The Jewish Agency for Israel is undergoing change. Over the past year, on the leadership side, we have seen the election of Natan Sharansky as chair of the Executive and the recent appointment of Alan Hoffmann as Director-General. On the governance side, the Board of Governors approved sweeping changes to JAFI’s relationship with Israel’s political system. And now, just weeks away from the annual convening of the Assembly and JAFI’s June Board meeting, the finishing touches are being placed on JAFI’s new strategic plan. In the words of Board chair Richie Pearlstone, “We want to build on the Jewish Agency’s strengths – chief among them, as the organization which links the Jewish People worldwide with Israel and Israel with the Jewish communities around the world. We seek to take the next important steps in our long history of achievement in building Israel, in providing Jewish Zionist education in the Diaspora communities and in addressing the most critical challenges facing our people.”
Following the just concluded meetings in New York of the strategic planning committee, I had the opportunity to sit with the charismatic Sharansky for an in-depth discussion of these new initiatives and on the current state of funding for Jewish Agency programs in the countries of the FSU.
From all my discussions of the past ten days, the one thing that is clear – whether from Hoffmann, Pearlstone or Sharansky – the top lay and professional leadership of this organization is set to refocus and redefine the work of this 80+ year old organization. Sharansky himself sees the major challenge for the Jewish people today as one of “how to reconnect themselves to their history, to their people and to their country”. He speaks a great deal about “identity”, and while we didn’t discuss it, the word “peoplehood” seems to have disappeared from the Jewish Agency’s vocabulary. He told me we have entered a “new era – where a strong Israel and strong Jewish communities are the most important.”
These are words one seldom hears from an Israeli – a country that all to often appears oblivious to the rest of the Jewish world. Yet, while Sharansky feels strongly that “Israel is the center of the Jewish people” he believes that “both Israel and the Diaspora need to take from each other the best each has to offer.” And without a doubt, the Israeli government not only should, but must, also join in and take an active part in strengthening and guaranteeing the future of the Jewish people.
It’s impossible to view the role of the Jewish Agency without looking at the one area that has defined the organization since the beginning, aliyah, and the role it has played in building and developing Israeli society. While we still have Jewish communities in distress, it is obvious that we have entered a period of “aliyah by choice.” In furthering this direction, the Jewish Agency believes that through the work of Israel Experience, Taglit, MASA, Lapid and other programs, building both pride and Jewish identity is the best way to increase the pool of potential olim.
While we are speaking of a younger demographic, as a long-time observer of the Jewish Agency, it strikes me that on the lay leadership side they have historically not paid much attention to (choose one) the next generation, now generation or emerging leaders in trying to define the future, or for that matter the present. Yes, both the Assembly and Board meetings often plan initiatives and highlight participants in these various programs. But what about the decision making process. At the table, to use a common expression. Sharansky assures me this is changing; that the “entire strategic plan is oriented to a younger generation.” He continued, “we need to connect to this generation and need the active participation of emerging leaders. The big debate on the new mission statement was will it say ‘connect Jews throughout the world’ or ‘connect young Jews…'” By the way, Sharansky preferred the latter, even though this was not to be.
Speaking of the proposed new mission statement, here it is:
Connect Jews throughout the world with their people, heritage and homeland, and inspire and empower them to build a thriving Jewish future and a strong Israel.
According to Sharansky, “those who care will understand this new direction of the Jewish Agency.”
My interview continues here, Sharansky on Funding in the FSU.