Discord erupts at Jewish Agency meet

Rabbi Eckstein calls group's aliya policy a 'shandeh': It’s shameful that a $300m. organization can't bring 900 olim from Russia.

YECHIEL ECKSTEIN (photo credit: United Fellowship of Christians and Jews)
(photo credit: United Fellowship of Christians and Jews)
BUENOS AIRES – Members of a Jewish Agency for Israel committee engaged in a heated debate at its Board of Governors meeting in Buenos Aires on Tuesday over its set of priorities and whether the organization has neglected aliya.
The chairman of the group’s Aliya and Rescue Committee, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, launched an all-out offensive following a report that said several hundred Russian-speaking Jews want to move to Israel this year but can’t because of lack of funds.
“There are 800, 900 young academically trained people in St. Petersburg, Moscow and Kiev ready to come to Israel tomorrow,” he said. “What’s the cost? Two million dollars. To me it is absurd, maybe even obscene, that a $300 million organization cannot afford to bring olim from Moscow and St. Petersburg to Israel.
“I would come back to ask this body that if it’s not being done on this level, if this body is not committed to having aliya as the sin que non of what the Jewish Agency does, then what does it do?”
Two years ago, the Jewish Agency introduced a strategic plan that expanded its historic role from focusing on bringing Jewish immigrants to Israel to strengthening Jewish identity in the Diaspora through education.
Eckstein’s scathing criticism of the new set of priorities caught many of the committee members off guard. He carries much weight because his fundraising group, the Fellowship of Jews and Christians, gives the Jewish Agency $10m. per year.
CEO of International Development for the agency Misha Galperin fired back at Eckstein, saying the difficulties bringing immigrants from urban centers in the FSU to Israel were unacceptable, but he vehemently rejected the claim that the Jewish Agency has abandoned Jewish immigration.
“I absolutely agree that we need to get to the point where the Jewish Agency needs to assess its brand in lots of different places and put it in conjunction with what our strategic plan is,” he said. “I personally tried to debunk the myth at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly that somehow the agency is out of the aliya business, that what we have done is switched from being focused on aliya to being focused on Jewish identity.
“But in my mind we have added to the focus of the agency and refreshed its mission. In order for people to make aliya you have to have Jews and strengthen their identity but this is all over and above part of our central mission, which is aliya.”
He concluded by saying, “If we don’t have additional budgets we can’t do additional things.”
Aliya and Rescue Committee Deputy Chairman Danny Lahm argued that funds need to be reshuffled to causes of sha’at hadhak, the Hebrew term for hour of need, but Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky said the money was tied up elsewhere.
“We are giving money to Nefesh B’Nefesh,” he said, referring to the group that facilitates aliya from North America.
“They raise 40 percent, which is good, and they get 60% from the government and us. We asked them ‘Can they raise more money?’ and they said forget it. Federations don’t want to give.”
The impassioned conversation became chaotic at one point until John Ruskay, CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York, interjected, saying that aliya and strengthening Jewish identity was not a choice of one or the other.
“Aliya was a means not an end,” he said. “Building the Jewish state and the Jewish people were at the center of that and I would urge care on that.” He then suggested the Jewish Agency free up money by making cutbacks elsewhere.
“All these choices are difficult and are triage choices,” he said.
“We make them in federations all the time. I would urge this committee to make this an example.”
Committee members then threw out the names of causes whose budgets they would cut.
“Nefesh B’Nefesh is chartering flights from North America,” said one.
“The Hebrew ulpanim and it has already been recommended,” suggested another.
The conversation then came back to Eckstein who reiterated his position.
“If we can’t find in the whole world a Jewish group to give what Christians are giving to bring olim to Israel then that is a shandeh,” said Eckstein, using the Yiddish word for disgrace.
He said his organization was willing to donate one million of the $2m. needed to bring the group of Russian-speaking Jews to Israel leading to a proposed compromise.
“This is about a million dollars,” said Ruskay. “If [Eckstein finds] another half-a-million then Jerry [Silverman of the Jewish Federations of North America] and I will get another half-a-million and it’s the last time I’m coming to one of your meetings,” he said in jest.
“As you can see,” Eckstein responded jokingly, “I don’t know how to be a chairman.”
Following the spirited debate, Haviv Gur, Jewish Agency director of communications, issued a statement that he requested be printed in full.
“The committee heard from our professional staff that 800 young Jews from the FSU can’t afford to participate in our incredible Israel programs, programs that often lead to aliya,” said Gur.
“Our board members come from very different places and bring very different views to the table. So obviously there was a spirited debate, something we welcome and believe in as a Jewish organization.
“In this case, the debate ended with a promise from the committee members of $2m. in additional donations. You asked if this debate reflects ‘discord’ over the Jewish Agency’s priorities. Nobody disagreed that our fundamental commitment is aliya, only about what to cut in order to bring those young people on aliya-encouragement programs.
“In the end, the problem was resolved not by the shrinking of any other important program but by a net growth in funding. I can only wish for other Jewish organizations to have a board of governors that, when it can’t bear to cut something precious, takes on itself the challenge of growing the pie.”