The Jewish Agency and All of Us

By Richard Wexler

When I was elected Chairman of my Federation in 1985(!), I was starting at a new law firm and playing father of a young family. I met with my predecessor, one of the greatest of Chicago’s leaders and someone I revered, Corky Goodman. I asked Corky where my time would be best spent. In light of later events (see below), it was ironic that he told me: “Whatever you do, Richard, don’t get involved in the Jewish Agency.” 

The “irony,” of course, was that Corky would become one of the most important Board Chairs of the Agency’s now 90 years, and he would later call me to join the JAFI Board, Co-Chair the JAFI Israel Committee and help Corky and the other Diaspora leaders in a concerted effort to professionalize and depoliticize the Agency. For the next quarter-century I was honored to work side-by-side with great lay leaders – Corky, Alex Grass, z’l, Richie Pearlstone, Carole Solomon, Chuck Ratner and Jay Sarver, among them – and superb professionals, like Moshe Vigdor, as Directors General, and superb political leaders in the persons of Sallai Meridor and Ze’ev Bielski. Service on the JAFI Executive was then exciting and challenging; it is all the more so today. Having left that Board in 2012, I have remained as cheerleader for the Jewish Agency on multiple fronts.

I served on the JAFI Board and Executive for too long but I watched as the organization’s budget became transparent, its operations professionalized and the political influence on its work significantly diminished. I was proud to have played a very small part in those positive developments that should have taken place years earlier. Many of you know that I have been outspoken in my support of the Agency’s work.

But, many of you have challenged my apparent uncritical support. You have influenced my thinking.

I regret that I am not present to see the leadership in action of a Board led by Bougie Herzog and JAFI’s current Director General, Amira Ahronoviz, as they confront the greatest challenge facing JAFI – the challenge to its relevance today and going forward. But I, like all of you, can read – and what I have read of JAFI’s latest strategic plan suggests to me that at 90 years old, the Jewish Agency is in a desperate search for purpose, for a role that will inspire and stir the blood of its leadership and of amcha. 

And … it hasn’t found one. And, that’s a problem. A big problem.

One of you recently offered an extremely critical and anonymous comment on my blog. I have edited it for content: “The Jewish Agency for Israel is imprisoned in a governance trap of its own making, bereft of the ability to make meaningful strategic decisions amongst competing owners. JAFI is blessed with a uniquely talented Director General, but … with a (Chair of the Executive) whose compass points only to self promotion, daily photo ops and a path to the (Israel) Presidency. Hence the choice of Antisemitism as the new organizational focus. Tragically there are always new headlines to chase. JAFI can no longer make a credible case for massive unrestricted Federation funds in an environment requiring measurable impact in a free marketplace. JAFI’s only unique and value-added options are fee for service – P2P and Shlichut. Project TEN – puh-lease – there are several better and more successful avenues for meaningful interaction. Youth Futures? Like JDC’s PACT, a solid program whose time for reliance on Diasporas funding is way past the expiration date. But wait, isn’t JAFI the only global table for Israeli-Diaspora conversation? The three legs – WZO, Keren HaYesod and JFNA – are unstable, wobbly and beyond repair. It is true that the JAFI Board of Governors is a comfortable playground for well-meaning leaders…”

Or, as previously cited in Worse:

“Richard, have you given any thought to the proposition that JAFI no longer merits even the projected $74 million allocated to it in 2019? What Jewish Agency programs (beyond the basic blocking and tackling of drastically diminished Aliya and Klitah) are worthy of even the funding that JAFI will receive from the Federations at the end of this year – “Jewish unity?” “The only venue where the great issues confronting the Jewish People are debated?” “Fighting global anti-semitism?” I would respectfully suggest that the Agency deserves less, not more…”

These are representative of growing disaffection of those who have given the issue serious thought and have shared those thoughts with us.

Since its creation in the last decade of the 20th Century, JAFI North America (“JAFINA”) was, first, to better connect North American Jewry with Israel through the Jewish Agency. During his service as the Jewish Agency’s Board Chair, Alex Grass, z’l, asked me to serve as JAFINA’s first lay Chair to work with David Sarnat, JAFINA’s initial CEO, to create a group of lay advocates for JAFI. We worked hard to do just that, but were often frustrated by the JAFI Jerusalem bureaucracy. Ultimately David resigned in frustration. As we searched for a professional successor, JAFI’s great Israel-based fundraiser, Jeff Kaye, filled the CEO role on an interim basis admirably. We retained the fantastic professional, Maxyne Finkelstein, as CEO and I was succeeded by one of JAFI’s greatest advocates and leaders, Carole Solomon. 

We had engaged Maxyne to help build JAFI’s federation relationships and allocations. But, with Natan Sharansky assuming JAFI’s Chair of the Executive, a decision was made somewhere, to reorient JAFINA’s work to fund-raising. And, the Agency leaders recruited Misha Galperin as CEO and the Jewish Agency International Development (“JAID”) was created to work side-by-side with JAFINA (and independent of it). The Agency leaders had agreed to a contract with Misha that mirrored his with the D.C. Federation he would now leave and reflect appropriate adjustments for his relocation to the New York City area. And, even as Misha produced significant revenue results for JAFI, his independence and “rich” contract stuck in Jerusalem’s craw – even though Misha enjoyed a strong relationship with Richie Pearlstone who would serve as Misha’s main contact within JAFI, forces were constantly at work that would undermine and understate his success. Misha left at the end of his contract.

Josh Fogelson, who had enjoyed great success as CEO of the Minneapolis federation and then at JDC, succeeded Misha. Bright and engaging, with strong leadership skills, Josh reorganized JAID and appeared on the cusp of success when, as Jerusalem continued its practice of undermining those in leadership in North America, he abruptly resigned. 

In December 2018, at the urging of close friends in or near Agency leadership, Gail Reiss, in her 10th year as the CEO and President of American Friends of Tel Aviv University, one of the best and most indefatigable fund-raisers with whom I ever worked, became the JAFINA/JAID CEO. In her months since she has staffed up and revitalized the lay side of JAFI NA. But, she has a mountain to climb and, based on both JAFI’s newest “Strategic Plan” and the lack of patience demonstrated by Agency leaders with regard to the North American operation, not a whole lot of time.

As many of you have read, in advance of its October Board Meetings in Jerusalem, the Agency rolled out that new “Strategic Plan” “…that includes emphasis on connecting between Diaspora communities and increased education against anti-semitism” — “as hub for entire Jewish world.” Really? Are these the Agency’s purposes, and have, e.g., the Federations in North America ratified these “purposes?” The Agency did convene a “by invitation only” conference in New Jersey earlier in the Fall – with whom, what results … this? “The Hub” …really? Or, as another interview with Bougie Herzog stated, JAFI may emerge as some form of “special Foundation” in service to the Jewish People, whatever that might be.

(Recently, at a conference, Herzog announced that we should expect another massive anti-semitic terrorist attack.)

In the past – and its attempts at catching up with modern themes notwithstanding – the JAFI lay leaders were a strong body of federation lay leaders. From Max Fisher, z’l, through Marvin Lender and Joel Tauber and Corky Goodman and Richie Pearlstone and Carole Solomon and Chuck Ratner right up to Michael Siegel, these Board Chairs represented their own unrivaled philanthropy and were men and woman deeply caring about and for Israel. And, up to a certain point in time, these leaders knew that they had a strong cadre of leaders with great influence in their communities. Today, not so much. And while I root for the ultimate success of a revived Jewish Agency North America Board effort today, those participating leaders need to have far more advocacy ammunition than another JAFI “rebrand as (the) hub.”

It took decades to assure the Jewish Agency’s budget transparency … but it happened. Now the Agency must assure its relevancy as an organization deserving of even the pathetic core allocation it now receives. Another “new strategic plan” hasn’t helped.

Richard Wexler is a Past Chair of the United Israel Appeal, the United Jewish Appeal and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, among other leadership roles.

Originally published on UJThee and Me; reposted with permission.