A New Level of Engagement in the Jewish Agency

14839_297948410410_810765410_9463082_1589100_nHow many of us can’t sleep at night because we are worried about the future of our Jewish community?

I met someone this week, who told me in all sincerity, that his concern for his community’s collective future gives him no rest. So it was fitting that he, together with another two dozen participants of the Jewish Agency’s Global Emerging Leaders Forum, were given open access, and serious time, to engage with the highest ranking lay leaders and professionals of JAFI, and those affiliated with it, in order to effect change in the Jewish world’s most global organization.

When I was invited as a member of the KolDor Global Executive to participate in the forum, I assumed that we would be cast in the role of many “Young Leadership” or “NextGen” forums, who are gathered to form merely an audience or a photo op but whose opinion isn’t genuinely desired. My realization that JAFI has an entirely different agenda dawned upon seeing the caliber, experience and genuine diversity of JAFI’s Global Emerging Leaders, comprised of professionals, lay leaders, rabbinical leaders, social activists and academics from the U.S., Europe, South Africa, Israel and the Far East. Each has proven accomplishments as individuals helping shape the future of the Jewish people, which resulted in meaningful and serious engagement with lay leaders and JAFI professionals, starting with Jewish Agency Chairman of the Executive Natan Sharansky and Chairman of the Board Richie Pearlstone, who clearly set aside time during their jam-packed Board of Governors meetings to hear about the universal and Jewish, Zionist values which our generation engenders.

Lead by Iris Feinberg, the JAFI Emerging leaders Chair, we were given an intensive three-day crash-course in the mechanisms of the Jewish Agency, with the task of evaluating how we can impact the change that is needed to bring about the continued relevancy of this venerable, but oft-criticized institution. The Jewish Agency has mostly accomplished its founding task of building a Jewish State, and fostering and enabling Aliyah. Sadly Aliyah is no longer particularly high on the agenda of global Jewry, and thus JAFI has lost much of its relevancy and subsequently its ability to raise funds at the levels that it did in the past. Coupled with an aging donor base, a trend of younger Jews to give less to Jewish communal institutions and the feeling of some major donors that they could do a better job without the bureaucracy, the Jewish Agency seeks to make itself more relevant to the needs of today’s’ global Jewry.

While our forum was not yet able to agree upon a core set of values for JAFI, what quickly became clear, and the thread that connected us, was often the issue of global Jewish identity. This topic dominated many of the discussions and there was a feeling that the next major mission of the Jewish Agency should be to strengthen the Jewish identity of both Israeli and Global Jewry. Jonny Ariel, Director of Makom a Jewish communities and Jewish agency network, which facilitated many of the discussions, stated it succinctly, “We have created a state. We now have to create a Jewish state of mind.”

What this means is a paradigm shift in which we look at the needs of the global Jewish community of which Israel is a central part, rather than mostly on the needs of the State of Israel. Israel was not the focus of the discussion of even the Israeli participants. Whether the Israeli political establishment and JAFI’s professional staff in Israel, have fully internalized this changing reality is unclear, that our generation’s most urgent priority is no longer Israel, but rather the solidification of our global Jewish identity.

An additional challenge for JAFI and the Global Emerging Leaders Forum, is that while there is a general consensus that many young people are turned off by the, “Pay to Play” attitude which has traditionally marked Jewish communal organizations, ultimately a community and its institutions can only be sustainable if its members contribute both of their time and money towards its continuity.

This is a critical time for JAFI. The lay leaders whom we met are clearly prepared to serve as agents of change and are actively seeking the input of the younger generation in determining the organization’s future. Our voices in determining the future goals of the Jewish Agency were taken seriously, and our central message of global Jewish values and continuity was reiterated at the Plenum by many of the leaders we were in conversation with. The question is whether, as a body, JAFI is willing or able to implement a new agenda that emphasizes strengthening the Jewish identity of global Jewry rather than principally supporting Israel.

Rabbi Carmi Wisemon MSW is founding director of Sviva Israel.

image: Global Leaders discussing the future of the Jewish People; photo provided by William Daroff