Jewish Agency to change focus

Sharansky plans to move from state-building to identity-building.

311_jewish agency (photo credit: Brian Hendler)
311_jewish agency
(photo credit: Brian Hendler)
The Jewish Agency, one of the world’s largest Jewish organizations, is set to transform itself from a nation-building charity provider to a platform for cross-cultural Jewish experiences meant to inspire young Jews to become affiliated and committed to the broader Jewish world.
According to a new strategic plan submitted by the agency’s top leadership to its Board of Governors this week, the organization will take on a new role in Jewish life as a bridge between the many disparate – and increasingly distant – communities of the Jewish archipelago.
The new plan decries what it describes as “declining Jewish solidarity, the weak sense of belonging to the Jewish People and the lack of meaningful connections between Israelis and world Jewry.”
To fight that trend, the plan calls for vastly expanding the opportunities for young Diaspora Jews to visit Israel, bringing awareness and knowledge of Jewish communities to Israeli Jews who often know little or nothing about the Diaspora, and developing shared “evocative experiences,” including foreign service programs in which Diaspora and Israeli Jews work jointly in Third World aid programs.
“The world has moved in the direction of individuation and individualism,” according to Dr. Misha Galperin, the agency’s incoming head of global operations. This reality risks undermining the broader sense of Jewish communal life, he added.
To counteract that trend, the agency must provide “experiences that are emotional, educational and enable [young Jews] to act on their identity.”
In a difficult fundraising environment, the new mission also has the potential to attract new funds for Jewish learning and identity programs, he added.
“There’s a lot of money out there that hasn’t found its way,” believes Galperin, who is leaving his post as chief executive of the Washington, DC, Jewish Federation to take on the new Jewish Agency position. “We haven’t created programs that inspire people to give.”
That, he feels, is good news, since it implies that a new series of identity-focused programming – from expanding Taglit- Birthright Israel to new curricula about the Diaspora in the Israeli education system – could attract new funds for the agency.
The donors are there, believes the agency’s new top fundraiser, but the programs are not.
“Even when fundraising for communal pots [the federations] has been [shrinking] or level, there’s been an increase in things related to identity,” he noted.
For an organization with an annual budget over $300m., such a stark change in its programming focus is a dramatic move.
The Jewish Agency was for decades one of the chief implementation arms of the Zionist movement, together with other well-known organizations such as the Jewish National Fund. Its main functions have been funneling Diaspora dollars to nation-building and social welfare projects in Israel and bringing an estimated three million olim to the country, sometimes in complex and dangerous emergency rescue operations.
While these functions remain sacred to the agency, according to chairman Natan Sharansky, they no longer happen of their own accord.
At the start of the 21st century, some 94 percent of Jews live in free, tolerant countries and enjoy relative prosperity, Sharansky told the Jewish Agency Assembly on Sunday. Whereas the vast majority of olim came to Israel because they were fleeing oppression, violence and extreme poverty, these negative factors no longer drive aliya, which has dwindled and stubbornly remained at historic lows in recent years.
Meanwhile, as Israel has grown and developed, and international financial instruments have become streamlined and efficient, Jewish donors abroad are moving away from organizations like the agency in favor of direct relationships with on-the-ground charitable programs and projects that interest them.
This reality has meant steep declines in the agency’s budget in recent years that forced dramatic cuts to its programs and staff worldwide.
When he took over as chairman of the agency in June 2009, Sharansky launched a new effort to reconceive the agency’s role in the Jewish world that will better deal with these pressures.
On Thursday, the Jewish Agency Board of Governors will vote on a 5,000-word plan that provides only a bare sketch of the new mission. Its approval would allow agency officials to go back to the drawing board and develop a detailed program and budget to be presented to the board at its next meeting in Jerusalem in October.
The final plan, agency leaders say, will include significant changes to the agency’s structure and fundraising mechanisms.
“The current structure and culture [of the agency] do not suit these new directions,” the agency’s director-general Alan Hoffman said Sunday.
Planners are looking to establish “a non-profit that moves away from a quasi-governmental structure to an entrepreneurial culture,” he added. At the end of the process, the agency “should only do things [it] is equipped to do.”
The plan, though still merely an outline of the reformers’ intentions, already has its critics, especially among observers who worry it will mark a departure from the agency’s traditional role as facilitator of aliya.
“First they sold off aliya to Nefesh B’Nefesh, and now they’re abandoning it altogether because they’ve written it off as impossible,” charged one senior lay leader, who asked not to be named.
At the Jewish Agency Assembly gathering in Jerusalem Sunday, officials went to great lengths to counter such worries.
The new focus on identity education is the best way to achieve that aliya, they say.
No longer in danger of violence or hunger, the world’s Jews “must make a free choice [to make aliya], a choice they will make only if they feel connected to the Jewish people,” said Sharansky.
“The Jewish Agency under no circumstances is abandoning aliya,” insisted Hoffman.
Most observers believe the plan will pass at the Board of Governors meeting Thursday. It enjoys the support not only of the agency’s chairman and professional leadership, but also of the American federation system, the agency’s largest funder.
“We’ve succeeded in being in a world with a lot of choices and virtually no external pressure to remain Jewish. That’s a good thing,” says Stephen Hoffman, chief executive of the Cleveland Jewish federation.
But that has translated in the US into a “serious concern over how the next generation will connect Jewishly to their identities and Jewishly to Israel.”
The agency, he added, served as “a place where this conversation can take place, where people who care passionately about this from around the world can have that discussion and say, ‘Let’s try this.’”
According to John Ruskay, head of the New York Jewish Federation and a member of the committee that is examining the new strategic plan, “I believe Sharansky has correctly asserted that identity is now the driver of everything we care about. One has to be positively identified as a Jew to even consider aliya, or to be concerned about feeding Jews or the future of the State of Israel.”
Yet the majority of the work is still ahead, he warns.
“First we have to get clear about what history requires [of us],” he said. “But then we have to deal with issues of implementation, structure, budget, organizational culture.”