The Jewish Agency, in violation of their own governance policies, is funding anti-Zionist and anti-government MASA programs.
Sitting at the top of The Jewish Agency’s governance structure, even above the Board of Governors, is the Assembly. Comprised of up to 518 members apportioned similarly to the Board, the Assembly (though meeting only annually) is the prime decider of overarching policy matters. Historically, their debates involved serious ideological and political issues relating to the nature of Zionism, the structure of the Jewish Agency, internal Israeli politics, the understanding of the Israel Diaspora relationship and more.
Back in the mid-80’s, the US Federation world (UIA, UJA, CJF) and Keren Hayesod leadership, charged with doing due diligence of the charitable funds they were providing to and allocating through the Jewish Agency budget, became incensed to learn some of their monies were being allocated to institutions that would not accept Ethiopian students. Further investigation indicated that monies were also going to institutions that refused to recognize the State of Israel. So at the 1986 Assembly, a binding resolution was passed stating the Jewish Agency from now on will only transfer funds to Jewish schools, Yeshivot and other institutions, “which recognize the State of Israel, support its existence as the national homeland of the Jewish people,” and integrate Zionist values in their study programs. At the 1987 Assembly, the 1986 resolution was reiterated forbidding agency funding for non-Zionist (i.e. ultra-Orthodox) religious schools, and the cutting off of allocations to any Israeli body that refuses to accept Ethiopian immigrants as Jews.
Those resolutions stand to this day.
Fast forward to the present and to MASA Israel, a joint initiative of the Government of Israel and The Jewish Agency, formalized and expanded – with guaranteed government investment – by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon z”l and the Jewish Agency’s Chair, Sallai Meridor. At launch, MASA brought together a number of initiatives – some established in the early days of the State; supported many new programs geared to young adults – especially those from the FSU countries – and most controversial, provided an umbrella for the growing number of Orthodox gap year programs. And herein lies problem #1.
Among the many MASA programs in this latter group are Ner Yosef and Yeshivat Lomdei Torah. The latter is connected to the Machnovka Chassidut and lists Rabbi A.L. Shteinman as one of the Rabanim. This is the same Rabbi Shteinman who calls on bnei Torah to stand firm in their opposition to join the IDF (An Open Letter from R’ Shteinman Shlita).
And, this is the same Rabbi Shteinman who called upon thousands of students to protest Women of the Wall two years ago.
So, why is MASA funding programs such as these? This brings us to problem #2.
MASA Israel has had mixed success, and today is in decline. In fact, without the highly successful programs bringing participants from the FSU countries, and the Orthodox gap year students (including the Haredi seminary students), MASA would be in serious trouble. Two important notes: almost all of the Orthodox gap year programs are affiliated with institutions that fully support the State of Israel. It is the handful of Haredi institutions, who have no place in the “system” that constitute the problem. Second, MASA has taken a serious hit from Western countries as the global economy has improved. Where just a few years ago many programs had waiting lists due to the lack of open positions for recent college graduates, the “marketplace” has somewhat stabilized over the last year or so. And despite the improving economy MASA has been challenged to raise new money from the Diaspora.
If you listen to the elaborate power-point presentations provided by the Agency you would think all is well in MASA land (and the Agency overall). But with MASA, the Agency is in the driver’s seat and MASA is running amok with no governance oversight from the Agency’s Board. At the Agency’s request, the Board eliminated its own MASA program committee (a sub-committee in the Education silo), which historically provided a level of oversight despite MASA being an “independent company.” What was most puzzling in this elimination was the acquiescence of UIA (the Federations’ overseas funding arm) in the decision. As a note, and all who were around will recall, it was this Board committee back in 2009 that acted as the only “responsible adult” when MASA, with the approval of JAFI’s senior professionals, launched the ill-conceived “Lost” television campaign. Today, with the committee’s elimination we have: a general lack of oversight, the funding of Haredi yeshivot, and who knows what else.
In June 2012, I wrote, “Out in the field, the Jewish Agency employs hundreds of dedicated professionals, all striving to deliver the best possible programs for the betterment of the Jewish people. Joining with them are hundreds more, (mostly) young Israelis on shlichut (emissaries), working far away from their homes….
[But] The organization suffers from management dysfunction.”
Today, unfortunately this dysfunction continues to exist. The dedicated Agency staff are now frustrated and disillusioned with their management. The Agency is shrinking. Their Chair is a visionary, but a poor manager. The Agency is rife with bureaucrats who will twist the facts only to insure their own legacies. In recent years, the Agency has postponed several Assembly meetings and overall so downplayed the Assembly’s program and role, that the actual physical attendance has shrunk considerably. Is it any wonder their fundraising professionals are challenged? Is it any wonder most do not understand what the organization is accomplishing? A serious house-cleaning is needed at the professional level. And at the Board level, a need for the members to “own” their governance responsibilities, or resign.
The author is a former Member of the Assembly of The Jewish Agency.