United at 60

Let's accomplish as much in the next 60 years as we did in the last.

flag israel 298 (photo credit: Jonathan Beck)
flag israel 298
(photo credit: Jonathan Beck)
As Israel marks its 60th anniversary, Israelis this year are happy but sober. The fact that we made it to 60 is in itself a wonder. In fact, when one recalls the reality which faced us in 1948 and the country we are today, it is nothing short of a miracle. The Jewish Agency prides itself in having facilitated the aliya of over three million new immigrants to Israel during this period. Yet, in many ways Israel at the milestone of 60 years is only on the threshold of its journey. In the last years, it seems as if our enemies are becoming daily more bent on our destruction. We are also at a threshold in the socio-economic dynamic within our society. Today Israel is part of the global economic village and in the inevitable transformation, many were left behind. We are at a threshold too in our relations with world Jewry as the next generation of both Israelis and North American Jews comes of age. On both sides of the ocean our children are more detached, individualistic, and anti-establishment. At the same time they posses a raw idealism, even if it is wrapped in the cloak of non-conformity. THE ISRAELI landscape indeed looks very different. The computer has replaced the farm; the software program has replaced the Jaffa orange. But the challenge is still there. We need more computers, just as in the 1950s we needed more farming equipment. Today the Jewish Agency no longer establishes hundreds of kibbutzim as it did in the 1950s. Instead we have the ground-breaking [email protected] program in conjunction with Cisco computer systems, enabling high-school students in periphery towns to acquire a computer technician certificate by the time they graduate high school. And if we aren't establishing a kibbutz in the Galilee, we are helping small and medium businesses secure the loans they need to grow and make economic life in the north of Israel more sustained and viable. The Jewish Agency's youth aliya villages, established in the 1930s to provide safe haven for Jewish children rescued from Nazi Germany, today provides a home for youth at risk, both immigrant and Israeli-born. Clearly over the years, the definition of "at-risk" has changed, but the nurturing environment for the 300,000 children that have spent time at one of the villages in the last 70 years is a constant. With the change in landscape and the change in challenge, we are on the cusp of both great risk and great opportunity. One of the fundamentals that sustained us over the last 60 years and, in my view, must sustain us in the 60 years to come, is the bond uniting the Jewish people. When we in Israel hurt, every Jew across the world hurts. When rockets fell in the north during the war, Jews the world over offered assistance. Shelters were upgraded with air conditioning and television sets and youth were brought to camps out of the range of fire. When rockets fall in the Sderot area - as they do day in and day out - the Jews of North America are there by providing for every household whose home was hit by and by taking Sderot's youngsters to camps outside of the area of attack for a Pessah holiday. In the coming year Israel may continue to hurt. But we are certain of the unflinching bond of Jews everywhere to stand in solidarity and to assist as much as possible. YET THAT bond goes beyond crisis: it is a reciprocal one of partnership. It goes to the 50 partnerships between communities in Israel and in North America and Europe which have been running for over a decade, in which countless people-to-people bonds have been formed across the ocean. And the bond continues with those of the next generation who have the experience of spending a formative year of study or work in Israel. Former prime minister Ariel Sharon, together with the Jewish Agency, launched MASA four years ago. He believed, as we do, that the future leaders of world Jewry must spend a formative year in Israel. Today MASA is our flagship education program. For every dollar we contribute to the effort of encouraging teens and young adults to spend time studying, interning or volunteering in Israel, the state of Israel puts in a dollar - because the government recognized that it is in the national interest to have young Jews from abroad spending significant time in Israel. To this end as well, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has recently set up a group to include leading Israelis, the Jewish Agency and representatives of world Jewry to discuss ways to strengthen the bond between Jews in Israel and abroad, focusing on the next generation. This is at the heart of the work we have been doing for over 80 years, as the representative body of the Jews before the state of Israel was established, and, after 1948, as the bridge between world Jewry and the Zionist enterprise here in Israel. This partnership we will be celebrating when the Jewish Agency receives the Israel Prize on Independence Day. In this time of challenge and opportunity we must work to solidify further and strengthen our great strategic assets - our bond as the Jewish people. If we accomplished as much as we did in the last 60 years, imagine, with a redoubled effort, what we can do in another 60 years. The writer is Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel.