, bomb shelters and other projects that Keren Hayesod has undertaken?
That’s a very simple question. I specifically asked this question of a minister, whose name I won’t say, because I was interested myself. I said, “Why are you asking us to do this rather than doing it yourselves?” He answered me very simply, “If you wouldn’t be doing this, nobody would be doing this.” So the simple answer is that we feel that this is a responsibility.
But on top of that you have to understand that for someone who lives in the Diaspora, someone with my mentality, who sees a Jewish boy from Netanya or from Tel Aviv or from Jerusalem go through high school and then to the army for three years because he is defending the State of Israel. As Prime Minister [Binyamin] Netanyahu said recently at the opening of the winter session of the Knesset, Israel is the state of the Jewish people, and if Israel is the state of the Jewish people, then the Jewish people have responsibility for the State of Israel.
It’s really a two-way relationship. It’s the government of Israel asking and the Jews of the Diaspora wanting to give. So this relationship needs us to close this bond by us being involved in Israel. The fact that Jews in the Diaspora have the opportunity to influence the Israeli government – and they do a lot of the time – means that we are shareholders of Israel, and if we are shareholders of Israel, then I think it’s only fair for us to participate, be it in the playgrounds, in the bomb shelters or in the student villages in the Negev and Galilee. I think we have a responsibility and also a pleasure to participate.”
Don’t you also need to demand good governance and accountability?
I would not want to comment on internal politics, but what I will say is that wherever Keren Hayesod invests in partnership with the State of Israel, we are confident that there is transparency.
Are you disappointed with the Israel business community? A recent study showed that the business community here gives something like 50% less than its counterparts in the US.
I personally know a lot of Israeli philanthropists who partner in our projects, so I would say that is not true. I think that there are a number of Israeli philanthropists that do philanthropy in Israel. Before the Israeli felt that his responsibility was sending his children to the army and that was enough. This was his part of giving to the state, which is a very big part by the way – it’s not a small part so let’s not undermine it.
There is an elite of Israeli businessmen that, thank God, is doing pretty well, and I would be comfortable in saying that not all of them but most of them are contributing to Israeli philanthropy.
I’m an optimist so I always look at the glass as being half full rather than half empty.
Can you explain the relationship with the Jewish Agency?
Keren Hayesod is a fund-raising organization and the Jewish Agency is an operational agency; therefore we bring the money and the Jewish Agency spends the money. But having said that, we are part of the structure, we have members on the board of governors, we have key members who chair committees with the Jewish Agency, we are part of the executive.
We not only give the money, we give the money as funding partners, but we are also strategic partners and decision makers. There is no geographical division, there is operation versus fundraising.
What new projects can you tell us about?
The new projects will be in the areas of social activism. We are going to concentrate very much on social activism in Israel, on role models, on shlihim [emissaries] who will be both Israeli and non-Israelis who will come here for short or long periods of time and then will go back to the Diaspora and teach Jewish and Zionist values. This is going to be the area that we are going to concentrate the most on over the next few years.
Israel has always been a country, unfortunately, that has always had emergencies and during those times we have always responded with fundraising in a very natural way. In times where things are better, we have another emergency, a big emergency.
That emergency is to make sure that the young generation of millions of Jews that live in the Diaspora is not going to be lost Jews. I think that it’s an audacious program, but if we lose we have lost them forever.
I feel that each and every one of us has a responsibility and not only do we have a responsibility, we have the possibility to make a change. I am a true believer that even one single leader – and we have many examples in Jewish history from [Theodor] Herzl to [David] Ben-Gurion – that one person can make a real change and I want to be part of that change.
I think that each and every one of us can contribute to making a difference.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a big or a small difference, but we can make a difference.
What can Keren Hayesod do to combat assimilation?
We will be able to make a real difference if we can exponentially increase the numbers of young people coming on programs to Israel.
Over 50% of the non-Orthodox students coming on these programs make aliya. The numbers are incredible.
An exponential increase in numbers means getting funding from mega donors, increasing the amount of money going to Jewish philanthropy to 20%, as I said earlier. If within 10 years we have been able to double the number of people coming every year, then we will have been successful.
That’s 10% a year, so it’s doable.
As one new young Jewish leader said at the plenary of the Jewish Agency, “We need to think big. Ben- Gurion thought big and Herzl thought very big.” The alternative is losing them.
And when will you make aliya?
I will make aliya when one of my daughters, with God’s help, marries an Israeli boy. We have a home in Israel [on Kibbutz Ashalim near the Gaza border] and we are here a lot of the time, but my husband has a business in Italy, so we can’t make aliya for the time being. The program for the future is for the girls to come here to study, so I very much look forward for my girls to come here to university in Israel. Then, with God’s help, for them to settle here and I’ll come here as a grandmother.