The Great Reset: The Jewish Agency and the Pursuit of an ‘Exemplary Society’

    “We once were a people without a home; will we become a home without a people?”

This was the question I asked last week when addressing the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency as part of the presentation of the Agency’s new strategic plan. A simple question, but one that embodies the countless fears we all share regarding the future of the global Jewish family. In the face of existential challenges on all fronts relating to the physical security of the State of Israel, we must nonetheless face a question that we can ask only to ourselves – will our failure to remain connected to one another in the pursuit of our common ideals be the ultimate risk to the survival of the Jewish people?

In his recent book, The Great Reset, Richard Florida writes about the impact of highly stressed moments in economic cycles, and how they ‘reset’ fundamental aspects of society. Ranging from aspects of consumption, transportation, communication and personal geographic, Florida argues that Great Resets are fundamental transformations in the way we live in the present and set in motion the trends that will impact our lives for decades to come. Understood through a blend of Schumpeterian ‘creative destruction’, Marxian philosophy and capitalist adaptability, Great Resets bring about the destruction and fundamental reconstitution of institutions and ideas, requiring us to change our perspectives in response to the change world around us.

Similar to our current economic circumstances, we are at a highly stressed moment in the history of the Jewish people. We face threats from outside, but equally, we are facing threats from within. As our history has changed, so have we changed the way we engage with one another as individualism has reshaped our sense of the collective and the realization of our dream of a home of our own has redefined what it means to be in the Diaspora. Just as significant, we have slowly begun to question whether our Jewish values are better contextualized in terms of universalism rather than expressions of Jewish idealism and Zionism. Now, at this time in our history, we are facing the a realization that our encounter with modernity, while leading to much success, has also lead us to great crisis – a crisis that calls for a Great Reset.

Last week, in response to many of the considerations described above, the Jewish Agency adopted a new strategic plan, a plan that is nothing short of a great reset of the role of the Jewish Agency in Israel and in the future of the Jewish People. As a member of the strategic planning committee of the Agency, I know firsthand how deliberate and thoughtful its leadership was in crafting this plan, and I also know how cautiously and emotionally elements of the plan were considered and approved. This is just a first step in what will be a complicated and, in many ways painful process of resetting the Agency. Although to many the plan seems to be to vague, and perhaps the redefined goals of the Agency seem too aspirational, make no mistake, this is the beginning of a process that will fundamentally and concretely change the way the Agency operates within Israel and the broader Jewish world. It is not a minor shift; it is a fundamental transformation of the Agency for a fundamentally different era of Jewish life.

However, even with high confidence that the plan is the right plan, I know and share many questions that people have asked regarding its implementation. Among those many questions are four that distinguish themselves as key to assessing the ability of the Agency to be successful in its Great Reset. These questions must be answered by not only the leadership of the Jewish Agency, but also by each of us as stakeholders in the broader Jewish enterprise.

1. Are the strategies to be pursued by the Agency, especially with respect to Jewish identity in the Diaspora, the proper strategies for what many people view as an organization that is a relic of political Zionism? The truth is, this is not the first time that a Zionist organization has shifted tactics to respond to the crisis of Jewish identity. In the 1906 the Third All-Russian Zionist Conference in Helsinki (Helsingfors), responding the Russian pogroms and the upheavals in the Zionist movement, also addressed the role of Zionism in addressing the needs of the Jewish people in the Diaspora. In their conference memorandum they wrote, “[t]o be sure, our goal remains the same, only our tactics have changed. We now understand that only an organized, unified Jewry is capable of mobilizing the vast material and spiritual resources needed to realize our objectives.” Further, they wrote,” Zionism must address all aspects of Jewish life and respond to all issues besetting Jewry.”

With this historical context in mind, the Jewish Agency’s new plan must also meet the shifting requirements of the Zionist endeavor. In 2010, we do not face physical pogroms, but the equally dangerous pogroms of propaganda that attempt to deligitimize the Jewish State and its people. In response to these attacks, we must recognize that proper effort must be made to inspire Jewish leadership and their followers, to connect those Jewish with one another and Israel, and to empower those in Israel to make Israeli society stronger. The ultimate goal, the strengthening of the state through Aliyah and the pursuit of the Zionist idea is reinforced by these strategies, not diminished. In the Great Reset of the Jewish Agency, strategies must change even as the goal of an exemplary society embodied by a Jewish State remains the same.

2. Is the Jewish Agency capable of changing its operations and functioning in a way that responds to its changing strategies? There is no question regarding one thing, the Jewish Agency has a reputation of being a bloated, overstaffed and dysfunctional organization, rife with redundancies and roadblocks. The perception, in as much as it reflects reality, must be changed if the Agency is to successfully navigate its Great Reset. This must be one of the central areas of focus of the Agency leadership, because even if its strategies are correct, if its leadership fails to redesign the Agency’s operations so that they are efficient, cost-effective and excellent, the Great Reset will fail. Budgets must be precise and grounded in realizable fundraising goals, and the Agency must adopt a system of ongoing change management within the Agency. To help build an exemplary society, we must demand of the Agency to be exemplary organization capable of achieving is goals in an excellent manner.

3. Can the Jewish Agency establish and maintain the critical partnerships it needs to be successful in achieving its goals under the new plan? This is a question that cannot be answered only by the Agency, but also by all of us. There is no doubt that there are existing partnerships that are key to the funding of the Agency, the government of Israel, Keren Hayesod/UIA, the Jewish Federations of North America, and the International Fellowship of Christian and Jews, but the success of the Agency’s Great Reset will depend on not just those relationships, but also the establishment of new partnerships with new service delivery partners, thought leaders and funders. The Agency must be open to establishing partnerships in ways that respond to needs of the partners not just needs of the Agency. Equally, however, those partners must be open to working with a new Jewish Agency, one that has reset both its function and its form. If potential partners refuse to engage in the future of the Agency because the past of the Agency, opportunities will be missed and outcomes will not be realized. If the Agency is resetting its approach, perhaps all of us can reset our own attitudes and optimism to the Agency’s future.

4. Will the Jewish Agency be able to energize and leverage existing volunteer leadership while also recruiting new generations of leaders and voluntary stakeholders? Having been involved in numerous Jewish organizations and understanding their somewhat unique organizational attributes, even I am confused by the complexity of Agency governance. The truth of the matter is that as part of the Great Reset, the governance of the Agency must be revisited on a substantial and dramatic scale. All of the constituencies must remain represented, but the size and substance of the governance bodies must be redesigned to match the new purpose and structure of the Agency. While the Agency must also remain a substantial nexus with Israel with respect to the conduct of its operations and governance, it must make better use of technology to convene its leaders, as well as provide opportunities for governance to meet, outside of Israel. But most of all, the Agency needs to continue to recruit and inspire new leadership (not just young new leadership) to bring new ideas and energy into the governance structure. Just as one of the key strategies of the Agency is to empower and energize social activism in Israel, it must empower Israelis (and Jews in the Diaspora) to make vital leadership investments in the Agency.

These four questions yield no easy answers, just as the challenges of our times require more than simple solutions. The Great Reset is a necessity, but it is also a gamble – a gamble that we can transform an organization that built a state into an one that can build a stronger nation; because while our land may anchor us to our past, it is our actions that propel us toward our collective aspirations of a Jewish state with an exemplary society. Accordingly, our ability to take those necessary actions give rise to one final concern that I did not voice last week, but have been thinking of since – we are a people with a long and storied past; will we remain a people with a future?

If the Great Reset of the Jewish Agency works, than the answer will be a resounding YES.

Seth A. Cohen, Esq. is a partner with the US-based international law firm of Holland & Knight and is a member of the Strategic Planning Committee of the Jewish Agency for Israel and member of the Board of Directors of Joshua Venture Group.