The Foundation for the Jewish People

Its Role in the Future of International Jewish Philanthropy
by Stephen G. Donshik

In 1917 the Balfour Declaration called for “the establishment of a Jewish agency” to further the development of a homeland for the Jewish people. The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) was founded in 1929 in response to that call. Since its founding, JAFI has metamorphosed into an international Jewish organization based in Israel with professional staff and board members living all over the globe. Its accomplishments certainly deserve to be heralded. However, the time has come for the Jewish Agency to reengineer itself to meet not only the present needs of the Jewish people but also to provide an infrastructure for responding to their future needs. This article proposes just such a reengineering through the creation of a Foundation for the Jewish People.


In its early years, JAFI in many ways was the “government without a country,” administering essential services such as education and health care to the incipient state. In developing the country’s physical infrastructure, it was largely responsible for the growth of the Jewish presence in pre-state Palestine (Stock, 1988).

Since its inception, the Jewish Agency has also been a leading force in bringing millions of new immigrants to Israel from around the world. During World War II, JAFI operated clandestine operations in several European countries and rescued Jews from the Holocaust. After the establishment of Israel, it saved Jews from persecution in North African countries, and more recently, it facilitated the immigration of more than a million Jews from the former Soviet Union. It continues its work today by facilitating the aliyah of Ethiopian Jews. Alongside these efforts to provide a safe haven for Jews facing persecution, JAFI has made it possible for those in Western democratic nations who choose to live in Israel to settle in the Jewish state.

Over the years, JAFI has gone through several transitions in response to the emerging needs of Israel and the Jewish people. From the 1930s to well into the latter half of the 20th century, it established dozens of agricultural communities in the yishuv (pre-state Palestine). In the 1950s, after the establishment of the state, the agency built schools and community centers throughout the country through its Israel Education Fund. Then it spread its wings even further: Following Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s call for a new partnership between Israel and the Jewish communities around the world, it created Project Renewal, in which Israelis and Diaspora leaders worked together to confront issues facing socioeconomically challenged communities in the Jewish state.

About 25 years ago, JAFI stepped into the void that was created with the emergence of a new generation of young Jews who seemed to lack a connection to Israel and a strong sense of their Jewish identity. Mort Mandel, a well-known Jewish communal philanthropist and volunteer leader, and Seymour Fox, Z”L, a professor of Jewish education, joined forces to lead the Committee on Jewish Education; this work led to a new focus for JAFI: strengthening the Jewish identity of young Jews around the world and their relationship to Israel. Out of the discussions and research efforts spearheaded by this group sprouted Birthright, an innovative program sponsored by the government of Israel, the Jewish Federations of North America, and private philanthropists that provides young adults from Jewish communities around the world with an all-expenses-paid trip to Israel to strengthen their connection to Israel and the Jewish people. Also among JAFI’s efforts in this area was a program that sent Israeli emissaries to communities around the world to work with young people, teach in their schools, and serve as counselors in Jewish summer camps; JAFI also published books, pamphlets, and educational materials (JAFI, 2005).

The uniqueness of JAFI lies in its governance structure: It is responsible not only for raising funds to meet the needs of the Jewish people both in Israel and around the world but also has the difficult task of allocating those funds. Leaders from around the world sit on its board of directors, a very precious characteristic of this historic institution of Jewish life.

Today, however, JAFI finds itself at a crossroads. Once again, it must redefine its purpose, as it has done over the last 25 years in an attempt to reengineer its purpose and function in the Jewish world. The core of the issue is this: To what extent should JAFI be involved with providing direct services to meet the present and emerging needs of Jews today? Is this type of involvement really necessary to accomplish that goal, or could it best meet those needs through a different organizational structure that is more appropriate for 21st-century Israel and Jewish communities around the world?

There is no longer a need for JAFI to implement programs that could be outsourced to innovative and creative organizations. It must now refocus its resources in a way to take advantage of its unique governance structure without the burden of a staid infrastructure that does not always respond to the need for innovation.


JAFI’s uniqueness lies in its global representation on its board of directors. Chinitz, in The Common Agenda, describes the development of the agency’s globalization, and he captures the unique role Max Fisher played in bringing the leadership in Israel together with the Jewish leadership of communities around the world (Chinitz, 1985). This structure enables JAFI not only to provide a forum for the discussion of issues confronting Israel and the Jewish people but also to respond to identified needs. It should be preserved but redeveloped in a way that is more appropriate for supporters, partners, and those who receive its services.

While retaining the present representative governance structure, JAFI should be reengineered into the Foundation for the Jewish People. It would shift from an organization that owns and operates programs to a foundation that provides direct funding to nonprofit organizations in Israel and around the world so that they might implement their own programs. In some cases, it would fund existing organizations; in other cases, the foundation would provide the initial funding for establishing a nonprofit if there is no instrumentality to provide those specific services. The foundation would have the flexibility to determine when it would act as an initiator of an organization and when to provide funding to support an established program.

The Governance Structure

The structure of the Board of Governors would essentially remain the same, composed of both representatives of Jewish communities around the world and Israelis who represent various sectors in Israeli society. New board members would be recruited who understand the new purpose and function of JAFI. They would be expected to lend their political and financial support to the redeveloped board. The board would focus on the development of the foundation’s policies, the identification of potential board members to represent Israel and the Jewish communities around the world, and the creation of new financial resources from the member communities.

The board members would sit on committees that parallel the three departments (governance plus the two described later), with each committee in charge of a department. Subcommittees would be responsible for specific areas that the Research Department identifies and to which the Department of Grants and Allocations would allocate funds.

The committees would include delegates from around the world, maintaining the global character of the present agency. As representatives of the global Jewish community, they would be uniquely suited to confront the challenges that communities in Israel and around the world presently face. Through their participation in the foundation and the programs it will fund, they would serve as a beacon for Jewish peoplehood.

In addition, the existing JAFI-Israel Government Coordinating Committee, which brings together JAFI’s senior professional and volunteer leadership with representatives of the Israeli government, would be integrated into the new structure and would continue to play an advisory role. However, when there were joint JAFI–government funded projects, as in the case of Birthright or Masa (a one-year long-term Israel educational program), representatives of the government could be asked to serve on a committee allocating funds or monitoring the project. Thus, in addition to facilitating ongoing communication between the government and the members of the Foundation board, this committee would identify when it is appropriate to encourage the government of Israel to continue to be a funding partner.

Research Department

The Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI), an independent professional policy planning think tank now incorporated as a private nonprofit company in Israel but founded by JAFI, would be an integral part of the Research Department. According to its website, JPPI’s mission “is to ensure the thriving of the Jewish People and the Jewish civilization by engaging in professional strategic thinking and planning on issues of primary concern to world Jewry.”

Because the JPPI was founded by JAFI, it would be appropriate to redefine its mission in line with JAFI’s new mandate. It would be charged with providing the background research and information on the challenges faced by Jewish communities around the world and in Israel. Its function would be expanded to not only conduct and coordinate research studies but also to develop possible responses to the issues it identifies as crucial to both the present situation and the future of the Jewish people.

The Research Department would be responsible for analyzing data and developing policy statements based on its understanding of existing conditions in various Jewish communities. It would focus on providing all of the background information necessary to substantiate the communities’ concerns. It would carry out studies in individual communities to document each issue and, when appropriate, to develop quantitative or qualitative analyses.

Department of Grants and Allocations

The Department of Grants and Allocations would be responsible for developing an allocations process for providing grants to nonprofit organizations and subsequently monitoring the grants. It would allocate the grants on the basis of the needs and issues identified by the Research Department, thereby supporting voluntary organizations in local Jewish communities, which have a unique understanding of their specific issues, and enabling them to meet local needs effectively.

The allocation of funds to local communities also has the potential to leverage funds from local donors who may not be supporting their local community campaign for overseas needs. There is also an opportunity here to develop challenge grants; for instance, the agencies might be required to seek out additional donors to maintain the funded programs.

To illustrate, let us examine the services provided to potential new immigrants from the United States, Canada, and England, particularly to young adults who emigrate without their families and then serve in the Israel Defense Forces through the Lone Soldiers Program. Presently these services are being outsourced to a nonprofit, Nefesh B’Nefesh. It was a difficult decision for JAFI to outsource aliyah promotion, but after a lengthy process of negotiation with Nefesh B’Nefesh, it became apparent that the nonprofit could provide the services more effectively and efficiently. It was also able to raise funds to support its services and supplement its allocation from JAFI.

Replicating this model would encourage more local nonprofits to become involved in Israel-related activities. The communities that provide the services would be more connected to Israel and be more willing to assist with other issues that are of concern to the Jewish people.

The Department of Grants and Allocations would address other areas of concern, such as Jewish identity, Jewish camping, Jewish education, Israel experiences, and people-to-people programming. Of course, there are many existing organizations that have implemented programs in these areas. Birthright, whose focus is strengthening Jewish identity, is a model of outsourcing to a nonprofit agency that has been successful in both implementing its programs and in raising funds from committed donors.

In addition to outsourcing to other nonprofit agencies, a number of JAFI programs could be transformed into independent nonprofit organizations. JAFI’s Partnership2Gether program promotes the connection between Israel and Jewish communities around the world. It is described on the JAFI website as

“an extraordinary global platform connecting some 550 communities around the world in 45 partnerships … building living bridges among these communities. Sharing ideas, strengths, challenges and models of success; and empowering BOTH communities to generate waves of change. But the impact of these projects go far beyond the community level – each of us has the opportunity to become directly and personally involved.”

There is no reason that this program cannot become an independent nonprofit that receives allocated funds both from the Foundation for the Jewish People and also from partners in Israel and the Jewish communities connected to the program.

Another example is the Youth Futures Program, which is also described on the JAFI website:

“The Jewish Agency’s Youth Futures program empowers disadvantaged Israeli youth, providing them with an equal opportunity to develop their academic and social skills. Youth Futures is operated in Partnership with overseas Jewish Federations and Keren Hayesod/UIA communities, with Israeli philanthropists, and with the Government of Israel. The program serves nearly 10,000 youth in 32 localities, primarily in the Negev and Galilee. The innovative Youth Futures model is based on “Trustees” – some 300 young adult Israeli social pioneers – who work full time to build a strong relationship with children and their parents. The Trustees tailor an annual work plan for each child, based on his/her strengths and needs. The work plan is developed in coordination with parents, teachers, school counselors, social workers and other professionals.”

This program could also become a free-standing nonprofit that would receive a start-up grant or challenge grant from the Foundation. It would have its own board of directors and would be established as an innovative start-up with the intention of developing its own financial sustainability.

There are many other programs that are “owned and operated” by JAFI that could be independent nonprofit organizations. Once they are operating on their own these programs might work to strengthen their local communities. Imagine, for example, if the summer camps run by JAFI throughout the former Soviet Union were developed as nonprofits to be supported by a partnership between the Foundation and the local Jewish communities there. We have seen the rise of wealthy Russian Jews in many of these communities. If they felt some “ownership” of these camp programs, there is no doubt they would be prepared to provide the financial backing for these and other local community organizations.

The Department of Grants and Allocations would be charged with evaluating and reporting on all funded programs. There is no shortage of sophisticated approaches to monitoring grantees, but evaluations would certainly be required on a regular basis for deciding whether the grants should be renewed.


Consider how much could be accomplished if the energy and resources that are presently being expended to keep JAFI’s programs relevant and operating were used instead to bring Jewish leadership together for the sole purposes of identifying crucial issues and empowering people to provide the necessary resources to deal with the challenges. This would alleviate the need for investing large sums in the organizational structure that is necessary for maintaining its own programs. Instead of engaging in another strategic planning process, of which there have been several during the last 15 years (Pearlstone, 2010), it would be more meaningful to focus on a process that would renew JAFI in a way that is more appropriate for the needs of Israel, the Jewish people, and the Jewish communities today.

Stephen G. Donshik, DSW, is the founder of a consulting firm that provides a range of services to nonprofit organizations, foundations, and donors focused on strengthening organizations and their leadership for the future. He is a lecturer on the faculty of the Hebrew University and teaches in both Hebrew and English MA programs in nonprofit management. He writes frequently for eJewishPhilanthropy.com on management issues confronting nonprofit organizations.


Chinitz, Z. (1985). The common agenda: The reconstruction of the Jewish Agency. Jerusalem: Jerusalem Center of Public Affairs.
Jewish Agency for Israel. (2005). Seymour Fox: Jewish educational innovator and institution-builder dies at 76. Available at http://www.jewishagency.org/NR/exeres/3A39F51A-6C46-4F18-B21C-CC670A038F25.
Pearlstone, R. (2010, April 29). A letter from Richie Pearlstone: Strategic planning process. Available at http://www.jewishagency.org/JewishAgency/English/About/Press+Room/Press+Releases/2010/ apr29b.htm.
Stock, E. (1988). Chosen instrument: The Jewish Agency in the first decade of the state of Israel. New York: Herzl Press.

This article appears in The Journal of Jewish Communal Service, Vol. 88, No.1/2, Winter/Spring 2013. Reprinted with permission. To receive the complete issue, you can subscribe here.