Dispatches from Jerusalem: The Jewish Agency and the Future Face of Olim
“After a certain number of years our faces become our biographies. We get to be responsible for our faces.”
Cynthia Ozick, American author
In the midst of running back and forth among business meetings in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem earlier this week, I was happy to have the rare treat to spend time connecting with a young post-collegiate daughter of a friend from back home. Mara, a recent olah from Atlanta, has decided to make her life in Israel, finding love with a new fiancée and satisfaction with a new job with an Israeli NGO. A daughter of Young Judean alumni and a product of Jewish day schools in Atlanta, Mara is deeply rooted in her family’s and people’s history and values, and their shared love of Israel. Stepping out of the heat of the day, we met for coffee in a small café within a used bookstore, a perfect setting for sharing a little bit of old biography, a some of discussion of the ongoing drama in the world and even a few words of childhood stories. We sat together, sharing the texts of our lives, each looking from our different vantage points, but nonetheless facing one another.
And that is when, looking at Mara, I realized something important, not only to me, but also to the way we all should look at Aliyah in 2010 – while the need to attract olim has remained the same, the face and biography of the typical olah has changed.
Yes, we still live in a world where aliyah of necessity remains a constant possibility (consider the newest olim from Kyrgyzstan that arrived this week), but the truth of the matter is that necessity is less of likelihood than it has been for generations. As Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky shared with the Agency Assembly earlier this week, 94% of Jews live in countries with relative freedom and prosperity, with little need to leave these countries under duress or for lack of tolerance. Instead, the majority of the new olim are making ‘aliyah of choice’ – a personal desire to be living in Israel and Israeli society at this unique and extraordinary time in Israel history. These olim come with a different face than the waves of recent olim, they are not fleeing a totalitarian state or an economically devastated area, they are coming because of a sense of pride, an aspiration of change and inspired sense of their Jewish selves. In short, they are coming to Israel because of who they are, not where they are.
So this, in a nutshell, is the changing face of olim – where once it the face was of Jews uprooted from their homes, now it is the face of Jews deeply rooted in their identity. They can make it anywhere, but they want to make it here – here in the homeland of their people and an axis of their identity. With this change comes an important question: will we meet these changing faces with a new face of the Jewish Agency grounded in helping reinforcing identity and inspire aliyah, or will we look for the faces no longer coming with a face of an Agency that is grounded by unchanging ways? The truth is, it would be responsible to do the former, and wasteful to do the latter.
With that in mind, it is time for the Jewish Agency, as part of its new strategic plan, to look closely at its aliyah operations and make not only strategic decisions regarding the operation of the department, but also the overall strategy of inspiring aliyah. There must always remain a basic ability to assist olim, especially for Jews in need, but the Agency must not only react to the needs of the current olim, it must inspire the future olim – by helping give root to individual identities and then strengthening those roots so they grow all the way back home to Israel. This will not be easy, and it will take a reimagining of the very way the Agency operates, the way the government of Israel views the role of the Agency and the way the Diaspora Jewry embraces the strategies of the Agency.
Possible? Yes. Achievable? Hopefully. But it will take more than lip service to identity to change the face of aliyah, it will take political courage and new approaches to the Israeli-Diaspora partnerships; and it will take many more biographies and faces …
just like Mara’s.
Seth A. Cohen, Esq. is an Atlanta-based attorney, activist and author on topics of Jewish communal life and innovation. Seth is an alumnus of the Wexner Heritage Program, Vice Chair and past Allocations Chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, member of the board of Joshua Venture Group and First Vice President of Jewish Family & Career Services in Atlanta. Seth regularly shares his thoughts on where we are going as a Jewish community on his blog, Boundless Drama of Creation, and is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy. Seth can be contacted directly at seth.cohen [at] hklaw.com.