An Israeli idealist

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

Bielski 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Bielski 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Jewish Agency Chairman Zeev Bielski's address to the opening plenum of the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities in Jerusalem on November 16 may be part of his swan song in his present capacity, or the GA may be his last appearance as JAFI chairman before taking a leave of absence to plunge back into politics. Prior to taking up his post as chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization (WZO) in 2005, 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. In August, the Jewish Agency will celebrate its 80th anniversary. It was established, or rather enlarged and revamped, by the World Zionist Organization at the 16th Zionist Congress in Zurich and became the quasi government of the state in the making. It was recognized by the British Mandate, the League of Nations and numerous governments as the official representative of world Jewry and the Jewish community of the Yishuv. Functioning as a de facto government, it was responsible for internal affairs, immigration in accordance with certificates obtained from the British Mandate authorities, settlement construction, education, culture, economic development and health services. Admittedly the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) played an important role during Israel's early years; but in the 60th anniversary year of the state, does it still have a raison d'etre? Absolutely, says Bielski. In fact, at the end of October he called a news conference to explain the changes that the JAFI will introduce to cope with new economic realties while doing its utmost to continue to provide its regular services and develop new projects. What about the relevance of the WZO? Again, the response is in the affirmative. In fact, Bielski notes, the WZO "is the only organization in which all streams [of Zionists] sit [together] around a table." While acknowledging that some JAFI activities could perhaps be taken over by the government, there are several areas in which JAFI, not only by virtue of its experience but because it is not a government organization, can take initiatives. Jewish education in the Diaspora is one example. Another is a more concerted effort to encourage young Jews to come to Israel. 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, Massah 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. It bothers him that Germany is home to the fastest growing Jewish community in the world. "We invest a lot in Germany," he says. The fact is hardly surprising. With 200,000 Jews, most of them from the former USSR, there is some irony in the fact that Germany has one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe and is a magnet for Jews who were raised in a Communist regime. "They're speaking Russian and living in Germany. We should be there for them to connect them to Judaism and to Israel," he insists. This is far from an easy task, not only because the background is lacking but because, according to Bielski, those 200,000 Jews are spread out in more than 90 different places throughout Germany. Closer to home, 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, the 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. While JAFI's flagship activity continues to be the encouragement of immigration, aliya is not what it was in the past, says Bielski - and he's not referring specifically to numbers. Aliya today is a matter of choice, not of desperation. Very few immigrants are looking for a haven. They're coming to Israel because they want to come and, by and large, they're well prepared, knowing in advance exactly where they're going to live and where their children will go to school. This major change has, to a great extent, been facilitated by a JAFI call center that operates in seven languages for six and a half days a week. Jews from all over the world can call almost around the clock to ask aliya-related questions. By the time they come, they're very well informed and don't need as much assistance as those who came here 20 years ago. 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."