The Jewish Agency and the New Year

It is that time of year when we take stock of our lives, review what we could have done better and consider what changes we can make in the future. After we have gone through the process of taking stock we then can make the decisions necessary to actually change how we live our lives. Well, the process of reflection and change is no different for organizations.

A good example of taking stock and making crucial changes can be applied to one of the Jewish people’s most historic organizations. The Jewish Agency For Israel (JAFI), founded in 1929 in response to the Balfour Declaration’s call for “the establishment of a Jewish agency” to further the development of a homeland for the Jewish people, was instrumental in the establishment of the State of Israel and in helping the fledgling government to build up the country. They have also been a leading force in bringing new immigrants to Israel. In its more than 80 years of existence JAFI has accomplished a number of unbelievable tasks in bringing millions of Jews from around the world to Israel.

JAFI rescued Jews from the Holocaust by operating clandestine operations in a number of European countries; it saved Jews from persecution in North African countries following the establishment of Israel; it facilitated the immigration of more than a million Jews from the former Soviet Union; and continues to facilitate the aliyah of Ethiopian Jews. Alongside these efforts to provide a safe haven and home for Jews facing persecution, JAFI has also made it possible for those in western democratic nations who choose to live in Israel to move and establish themselves in the Jewish State.

Over the years, JAFI has gone through a number of efforts to re-define itself and to respond to the emerging needs of Israel and the Jewish people – from establishing tens of agricultural communities in the yishuv (pre-State Palestine) and building schools and community centers through its Israel Education Fund to empowering Israelis to respond to local challenges via Project Renewal following Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s call for a new partnership between Israel and the Jewish communities around the world.

About 25 years ago, JAFI stepped into the void to respond to the call to a new generation of young Jews who seemed to lack a connection to Israel and to Jewish identity as a whole. A Committee on Jewish Identity was established and this eventually led to a new focus on building Jewish identity among young Jews around the world via trips to Israel. What we know as “Birthright” was germinated in the discussions and research efforts spearheaded by this group. Included in the efforts to strengthen Jewish identity were programs that bring Israelis to communities around the world, the creation of Jewish summer camps in the former Soviet Union, and the publishing of books, pamphlets and educational materials.

However, today JAFI finds itself at a crossroad where they must once again re-define their purpose, the way they did in the mid-1980’s. Once the question is successfully answered, they can then focus on whether they should continue to implement programs or whether they have a different purpose given the present needs of Jewish communities around the world. At the core of these questions is a more sensitive question: to what extent is JAFI in business to meet the needs of Jews in Israel and around the world versus their self-interest in maintaining their own survival?

It is an appropriate time of year for those in decision-making positions to look at these hard questions. Is our leadership prepared to really ask the hard questions and to answer them? What are JAFI’s strengths and what are the weaknesses that should be confronted through a thoughtful and perhaps difficult self-searching process appropriate for this time of year?

JAFI’s accomplishments should be recognized and celebrated, however, there is a need for real re-engineering or redevelopment of the organization and its role in the Jewish world. The most unique aspect of JAFI today is the structure of the Board of Governors. It is the only body in the Jewish world that is composed of Jewish leaders and representatives from Israel and Jewish communities around the world that are responsible for raising and allocating funds to meet the needs of the Jewish people.

Given the maturation of the voluntary sector in Israel and around the world, it would be most appropriate for JAFI to cease operating and running programs. The strength of JAFI should be to continue to bring Jewish leadership from Israel and world communities together to confront the challenges facing the Jewish people and to make it possible for nonprofits that have programming expertise to implement the programs. JAFI is no longer needed to provide services and the model developed with Nefesh B’Nefesh for facilitating immigration from several English speaking countries should be replicated in other areas.

Think about how much could be accomplished if the energy and resources that are presently expended in thinking about how to keep JAFI’s programs relevant and operating were used instead to bring Jewish leadership together for the sole purpose of identifying crucial issues and empowering people to find ways to provide the necessary resources to deal with the challenges.

This would alleviate the need for an investment 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, 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, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow.

This article reflects the personal views of the author, and should not be regarded as a statement of the views of eJewish Philanthropy, its contributors, advisors or funders.