The Jewish Agency: Paying it Forward

Meeting for the first time in 15 years outside of Israel, the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors has concluded their final meeting of 2011 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. For four days, the atmosphere was electric, and the enthusiasm running high. Those of us in attendance were embraced by all sides of the local community and welcomed by the Argentinian government. The Jewish Agency’s well-oiled logistics team – which I have previously seen in action in the FSU – was superb. For those of you thinking “missions” – well, this was so much more. Not only did the regular business of the board transpire, but a day out in the field exposed us to the breadth of Jewish life here in Buenos Aires including visits to programs facilitated by JDC, ORT, the religious streams and more. While clearly geared to highlight the many initiatives of the Jewish Agency, the program was not built at the expense of work being performed by others. For being out in the field, as opposed to sitting in a Jerusalem hotel, makes it so much easier to see – and evaluate – both the success, and failures, of a range of donor supported programs.

On the last morning, eJewish Philanthropy sat with Natan Sharansky, JAFI’s chair of the Executive, to discuss the previous few days and how this board meeting fits into the strategic direction of the Agency.

To begin, it is necessary to understand that the Argentinian Jewish community, more than any other I’m aware of, has truly embraced communal responsibility in all they do. The community not only feels, but demonstrates, this core value. Secondarily, there is a bond with Israel – similar to what many of us remember in the U.S. from decades past – that unites the community; pulling together those who one would not normally think of as natural partners.

Like the rest of Argentina, the Jewish community went through some difficult financial times in the early 2000’s. Today, a significantly stronger community is giving back to its own. In addition, organizations such as the Jewish Agency continue to invest in Jewish life here. In fact, in 2011, they invested $7 million, primarily in educational activities, but also including Aliyah and absorption of Argentinian olim in Israel.

Sharansky likened this to the Jewish Agency being “one family – one big insurance company for the future of the Jewish people” and how important it was for the organization and the Jewish world. On visits to the sites of terrorist bombings at the Israeli Embassy and the AMIA building, we – as visitors – are able to see and understand communities in new ways. Sharansky detailed how both of these attacks laid the groundwork for the Jewish Agency’s involvement in the security of Jewish communities globally. And with support from others during the financial crisis – including especially from UJA Federation New York – this communal responsibility plays out.

The Jewish Agency’s work in Argentina does not take place in a vacuum, but rather is representative of their identity building work being performed around the world. For, as Sharansky reminded me, our future is “built upon our young people” wherever they live. Hence the strong involvement in initiatives such as the highly successful summer camp programs (my characterization) in the FSU and newer student programs taking hold in Germany. “The bottom-up efforts investing in young leaders who will strengthen our community.”

For this is at the core of the Jewish Agency’s work. A collective responsibility, we “receive and we give back – always paying forward”.

This is a core value we as a community have lost. And the lack of this simple concept that prevails in all too many quarters of the Jewish world is not a good thing. Giving at home is crucial; yet we need to find ways to leverage support the world over. I’m told this is not a popular belief today – more important not a way to sustain, let alone increase, Jewish giving. We all have multiple responsibilities and that includes taking care of those in need not just at home, but around the world. The Jewish Agency, as overly cumbersome and bureaucratic as it is, grasps this simple principal in their many strategic initiatives. We need to support them, and other organizations, who not only talk the talk but walk the walk.

Coming up: JAFI’s 2012 budget, a look at the world’s largest Jewish school, a center for improving educational quality and more. Bookmark our tag Jewish Argentina to follow current, and future, happenings in the southern hemisphere.