The Jewish Agency and the Blackberry: Two Peas in a Pod?

Two years ago this week, the Jewish Agency (JAFI) approved a new strategic plan. At the time, Natan Sharansky, the Chair of the Executive said, “… the central point is to strengthen our Jewish identity, our ties with our community, with Israel, with our past and, working together, to guarantee our future.”

The new direction was necessary; the plan itself was bold and praiseworthy. Yet, two years later, despite some definite successes, JAFI remains mired in extensive bureaucracy and legacy issues that undermine operations on a daily basis.

On the plus side, the Agency deserves five stars for transparency. Not one other major Jewish organization, including – but definitely not limited to – the Jewish Federations of North America, the JDC or Hadassah provides the level of public scrutiny of their operations, and budget, on an ongoing basis as JAFI. They have set a bar that others have simply not met.

Through the Unity of the Jewish People Committee, the Jewish Agency provides the only space where representatives of all the religious streams – and all the divergent parts of our Jewish world – can sit together and discuss the pressing issues of the day. Perhaps underutilized, but a strong organizational asset.

Out in the field, the Jewish Agency employs hundreds of dedicated professionals, all striving to deliver the best possible programs for the betterment of the Jewish people. Joining with them are hundreds more, (mostly) young Israelis on shlichut (emissaries), working far away from their homes. I’ve sat with these professionals not only in the coffee shops of Jerusalem and the youth villages in the Negev, but at a JAFI camp in the Jewish Autonomous Region in Siberia and in the schools of Buenos Aires. As a group, they rise early and go to sleep late  – committed to building a stronger Jewish world. As a community, we should be proud of the selfless work they do to propel the agenda forward. They are loyal to the core, despite being under-appreciated by the organization. Without a doubt, they are one of JAFI’s strongest assets.

However, with all of the above and more, the Jewish Agency is coming unglued.

The organization suffers from management dysfunction and legacy issues, including a self-serving workers union that has no vested interest in JAFI’s future health. Dozens of under-performing employees can not be terminated because the union has failed for seven months to hold a simple election to decide who will negotiate on their behalf with management. In many cases, these are employees who do not understand the Jewish Agency’s mission and do not add value to the organization. Meanwhile, some of JAFI’s best talent, including several of its top managers, have either left the organization or are considering doing so.

As I have written before, the Board of Governors consists of way too many individuals (including professionals and lay leaders of constituent organizations, along with political hacks) who do not serve on JAFI’s board in order to advance the interests of JAFI. At best, they see themselves as representatives of a Jewish constituency that wants to be heard. At worst, they represent only themselves, their own ego and ambition. They vote on JAFI’s budget and set JAFI policy, but do not see their role as advancing the agenda of the organization for its own sake or for the sake of the Jewish people. Board Chair James Tisch – in office less than a year – recognizes this and even stated at the February meetings, “We all represent the Jewish Agency and must act in the best interests of the Jewish Agency. We need to drop off at the door our responsibilities to other organizations.” Sorry Mr. Tisch, under the present structure this probably isn’t going to happen.

The lack of donor sensitivity is another plague on JAFI. Unlike the JDC, where every single employee knows they work for a fundraising organization, all to many headquarters employees of the Jewish Agency still believe the funding that pays their salaries is guaranteed – by a taxpayer they have never met and only slightly understandAs a group, they do not value the importance of the donors and their needs; they clearly – even at Board meetings – do not understand the need to cultivate and engage, listen to and develop loyalty with those who provide the financial lifeblood of the organization’s programs. Countless relationships with key American and Israeli donors have been ruptured in recent years through this lack of an organization-wide fundraising culture.

But, perhaps the biggest problem is the unfortunate tendency among the Jewish Agency’s management to obsessively squabble and undermine each other, as if the organization’s existential challenges are resolvable and they can afford to waste time bickering. Worse, these battles have more than once been dragged into the media, where they do noticeable damage to the organization’s attractiveness to donors and future prospects.

Like Research in Motion, the makers of the beleaguered Blackberry, the Jewish Agency relies too much on its very real past accomplishments and ignores the realities of the present. This mindset, along with the excuse of being quasi-governmental or “a necessary platform” whenever these existential troubles are brought to light, will guarantee not only the failure of the new strategic plan but may threaten the very survival of the Jewish Agency itself.

There are many, including this writer, who at the end of the day believe the Jewish Agency needs to right the sinking ship and simply “get their act together.” The Jewish Agency, not because of what has been accomplished in the past, but because of what the organization can bring to the communal table in the future, should not disappear.

Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks recently laid out his Seven Principles of Jewish Leadership. Principle 1 is Leadership begins with taking responsibility. We all must join the effort. It is incumbent on us to “shake the tree” and hope the falling fruit will hit many on the head. But, it is also incumbent on the Chair of the Executive and the Board Chair to exert leadership.

Natan Sharansky is a hero of the Jewish people and perhaps the most famous alumnus of the Soviet prison system. To Mr. Sharansky I say, with your illustrious resume, history will not judge you on the success or failure of the Jewish Agency. But the Jewish people needs it to succeed, as much as it needed your sacrifice during those dark days thirty years ago. The challenge is less painful, but no less existential for the Jewish people.

And to James Tisch, the successful CEO of a Fortune 200 company, I ask, on a bad day, would you permit the existence of such an organizational culture in a subsidiary company?

There is a great deal of work to do, and it should begin with introspection. If you’re at the Board meetings this week in Jerusalem, either as a Board member or an Agency professional, ask yourself this: Are you doing your part to serve those dedicated and talented professionals that make up JAFI’s rank and file in the field? Are you, like them, part of the solution, or part of the problem, like too many at King George 48. If you’re the latter, it’s time for you to be replaced – regardless of your position or tenure.

Research in Motion is under a death watch. Last week, 24/7 Wall Street placed it number four on the list of brands most likely to disappear in 2013. The business world has no mercy or patience for bad management and lack of innovation. Let’s not find the Jewish Agency in the same position. The Jewish world deserves better.

This article reflects the personal views of Dan Brown, the founder of eJewishPhilantrhopy.com, and should not be regarded as a statement of the views of eJewish Philanthropy, its volunteers, advisors or funders.