“At a time when the Jewish Agency should be looking ahead to improving its role at the nexus of the emerging world Jewish polity… the Agency must complete putting its own house in order in whatever way it chooses to do so before it can truly play the leading role that it must on the world Jewish scene.”
Daniel J. Elazar z”l
The Jewish Agency: Historic Role and Current Crisis (1992)
Last week in Jerusalem the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency approved its new strategic plan, one that The Jerusalem Post called “the most significant redefinition of the Jewish Agency’s purpose since the declaration of the state.” Without question, the Agency has set off on a path that, while uncharted, is also grounded in the belief that the fundamental challenges of the Jewish future require fundamental changes in the strategic direction of the Jewish Agency. If the past 81 years of the Jewish Agency has been about helping the development of a state, the new direction of the Agency squarely focuses on helping the development of a people that, in turn, can continue to help build a nation. In sum, just as the history of Israel and the Jewish Agency are testaments to the power of nation-building by aliyah, the new strategic plan is an experiment of nation-building 2.0 by identity.
This experiment has a substantial amount of risk, especially since it proposes to not only transform the Agency, but also to transform the nature of Israel-Diaspora relations. By staking its future on the engines of Israel experience that impact Jewish identity and deepen the relationship between the Jewries of the Diaspora and Israel, the Jewish Agency has chosen not just to refocus its efforts, but to redesign its very purpose. It is a bold move by an organization with a history of bold moves.
But in truth, the Agency is also an entity that has struggled with organizational shortcomings, ranging from bureaucracy, inefficiency, misdirection and missed opportunities. Notwithstanding its historic success, it suffers from an organizational design that needs substantial reimagination and a governance structure that requires a significant updating. Equally, the Agency needs to quickly begin implementation while facing the challenges of managing internal politics, external relations and, of course, a need for increased resource development. Alone each of those challenges requires outstanding execution, together they demand the highest level of administrative excellence. With that in mind, a few suggestions:
- Reorganization. Without question, the new strategic plan requires a redesign of the administrative and programmatic structure of the Agency. The reorganization is not just needed to align functional responsibilities, but also to create a structure that is adaptable to change. If the past of the Agency has been one of silos, the future must be one of transparency and integrated execution. The leadership must not only have core capabilities, but also must have clear confidence in the future of the plan; this is not a time for half-measures or half-heartedness.
- Governance. There is no question that the Agency’s leadership is deeply and passionately earnest about the present and the future of the agency. Equally, there is no question that the very same leadership is keenly aware of the need or substantial changes to its governance structure. The Jewish Agency can and should maintain its unique forum for Jewish leadership to interact, but it must take substantial measures to redefine who that leadership is and how they interact. A board structure that is representative of the partnerships that comprise the historic relationships of the Jewish Agency can exist while also bringing new leadership that also reflects the future foci of the Agency; the key is to develop new pathways to leadership and reduce barriers to participation. There is room for WiseGen and NextGen at the future governance table of the Agency, but first that table needs to be set by existing leadership.
- Partnerships. The strategic plan calls for new tactics to achieve new goals, including deepening a sense of social activism by under-35 Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora. But these goals cannot be achieved solely be looking inside the organization, they can only be realized by engaging new partners with relevant experience in new ways. There are far to many organizations that have either a skeptical or critical (or both) view of partnering with the Agency; one of the key tasks of the Agency is to create new confidence that partnering with the Jewish Agency will be an experience of excellence.
- Resource Development. Last, but by no means least, funding the new strategic plan will require a fundamental reorientation of the way the Jewish Agency partners with Keren Hayesod and the Federation system in North America. Equally, it will require a level of engagement with foundations and individual donors that has eluded the Agency in the past. This is a complicated strategy – the future of the Jewish Agency depends on energizing new resources to support new endeavors, while also realigning existing financial resources to meet changing goals. Redeploying existing funds will not be enough to achieve critical success, but waiting for new sources to fund new initiatives will be equally unsuccessful.
The Jewish Agency’s new plan is a reminder of an old fact: nothing worth achieving is easy. The coming weeks and months will be a clear reminder that making a shift of historic proportions requires an effort that is equally historic. During its great history, the Jewish Agency has helped bring more faces to Israel and now it is endeavoring to change the collective face of the nation and people of Israel. But first it must change itself – and with that, the hard part begins.
Seth A. Cohen, Esq. is an Atlanta-based attorney, activist and author on topics of Jewish communal life and innovation. Seth served as a member of the recent Strategic Planning Committee of the Jewish Agency for Israel and is a Vice Chair and past Allocations Chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, and member of the board of Joshua Venture Group. Seth can be contacted directly at seth.cohen [at] hklaw.com.