The More We Change, the More We Stay the Same

by Dr. Misha Galperin

In the past weeks I’ve been in two dozen airports. I’ve come to see airports as temples of travel where certain rituals repeat themselves over and over again: people exchange flowers, hugs, tears, and you witness strangers connecting from all over the world. It’s very touching when you stop to look.

Coming into Ben Gurion Airport recently for the Board of Governors’ meeting provoked me to ask a question. Can the Jewish Agency for Israel do what airports do – connect people from all over the world? Or will the Jewish Agency be like another respect of airport; they are always a place you go to on the way to someone place else?

These are my ruminations on the new direction of the Jewish Agency. “New direction?” you say. “What was wrong with the old one?” Nothing is wrong, but 80 year old institutions must evolve in order to stay relevant and JAFI, although part of its core mission is still and will always be aliyah, needs to recognize the changing needs and expectations of Diaspora Jewry. We have to in order to stay on the cutting edge of excellence.

JAFI represents the single largest web of Jewish connections around the world. My travels have shown me time and again that as a people we not only exist together; by virtue of an invisible yet powerful covenant, we act together to improve ourselves and the world. The Jewish Agency demonstrates year after year that our sense of global membership and mission transcends time and place. And if any single institution can strengthen peoplehood and Jewish identity today it is the Jewish Agency. Why add strengthening peoplehood around the world to JAFI’s current mission of aliyah?

I believe that as a global community we face four critical problems, all related to peoplehood:

  • A decline in Jewish solidarity;
  • A lack of meaningful connections between Israelis and world Jewry;
  • A weakening commitment to Israel and the growing distance of young Jews around the world to Israel exacerbated by the intense campaign to delegitimize Israel;
  • A growing sense that social gaps in Israel weaken the Zionist ideal of building the state as a light unto the nations.

But these peoplehood problems also relate indirectly to aliyah. Our mission of aliyah will fade fast if we cannot create stronger bonds to Israel, be better advocates for Israel on campus and in the halls of world government, and help maximize ties to the Jewish people generally. We need a different approach to aliyah because aliyah from around the world today is more a matter of choice than of rescue in most parts of the world. It is an extension of a proud and strong Jewish identity. If we cannot strengthen Jewish identity around the world, that choice becomes less compelling

This should not only be JAFI’s mandate but the mandate of all Jewish institutions, large and small, throughout the world. The Jewish Agency, however, is uniquely positioned as the link between the Government of Israel, the citizens of Israel and Jews around the world to take on these challenges globally. In partnership with the Federation and Keren Hayesod systems, there are few limitations to our capacity for influence.

To meet these challenges, the Jewish Agency has translated its vision into a new mission – namely to –

Inspire Jews throughout the world to connect with their people, heritage and Land, and empower them to build a thriving Jewish future and a strong Israel.

We want to inspire, connect and empower Jews around the world to make their Jewish lives more exciting and relevant. At the same time, the Jewish Agency will stay firm in its enduring mission to serve as the Jewish People’s emergency first responder, retaining our preparedness for rescue aliyah and ready to assist in crises in Israel and throughout the Jewish world. We don’t need to re-invent the wheel but we do need to create new programs that will add to the significant efforts already underway. We need to coordinate efforts that are going on and do a better job evaluating programs that currently exist.

We may not look at the decline in Jewish identity and collective responsibility as a crisis. It doesn’t have the same urgency as a war or as a rescue effort of a persecuted minority in another country. Rather, our failure to strengthen Jewish identity is more like a slow and steady leak that turns into a flood only over time. Henry Kissinger once said, “There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full.”

Being Jewish, however, should be a robust and meaningful layer of identity that connects us to Jews around us and those far away from us – yet it does not mean that to tens of thousands of Jews world-over. We cannot afford to lose the feeling that we are all family. Thirty years ago, my family fled the Soviet Union and every aspect of our lives was nurtured by a new Jewish community because we were cared for as family. We can’t stop making that happen.

The declining of Jewish peoplehood is a crisis. It’s a crisis of disengagement. It’s also an opportunity. Our schedules cannot be too busy to overlook this opportunity. The Jewish Agency has now made our family our business. And it’s our job to connect Jews globally and turn strangers into friends. See you at the airport!

Dr. Misha Galperin is the President and CEO of Jewish Agency International Development.