Sharansky at the Jewish Agency Meetings

Israeli Minister of Education Gideon Sa'ar (l), Board Chair Richard Pearlston and JAFI Chair Natan Sharanksy (r); image courtesy Brian Hendler

Israeli Minister of Education Gideon Sa’ar gave the keynote address at the Opening Plenary of the Board of Governors on Sunday, October 24, 2010, at the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem.

The Board of Governors (BOG), which began Sunday and ends Tuesday, October 26, is made up of members representing Keren Hayesod, the World Zionist Organization, and the Jewish Federations of North America.

Saar began by telling an anecdote about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis who graduated from Harvard Law School in 1877 at age 20 with the highest grade average in the college’s history. Because of his exceptional academic prowess – and despite his Jewishness – Harvard had no choice but to ask him to speak at graduation.

According to Sa’ar, Brandeis began his address by saying, ” ‘I wish I had not been born a Jew,’ – to which the audience silently waited for him to announce his imminent conversion to Christianity. Instead, Brandeis continued, ‘for had I not been born a Jew, I would have chosen to become one.'”

The story was a telling parable for the Jewish Agency’s newfound strategic plan that centers on Jewish identity building in Israel and around the world. The new mission to “Inspire Jews throughout the world to Connect with their people, heritage and Land, and Empower them to build a thriving Jewish future and a strong Israel” will be fine-tuned and put to action during the BOG.

Saar said that building Jewish identity among young Jews in Israel and abroad is a sacred task and he applauded the Jewish Agency’s new direction.

“The Government of Israel will not tolerate any efforts to sever bonds between the Diaspora and Israel’s Jews. We are one mishpacha (family),” he said.

Sa’ar also spoke out against the campaign to delegitimize the State of Israel, and by association the Jewish People, as well as the proposed law on religious conversion.

In his remarks, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky gave an overview of the past year, including an “impressive” increase in aliyah from around the world and the impact of the Jewish Agency’s shichim (emissaries) across the globe.

Due to the economic crisis, funding for Jewish summer camps in the former Soviet Union (FSU) was dramatically cut. Sharansky noted a 25% increase this year in Jewish Agency supported FSU summer camps and said that more support is needed. The 18 Jewish summer camps held throughout the FSU this past summer including one in Kyrgyzstan that continued despite riots and military clashes.

Sharansky noted that these camps are vital for build Jewish knowledge and connection. “Some of these kids only found out that they were Jewish before they were sent to summer camp,” he said, adding that a three-week camp can make a significant difference in terms of laying the groundwork for youth to become “attracted to and inspired enough to want to continue onto more Jewish Agency programs.”

“My dream,” said Sharansky, “is to create an international summer camp in Israel for Russian speaking youth from around the world.” The first camp of this kind held in Israel this past summer was a joint project between the Jewish Agency and the Genesis Philanthropy Group.

Sharansky also noted that the Jewish Agency has run ulpanim (Hebrew language instruction) in places like Venezuela, where life is particularly fraught for its Jewish population. Over 100 shlichim were also sent to college campuses throughout North America to help combat rising anti-Israel sentiment.

He also noted the new Israel Cultural Center in Budapest that the Jewish Agency helped launch with local partners.

Sharansky also highlighted the newest Partnership 2000 pairing between a Jewish school in Moscow and a school in Haifa, marking the first partnership between Israel and the FSU.

Of the many Jewish Agency programs Sharansky noted Sparks of Science, special program for Ethiopian youth run in partnership with the Weizmann Institute of Science and Ben Gurion University.

In looking to the future, Sharansky said the next steps are to take the mission and decide which programs are the Agency’s first priority. He also said another priority is to continue to build a strong Jewish community abroad.

“I look forward to these significant and fruitful discussions on the impact of the Jewish future and the State of Israel,” said Sharansky.

courtesy Jewish Agency for Israel