The Case for Change: A Challenge to the Jewish Agency

by Gil Troy

Change is easy to endorse and hard to implement – if it’s easy, it means it’s not being done right. If it’s not systematic, it’s sloppy; if it’s cosmetic, it’s fleeting. Today, new directions must be forged, tough choices must be made, and new ways of doing business must be developed.

Let’s be frank, most North American Jews that I know do not know what the Jewish Agency is or does. And a surprising number of Israelis I know say – with anger in their voices – that the Jewish Agency should become extinct like the dinosaur it is.

Moreover, while most Jewish Agency employees I meet are extraordinary – idealistic, passionate – they work for a bureaucracy with a terrible reputation, with what seems to be a toxic corporate culture. When many people pass Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem, rather than seeing what I see: a building rooted in Jewish history, pulsating with the energy of the Zionist mission and like Israel itself, a key to our salvation as Jews and human beings – they imagine hearing the ticktock, ticktock of bureaucrats marking time and the clink, clink, whirl, whirl of good money flushing down the drain.

We could kid ourselves and say, “well, it’s a PR problem, all this could be solved by some re-branding” but historic conditions have changed – demanding an adjustment in the Jewish Agency’s mission as well.

The modern Zionist Movement tried to solve “The Jewish Problem” of the 19th century – anti-Semitism. The Jewish Problem for Most (not all) today – is the opposite: We are being Loved to Death. Most Jews- thankfully – enjoy unprecedented freedom – and prosperity. But too many of them understand that freedom as “negative freedom” freedom from – freedom from ties, from tradition, from community, from responsibilities.

We can find salvation in more Jewish education because Jewish education is not just about learning the facts but mastering life, Jewish education is not just about thinking but doing, Jewish education is not just about understanding the world but fixing it – Tikun Olam – Jewish education is not just about skill-building but identity-building. In short Jewish education is values education – and that is the added value we need – and must provide. I agree with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “This is not an exercise in education; it’s an exercise in survival.”

And that is where the Jewish Agency has started to come in – and must come in more – more effectively, systematically, and publicly. Natan Sharansky’s vision of the Jewish Agency as the spearhead for a global Jewish push revitalizing Jewish identity is what’s needed. If in the 20th Century, the Jewish Agency’s great accomplishment was saving Jewish lives, the 21st century must be about saving Jewish souls.

Like “change” “identity” can be an empty slogan, amorphous, lacking meat on the bones. Our vision of Jewish identity and our mission must be coherent so we know how to get traction on this important issue.

The Jewish Agency is uniquely positioned to educate for a modern Jewish identity focusing on peoplehood with Israel at its center – with the Jewish Agency carving out peoplehood platforms for identity-building throughout the Jewish world. This is a logical evolution – the elements are all there – but the branding and focus are lacking.

There is no Jewish Agency, no rationale for a Jewish Agency, without peoplehood. The Jewish Agency must be the global hothouse for nurturing those values, proud of its worldwide reach and its own roots in Eretz Yisrael the land of the Jewish people, and its commitment to the greatest collective Jewish undertaking of the last century, the State of Israel. We have to explain the idea of Peoplehood as the Jewish superglue, the sense of shared destiny uniting us, in good times and bad. We have to build on our family feeling, that insidery “MOT” – “member of the tribe” feeling that even many seemingly assimilated, alienated hipster Jews in New York have. The beauty of peoplehood – and of Zionism, the power of Israel and of our Jewish values, is that, when done right, we make our tribalism transcendent. We move from solidarity to idealism, from we are one to “ani v’atah neshanaheh et ha olam” – you and I will change the world.

Just as drug abuse counselors call marijuana the Gateway drug, opening the way for all kinds of others we, levhadeel, should look at Peoplehood as the gateway Jewish value, opening the way to many other dimensions of identity. We will only restore it as a gateway value through education.

Decades ago, when Rabbi Yitz Greenberg requested increased Federation allocations to Jewish education in New York, the leaders hesitated. “We don’t have enough money to do what you request. What should we do? Shall we close down Jewish community centers, and the Jewish hospitals, nursing homes, and homes for the aged that we subsidize?” “Yes, close them down!” Greenberg insisted. “But do you know what I’ll teach the children who will receive the Jewish education that you will sponsor? I’ll teach them to open up community centers, hospitals, nursing homes and homes for the aged!”

Change requires bold strategic vision, some signature programs as key tactics, and, most important, serious transformation in the trenches. Ronald Reagan was better at articulating a vision of change and focusing on a few signature programs, Margaret Thatcher implemented more fundamental changes from the top down – for better or worse.

In the Jewish world, we need “big bold ideas,” in the words of Jerry Silverman of UJ (oops, I mean JFNA – you see organizations do change). We’ve seen JNF go green; the American Jewish Committee go from being a sha-shtill organization of American Jewish shtadlanim to a muscular defender of the Jewish people; Boston Federation lead in the push toward identity and education for 20 years; and the Montreal Federation’s Gen J initiative focus on 5 gateways leading to better Jewish living: formal Jewish education; camps and youth programming; family and adult programming; Israel experiences; and arts and culture. The idea is to focus less on the hardware and more on updating communal software, trying to reach Jews at all stages of the life-cycle, but especially Jewish youth.

My uncle, who was in the advertising business for 50 years says the one constant in his career was change. My father-in-law, who’s in real estate, keeps a running list of all the rock-solid tenants like Canada’s legendary Eaton’s department store or Eastern Airlines that would never go out of business, but did. I have a Lubavitch friend who is a savvy internet marketer. He changed from his PC to an Apple – because, he said, change is good, it shakes you up. To effect change, the leaders of the Jewish Agency, this College of Cardinals of the Jewish people, will need the discipline of the Congress during Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the fluidity of the British parliament under Thatcher, the courage of Ben Gurion and this very agency on the eve of independence in 1948 and the wisdom of our ancient Sanhedrin.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” the views expressed here are his own.