Revitalizing the World Zionist Organization
‘If someone had told me 10 years ago that the WZO would be where it is today, I wouldn’t have believed it,” says Avraham Duvdevani, chairman of the World Zionist Organization. Duvdevani was appointed as head of the organization in 2010, after the organization had separated from the Jewish Agency.
Recalling its early days as an independent organization, he says, “There was no budget, no plan of operation, there was nothing.” Today, says Duvdevani, the WZO is thriving, with a myriad of activities and plans, working together with Jewish communities worldwide and fulfilling the mission that was started at the first World Zionist Congress in 1897: to bring the Jews to Israel.
Duvdevani outlines the organization’s fourfold goals: encouraging and promoting immigration, developing new settlements throughout Israel, educating the next generation about the importance of Zionism and the centrality of Israel to Judaism, and ensuring that the Hebrew language is understood and spoken by Jews around the world.
Warming to his subject, Duvdevani says that while it may be difficult convincing Jews to leave their comfortable lives in the Diaspora, uproot themselves and move to Israel, “Zionism means doing the impossible, and we are working with all our power and ability.” Regarding aliyah, Duvdevani states that the World Zionist Organization has set a goal of opening a minimum of two new settlements each year. He points with pride to the new settlement of Meital, which recently opened on the slopes of Mt. Gilboa.
Educating the next generation about the importance of Israel is vital, notes Duvdevani. To that end, the WZO has sent more than 200 shlichim (emissaries) to Jewish schools around the world to instill the importance of Jewish studies, Hebrew language, and the importance of the State of Israel to Jewish life.
Duvdevani laments the state of Hebrew in the Jewish world today and explains that it is vital that Hebrew remains the central language of the Jewish people.
“It connects between Jews, between Jews and the State of Israel, and it is the language by which we speak to God.” To that end, WZO educators throughout the world have established a network of intensive Hebrew courses teaching the language.
When asked about the need for a World Zionist Organization today, 72 years after the State of Israel came into being, Duvdevani says, “I understand the question. Zionism was established to create a country. Once the country has been founded, one might say that its job is finished.” He then proceeds to answer the question and explains that the Zionist movement’s primary goal, which was established at the very first conference – bringing the entire Jewish people to Israel – has still not been achieved.
“The subject of aliyah is the most important and the most critical,” he explains. In addition, he notes, the establishment of the State of Israel was not the final goal. “We still have much to do – establishing a model society with equality, ideology, culture, and helping others. We still need the values of Zionism.” There is much more to be done, says Duvdevani. In his view, today the State of Israel is the one major “connector” that unites Jews around the world. The task of the World Zionist Organization is to spread the importance of its mission and values to those Jews around the world.
Managing the Zionist ‘tent’
‘The Zionist movement is the largest movement that affects the entire Jewish people,” says Yaakov Hagoel, vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization. “Everyone is under the tent of the Zionist movement, from haredi Jews to Reform and Conservative Jews.” In addition to his responsibilities as vice chairman, Hagoel heads recruitment of shlichim (emissaries) who serve Jewish communities around the world, both for the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency; leads the WZO’s efforts fighting antisemitism worldwide; and coordinates the organization’s efforts working with Israeli families living in the Diaspora.
Until the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, says Hagoel, the organization was actively working to increase the number of shlichim stationed in Jewish communities. Now, however, as financial resources available to Jewish communities have dwindled, and due to the health issues surrounding the pandemic, fewer shlichim are being appointed this year.
Hagoel warns that the pandemic has affected and increased the incidence of antisemitism around the world.
“In the past decade, even before the onset of corona, there has been more antisemitism each year than in the preceding year. Now, antisemitism has corona and has strengthened it. It is gathering momentum, especially in Europe.” The World Zionist Organization has taken a proactive stance in the fight against antisemitism, and has a staff of workers and volunteers that locate antisemitic comments on the Internet; actively combat these messages; and notify social media networks that may have unwittingly hosted antisemitic messages to have them removed.
“The digital world is an important one, and we are trying to fight,” says Hagoel. In recent years, the WZO has held conferences in Europe, North America and South America, bringing together Jewish and non-Jewish leaders and supplying them with tools and ideas on fighting antisemitism.
Hagoel’s responsibilities extend to strengthening Israeli and Zionist identity among the many Israelis living in the Diaspora. To that end, the WZO coordinates educational programs for Israeli holidays such as Remembrance Day and Independence Day. It provides “Zionism on Wheels” tours for families that visit Israel during the summer and arranges meetings with Israeli public figures visiting Jewish communities in the Diaspora.
The World Zionist Organization, says Hagoel, is also active in promoting a positive Zionist identity among Jews in Israel and developed the annual Zionist Quiz, held each year on Independence Day and broadcast on Israeli TV. More than 10,000 families participate each year, he notes.
The upcoming World Zionist Congress, which will be held virtually this year, is a gathering that represents most of the Jewish people, says Hagoel. “There are many challenges, but the Jewish people, both in Israel and out, need unity so that we can relate as one people.”
Gusti Yehoshua Braverman
Building bridges to the Jews of the Diaspora
‘It was important for me to promote breaking down the walls and building bridges between ourselves and the Jews of the Diaspora,” says Gusti Yehoshua Braverman, head of the Department of Diaspora Affairs for the World Zionist Organization. Yehoshua Braverman explains that for many young Jews living in the Diaspora – particularly those with a more liberal bent – Israel is often perceived negatively, as a conqueror and an oppressor. Through the work of the department, she attempts to steer the discussion beyond political issues.
“We say that Zionism is an idea that goes beyond the idea of right-wing, left-wing, secular, or religious orientation. Zionism began with Theodore Herzl, which connects us to the First Zionist Congress of 1897, when he understood that the solution is the establishment of a Jewish state.” Yehoshua Braverman and her staff the Department for Diaspora Affairs have developed a wide variety of activities that encourage a deeper connection between the Jews of the Diaspora and those living in the State of Israel, and that express the importance of Diaspora Jewry.
“Jews in Israel have a lack of understanding to the challenges that the Jews of the Diaspora face,” she says.
Yehoshua Braverman mentions two activities held in the period preceding Rosh Hashanah when the penitential slihot prayers are recited. One featured an interview with Dani Dayan, former consul-general of Israel in New York, in which he discussed sins for which Jews in Israel should ask forgiveness from the Jews of the Diaspora, for things that we did not see, or that we misunderstood. The second project that she initiated illustrated positive activities in Israel that showcase the concept of Tikkun Olam, or repairing the world.
Yehoshua Braverman has spearheaded a program that sends young Israelis who have completed their army service to small Jewish communities in India, North America, South America and Canada. She explains that community members benefit from the assistance that the visiting Israelis provide in teaching Hebrew and Jewish identity.
As for the Israelis, she says, “It is good for Israeli kids to get a better understanding of what it means to be Jewish in the Diaspora. When they come back to Israel, they will have a greater understanding to keep the connection with the Jews of the Diaspora.” Yehoshua Braverman says the various programs run by the Department of Diaspora Affairs have reached 700,000 people over the past five years. Since the corona pandemic began, the department has conducted classes on Zoom on Israeli politics, culture, art, poetry and Hebrew language.
“I am very proud,” she adds, “that in our programs, we have participants from all of the branches of Judaism. The ability to speak with each other and not above each other is bodes well for the continuity of Judaism.” The department has held numerous conferences in small communities around the world, explaining the importance of Israel and Zionism.
“I believe that we have to continue on this path,” says Yehoshua Braverman, to provide platforms for the Jews of the Diaspora, to better understand Israel, so that they can to express their dilemmas, their fear, and even their anger. Without it, they will become disconnected.”
Bringing activism to the Zionist enterprise
Five years ago, Dror Morag was appointed as the first chair of the newly created Zionist Enterprises Department. As head of the Zionist Enterprises Department, Morag is responsible for the Central Zionist Archives, which is the official archive of the institutions of the Zionist Movement; the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which hosts a wide variety of historical films on the establishment of the State of Israel; immigration; the Hagshama Youth Movements and Mossad Bialik, the publishing arm of the World Zionist Organization.
Beyond these functions, Morag has dedicated the department’s activities to promoting Theodor Herzl’s vision of an exemplary society by promoting activism in Israeli society, strengthening democracy, combating racism and inequality, assisting the periphery, and expanding the Zionist narrative to include the Ethiopian immigrants. The department also leads the official WZO decision to work with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. The Zionist Enterprises Department will soon be launching a website to encourage LGBTQ+ potential olim to make aliyah. The project hopes to dispel the doubts of LGBTQ+ people interested in aliyah by creating an accessible database and a platform for questions and answers and issuing a variety of services to ensure a “soft landing” for olim upon their arrival in Israel.
The Zionist Enterprises Department has also formed a yearly leadership course that trains 100 Ethiopian teens. The leadership course for youth from the Ethiopian community and other excluded populations enhances participants’ sense of belonging and pride as well as their Israeli Zionist identity and leadership skills.
One of the department’s flagship projects is Mofet, a social accelerator that provides future social entrepreneurs with the necessary skills to set up organizations. The accelerator teaches public speaking, how to create a nonprofit organization, working digitally, and other skills essential for operating nonprofit organizations. It is directed at social entrepreneurs with an idea or an active venture in the following spheres: social welfare, health, education, reducing social disparities, reinforcing the periphery, enhancing the connection between different population groups in Israel, immigrant absorption, equality, democracy and preventing domestic violence.
Morag is particularly pleased with the Joint Israeli Leadership program, another WZO project under his direction, designed to build a young Jewish-Arab leadership that will lead to greater understanding, breaking barriers, joint societies, and fulfilling Herzl’s vision of a model society. The institute includes an equal number of Jewish and Arab post-high school students who study at its headquarters in Jezreel Valley College near Afula for six months.
As head of the Zionist Enterprises Department, Morag views contemporary Zionism as a force that can mend differences and bridge the gaps between communities within Israeli society.
After five years at the helm, Morag is proud of the activities that he has initiated. “I want to continue to develop the projects that we are working on today. There is much to do and create.”
Promoting immigration to Israel from around the world
Marina Rosenberg-Koritny was selected as the first head of the Aliyah Promotion Department of the World Zionist Organization in October 2015. Rosenberg-Koritny herself immigrated to Israel in 1995 from Kazakhstan with her husband and one-year-old son.
“I believe that the task of encouraging immigration to Israel is one of the most important for establishing our status as a people and for strengthening the security and future of the State of Israel,” she says.
Rosenberg-Koritny and her staff have developed hundreds of projects designed to create and foster connections with Jewish communities around the world.
“We have held thousands of meetings, seminars, classes, and events on four continents,” she says.
The Aliyah Department operates an extensive network of intensive Hebrew courses throughout the Jewish world in France, Latin America, North America and the United Kingdom, and conducts events celebrating Jewish holidays and traditions and seminars and classes.
The Aliyah Promotion Department operates with a staff of six in Israel, and additional staff members in the United States, France, Argentina, and Brazil. Rosenberg-Koritny, as the founder and developer of the department, is continually trying to improve its functionality and efficiency in order to present aliyah as a practical and possible choice for Jewish people around the world.
“I moved here in 1995 and began to learn Hebrew,” she says. “Now, I help others to decide to make aliyah and learn Hebrew. We have to make it easier for them to come here and make their acclimation easier.”
Rosenberg-Koritny adds that each and every immigrant is welcome and needed in Israel.
“I believe that every immigrant, woman or man, young and old, strengthens the people of Israel and the State of Israel.”
As an active department head charged with promoting aliyah, Rosenberg-Koritny works with the following philosophy: “Once the Jewish people needed a state; today the state needs a people.”
Head of the Settlement Division
Gael Grunewald, head of the Settlement Division of the World Zionist Organization, has spent the past five years since his appointment revitalizing the department and increasing its activities in settling the land of Israel. Grunewald explains that the Settlement Division works to establish new settlements and assist existing ones throughout the country.
The newest settlement developed by the WZO is Meital, a new community settlement located on Mount Gilboa. Created by the Settlement Division and in cooperation with other organizations, including JNF, the Israeli government and the local area council, Meital provides a unique opportunity for young, idealistic Zionist families who wish to build and together consolidate the place and community in which they will live. The settlement is what is known as a “mixed” community, which includes both religious and secular families. Another new settlement soon to open is Ramat Trump, located on the Golan Heights.
Grunewald, who made aliyah at age 18 from France, says that his department’s assistance to existing settlements is vital and needed. For example, he explains, Kerem Shalom, the small kibbutz located near the Egyptian border that is part of the Gaza border communities, was in difficult straits several years ago and almost disbanded. The World Zionist Organization provided help to the kibbutz, which enabled it to continue. “It would have been a terrible blow to the morale of the country had it closed,” says Grunewald. The Settlement Division developed a recovery program for the kibbutz, helped recruit new members, provided needed infrastructure, and installed caravans for new residents. He adds that the Settlement Division assists in bringing schools, industry, and employment to settlements.
The Settlement Division of the World Zionist Organization works throughout the country, from the Galilee and Golan to Judea and Samaria and the Negev, providing resources to strengthen existing settlements and build new ones. Grunewald says that there is room for many more settlements to be developed and cites the paucity of Israeli communities in the Arava that one encounters while driving on Highway 90 southward as an example.
He adds that building and developing new settlements throughout the country and Israel’s periphery will increase Israel’s population over a larger area beyond the center of the country.
“The State of Israel must invest more in this area,” declares Gael Grunewald, “and I want to convince the people in the government to invest more.”
Placing the Hebrew language at the forefront of education
The Department of Education of the World Zionist Organization, established five years ago at the last Zionist Congress, was created to strengthen Jewish identity around the world. Silvio Joskowicz, head of the department, explains that the department’s mission is based on three principles – the Hebrew language, sending shlichim (educational emissaries) to communities, and Israel education.
The WZO has stationed 250 teachers in Jewish communities worldwide to impart the importance of the Hebrew language, Judaism and Israel to students.
“The most important thing, from my point of view, is the Hebrew language,” says Joskowicz, who says that his goal is to make Hebrew into the national language of the Jewish people. “Hebrew joins us to the past and looks to the future.” According to Joskowicz, the study of Hebrew should be the next major national project of the Jewish people because it joins all parts of the people — Right and Left, religious and secular, affiliated and non-affiliated. If we can understand the importance of Hebrew as a living language, we would realize that we have a platform that can join the entire Jewish people together.” In the course of his term as department head, Joskowicz has strengthened Israel and Hebrew education in the United States, Europe and Latin America. The department holds annual conferences for Hebrew educators in these three continents. The newest and most innovative was the creation of “Ayin LeZion” (an eye to Zion), an ambitious Department of Education project started three years ago that has formed a movement of active and lively Jewish educators, made up of committed people who identify with the organization’s goals. As global conditions changed, the project moved to remote operation. On Passover 2020, the department held a virtual Passover Seder, including the reading of texts and singing of songs. The Seder was prepared by members of Ayin LeZion, with more than 3,000 people participating.
He adds that even today, in the midst of the corona pandemic, with the economic downturn and health issues, schools still want shlichim to come to live in their communities, even to teach remotely via Zoom.
Joskowicz expresses his goal succinctly.
“We want students to think of Hebrew not just as the ‘Sefat Em’ – their mother tongue – but as their ‘Sefat Am’ – the national language of our people,” he says.
Rabbi Yechiel Wasserman
Smoothly running spiritual affairs
Rabbi Yechiel Wasserman, head of the Center for Religious Affairs in the Diaspora for the World Zionist Organization, describes the purpose of his department clearly and succinctly: “Our purpose is to strengthen the connection to the Jewish people and its heritage, to fortify the Jewish-Zionist identity, to foster the connection to Israel of the Jews in the Diaspora, and to highlight its centrality and importance for Jews in the Diaspora.” The center accomplishes these goals by holding rabbinic conferences and meetings throughout the Jewish world, sending communal emissaries (shlichim) around the globe to teach and enrich Jewish life, and conducting special events for members of smaller communities in Europe, such as a tour of Israel that it arranged for 26 bar and bat mitzvah celebrants together with their parents from Scandinavia. Currently, the Center for Religious Affairs in the Diaspora has stationed 36 shlichim in fourteen countries in small Jewish communities such as Dubai, Liverpool, Perth, Oslo and Buenos Aires.
Rabbi Wasserman, who has served in numerous educational positions in Israel and spent time as an educational representative of the Jewish Agency in the United States, understands Jewish communities around the world.
He notes that the center has produced a wide range of printed materials, including a children’s Haggadah in 22 languages, a Tu Bishvat Seder book in 10 languages, articles on Israel Independence Day and Jerusalem Day, and a booklet commemorating 100 years of the Zionist movement that focuses on significant events and personalities in the history of Zionism. The center also places a small library of religious books and Zionist tomes in the various communities it serves, ranging from the Mishna and Maimonides to books about Herzl and Zionism.
“One of our highlights,” he says, “is the annual three-day Worldwide Rabbinic Conference that is held in Jerusalem.” Each year, 150 rabbis from 42 countries travel to Jerusalem, study together and visit significant sites, bringing back the message of Israel’s importance to their congregants. The conferences act as a demonstration of world Jewish solidarity and identification of rabbis from the Diaspora with the State of Israel.
Rabbi Wasserman wants to increase both the number of participants at the annual global rabbinic conference and the scope of the center’s activities in the coming years.
“Our vision is to bring the message of the centrality of the State of Israel and to strengthen the bond with the Jews of the Diaspora.”