Jewish Agency presents board with Diaspora initiative’s ‘final’ recommendations

The new draft report recommends creation of a Global Jewish Service Corps, an idea long favored by some in the Foreign Ministry.

Bennett at Presidents Conference in Jerusalem, Febraury 17 2014 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Bennett at Presidents Conference in Jerusalem, Febraury 17 2014
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A revised set of policy and programming recommendations for the government’s initiative for the Diaspora was presented to the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency on Tuesday.
The recommendations, which will guide Israel’s policy regarding Jewish communities abroad over the coming years, was revised this week in light of input by participants in an online forum held last week by the Jewish Agency and Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry.
The proposals form less of an action plan ready for implementation and more than a conceptual framework for the initiative’s programming, but lay the groundwork for an implementation plan that is set to follow.
The government and Jewish Agency announced the new initiative, which is intended to strengthen Jewish identity in communities abroad grappling with intermarriage and a drop in communal engagement among the young, during a gathering of Jewish leaders from around the world in Jerusalem last November.
The initiative will require an annual government investment of NIS 1 billion, Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett recently told The Jerusalem Post.
This sum, half of which will be money already spent on identity boosting programs such as Birthright and Masa, will have to be matched 2-1 by participating Diaspora organizations.
Half of the money raised abroad is slated to come from fund-raising while the remaining portion is expected to come from fees for participation in programs run under the initiative’s aegis.
The cabinet is expected to pass a resolution regarding the initiative sometime this month.
During Tuesday’s gathering Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky praised the government, telling his board that it seemed to have adopted the “mission and vision” of JAFI as laid out in its 2009 strategic plan.
Following last week’s online “Jam Session,” a content team comprised of government, Jewish Agency and Jewish Federation professionals synthesized the public’s input with policy papers generated by a number of working groups, composed of Jewish communal representatives convened during November’s gathering.
According to the plan distributed at Tuesday’s Jewish Agency gathering, the initiative will, in addition to focusing its efforts on teens, college students and young adults, deal with issues relating to Jewish identity among young Israelis.
The document recommended “dramatically” expanding the number of young Israelis participating in so-called immersive experiences with Diaspora Jews, including taking part in a year of service abroad, working as emissaries for the Jewish Agency and other bodies and similar activities.
According to the organizers of the initiative, every Jewish teenager should be provided with the opportunity to take part in an intensive summer in a Jewish camp.
Jewish camp counselors, as well as Israel trip counselors and educators should all receive supplemental training and education. The number of post-high school Israelis volunteering in the Diaspora, known as Shinshinim, should be significantly raised.
All universities with a significant Jewish presence must have at a minimum a core campus team consisting of a senior Jewish educator, a “peer engager” and an Israeli “role model,” the document recommended.
Such a team could help direct students to Jewish campus bodies, organize microgrants programs so that students could establish their own Jewish programs and promote programs following up on the Birthright experience.
One of the key recommendations of the document was that Jewish organizations and programs run through the initiative be linked and coordinated so as to create a network around which communities and social networks can form.
The new draft report also recommended the creation of a Global Jewish Service Corps, an idea long favored by some in the Foreign Ministry, and medium term professional and service programs in Israel as a means of bringing Diaspora and Israeli Jews together.
Long term professional experiences in Israel would also serve to bring young Jews here, even as members of the content team focused on aliya suggested that making sure Diaspora Jews spend some time living and working in Israel is more important than pushing aliya as traditionally understood.
This notion of making Israel attractive to young Jewish professionals living abroad but not pressuring them to move permanently seemed to receive approval from Bennett during remarks to the Board of Governors Tuesday.
“Not all Jews are going to make aliya,” he explained, stating that the persistence of a Diaspora since the times of the Bible is an oft overlooked fact of Jewish history.
Bennett also gave his support to the suggestion that the initiative encourages new programs through a Jewish programming venture capital fund.
“This platform is like building an iPhone but now lets people build the apps, lots of apps,” he told the Board of Governors. “Some will take off, some no one will use, which is fine, but we’ve got to provide that platform for the development.
So we are going to try out lots of new things.”
Speaking with the Post following his speech, Bennett said a Jewish venture fund would be “sort of like an accelerator, like there are hi-tech accelerators. We want to hear lots of new fresh ideas [and] invest in them.”
Asked about the critics who panned the initiative due to its focus on Diaspora Jewry without shining a light on the issue of Jewish identity among young Israelis, Bennett said that “Jewish identity needs to be strengthened both abroad and in Israel.”
“In Israel it’s no secret that many kids come to the army without having been to the Western Wall before,” he said. “We need a more Jewish Israel. Not a more religious one, necessarily, but a more Jewish one where every kid here is connected to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Maimonides, Yoni Netanyahu and Hannah Senesh, and for every kid here to understand that we are just one link in our eternal chain.”
During his remarks, Bennett said that the organizers of the initiative must now “adapt it to various countries who have different needs.”
Yael Weiss Gadish of the Jewish Agency, who is known as the chief executive of the initiative, despite its lack of a final governance structure, also cited the need to shop the project around internationally.
Following November’s summit, communal leaders in several European communities told the Post that they had not been informed of the initiative. The majority of Diaspora Jewry resides in the United States.
Among the issues left to be dealt with that were not raised during discussions until now is that of Israelis living in the United States, a source within the government familiar with the matter told the Post.
“We must target audiences like Israelis abroad,” he said. “Most of the people that dealt with it until now are not expert in this population and we need to be.
They will be part of this initiative too because we see them as part of the Diaspora.”
However, Israelis in Israel itself must also be targeted, philanthropist Jay Ruderman, who has previously criticized the initiative, told the Post.
In order to achieve the government’s stated goal of working with Diaspora communities on an equal footing “Israelis need to be educated about the Diaspora,” he said. “Absent this education, Israelis will always approach the Diaspora in a patronizing manner, which is a recipe for disaster in trying to engage Jewish people worldwide.”
According to the government source, it may take six to eight months to translate general policy into several concrete pilot programs.