By Andy Groveman
David Ben Gurion was not a man comfortable wearing a suit and a tie. He did not take pleasure in frequenting corporate board rooms and his passion was not cozying up to world leaders and people of power and great wealth. No one would describe him as a distinguished European gentleman. His beloved wife Paula was apt to remind him to change his shirt.
Yet David Ben Gurion was captivated by a vision, a vision articulated by Theodore Herzl decades earlier – the creation of a modern state in the land of Israel; a Jewish state that would take its place among the nations of the world; that would be the embodiment of Jewish values and a light unto the nations. This Jewish and democratic state would be a refuge and gathering place for Jews from around the world, the oppressed and the dreamers, the people of great and ancient faith and those seeking new ideas and new challenges.
And David Ben Gurion was a man of action and strategy. In 1935 he assumed the chairmanship of the Jewish Agency and methodically embarked on a mission to create, through the Agency, the reality of the State of the Jews, to build the infrastructure of a new society in an ancient part of the world – the only plot of land Jews could truly call their own.
What was it that this state in formation needed? It needed great cities to be sure but it needed farming communities, kibbutzim and moshavim, where self-help and collective responsibility would be nurtured. It needed means of self-defense and mechanisms for gathering in Jews, mechanisms that were sometimes legal under British rule, often not so legal. And when Jews would come, as world events dictated they would, there needed to be ways of integrating them into this new society, teach them the new/old language of their people and give them a basket of support to help them adjust in the trying, frustrating yet exhilarating months of their Aliyah. These were the tasks of the Jewish Agency.
It also needed something more. While the “old man” was often heard saying that a Zionist was a Jew who lived in Israel, he also understood that the miraculous work being undertaken needed to be shared with Jewish people worldwide. It wasn’t just the money and the political support however vital. It was something more – the partnership. Every Jew needed to look at the Zionist enterprise, this noble and unprecedented experiment in nation building, and see themselves and a piece of their children’s future. And so the Jewish Agency became a prime connection point between the Israeli government and Jews of the Diaspora. After the state was declared in 1948 the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) remained as a platform for discussing and addressing Jewish needs in the nascent state and worldwide.
Today, we see Jewish Agency camps in the former Soviet Union and 10,000 18-30 years olds from around the world as participants in the Masa Israel Journey encompassing over 200 2-12 months study, service and professional development projects. JAFI supports twinning relationships between Jewish schools across the globe, Israeli shlichim who bring Israel to Johannesburg to Memphis to Krakow and points in between, programs on 100 campuses, in schools, and in all places where Jews organize and congregate. The work of the Jewish Agency is alive in community to community Partnership2Gether links that engage 500 communities in Israel with 46 efforts promoting global common ground and mutual support. And, of course, olim keep coming, recently in impressive numbers from France. In our world of today the line between giver and recipient, between beneficiary and donor, is blurred by the Jewish Agency in the most wonderful of ways.
Yet as I write now in 2017/5777, in the Hebrew months bookmarked by the 9th day of Av and Rosh Hashanah, it is a somber moment in the relationship between the Israeli government and world Jewry. It is a time for soul searching and taking stock.
As a member of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors and as Chair of the United Israel Appeal, the oversight and leadership body that serves as the conduit of American funds transmitted to Israel, I watch with dismay and anger as the Israeli cabinet and the Prime Minister take actions which in a hurtful manner divide our people globally and threaten and undermine the Jewish status of tens of thousands of its own citizens. The details are well known.
This is the type of event that David Ben Gurion knew might one day occur – a moment when the policies and politics of the state come into conflict with the wants and interests of the larger Jewish people and an adjudicating mechanism needs to be in place. And that is why the Jewish Agency for Israel did not disappear in 1948 and that is why, under the present leadership of its Chairman of the Executive, Natan Sharansky, a global “not on our watch” was voiced. Within 48 hours, supportive members of the Knesset, 22 in number, were convened. The effectiveness and speed of World Jewry’s response through the Jewish Agency was decisive and timely in sending a message that reverberated throughout Israeli society – “We are here, we are not going anywhere but you need to listen and respond in a different way.”
What that response will be has yet to be fully determined. However, what is clear is that the Jewish Agency, speaking and acting on behalf of all Jews everywhere, will be at the table and has lived up to an important piece of its mission thereby giving new hope for positive change and a rightful conclusion to this episode.
Indulge me in ending with a personal moment going back over three decades when the decision was made to bring the Jews of Ethiopia home to Israel – a unique remnant of our people whose acculturation in Israeli society would be the continuing work of decades. Operation Moses was underway.
A representative from “national” comes to Memphis. I am in the room as a young upstart, chair of the Memphis Jewish Federation’s Young Leadership campaign. Our visitor explains the challenges and opportunities of this historic project, asks for our support and then says the following: “While we have some fair share goals, we cannot expect you, as a Southern community, to meet yours. But we will appreciate an effort.”
I remember the night vividly. Two leadership gifts meetings were held, followed by a community wide gathering at the Reform Temple, chaired by a local Orthodox Rabbi. My in-laws, Marilyn and Jack Belz, hosted one of the two meetings and my wife’s grandfather, Philip Belz z”l, announced the family’s leadership gift. At the public meeting that followed, pledges of support came fast, openly and lovingly. I was hooked on the great work of JAFI and our global agencies and more importantly by the power of “Us.” There was then, as there is now, so much more that united us than divides us. I am certain that that night the per capita gift of the Memphis community matched or exceeded those of many, if not most, communities across North America.
And today, as it continued to be in each decade since that moment in Memphis, the future of the partnership of the Diaspora with the people of Israel through the Jewish Agency is now.
Andy Groveman is a Memphis real estate developer, a principal of Belz Enterprises, an active member of his community on many fronts and presently serves as Chairman of the United Israel Appeal.