The Jewish Agency needs a unifying leader at the helm - opinion

The new leader of the Jewish Agency must address critical issues of concern to all Jews, rather than focusing on divisive agendas that will only serve to alienate various groups of Jews.

The Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
The Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

The withdrawal of Elazar Stern from consideration for the leadership of the Jewish Agency has opened the position to many potential candidates. Some have already been interviewed by the committee of 10 Jewish Agency leaders tasked with making the final decision. Other names may still materialize as the process continues.

The government coalition has yet to name a candidate in the wake of Stern’s resignation. There are also divergent views among the 10-man committee as to what should be the qualifications for the position.

As an organization devoted to bringing bridges between Israel and the Diaspora, we see more clearly than ever before that the right candidate would be a unifier, not a divider.

Now is not the time to co-opt the Jewish Agency to pursue sectarian agendas. Many in the liberal Jewish world seek support for reconstructing the Kotel Plaza to be more “egalitarian” and undermining the Rabbinate’s hold on kashrut and conversions. The more traditional Jews would advocate for maintaining the status quo at the Kotel Plaza, and strengthening the age-old halachic rules of Jewish observance.

The Jewish Agency does not possess the authority to settle these issues, and therefore should not be involved. However, there are many critical issues of concern to all Jews that do have a tremendous impact on Jewish continuity and connection to Israel, and which need to be addressed immediately.

Jewish Agency Hora  (credit: Zug Productions for The Jewish Agency)Jewish Agency Hora (credit: Zug Productions for The Jewish Agency)

The new leader of the Jewish Agency should focus on these issues, rather than on divisive agendas that will only serve to alienate various groups of Jews.

The most pressing issue facing the Jewish world today, as reflected by the most recent Pew study, is the large percentage of unaffiliated Jews who within a generation or two will be lost to our people.

These Jews have little interest in the Kotel, or may not even know what it is. Kashrut and conversion are not on their radar. They do not follow the news about Israel or care much about it. What they lack is a “Jewish identity.” Not an Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform identity, but a Jewish one.

Strengthening this cohort’s connection to its Jewish roots is the paramount task of the global Jewish community, and one in which the Jewish Agency should take a lead.

Secondly, as large swaths of Diaspora Jewry are becoming “less Jewish,” their connection to Israel loosens as well. The Jewish Agency has always played an international role. Its leadership is uniquely positioned to implement programs that would ensure that the Jewish People stay cohesive, and that different communities continue to share deep emotional, cultural, and national bonds.

Finally, antisemitism and anti-Israel agendas are making the world less safe for Jews. In recent years, political trends and the rise of antisemitic leaders have cast shadows over the security of specific communities. There is safety in numbers and in coordinated global strategy. Mutual support and cooperation among various Jewish communities is key to ensuring that all Jews can live and practice their Judaism freely.

No doubt there are serious issues that divide us that lack simple solutions. We have divergent visions for what the future of the Jewish people should look like. Yet we won’t settle these questions through political power plays in Israeli agencies. At least within the Jewish Agency, which is charged with connecting Diaspora Jews to Israel, divisive issues should be off the table.

Whatever our differences in other areas, however, we can all join hands to further the goals of Jewish continuity and identity, Israel-Diaspora connection, and fighting antisemitism. A unifying Jewish Agency leader would pull us all together to work on those issues that are ultimately of utmost importance to each and every one of us.

This is a moment for the committee of 10 to put politics aside and do the right thing for the Jewish people. Elect a unifier as the new leader of the Jewish Agency. You never know. It may actually turn out to be the beginning of a new era of cooperation that will benefit us all.

The writer is co-chairman of Am Echad, an organization uniting Jews from across the Diaspora and Israel, around the shared goals of preserving our 3,000-year-old heritage, upholding Jewish interests around the world, and deepening cooperation among our communities.