The New Jewish Agency Approach: Peoplehood for Survival

A new emphasis on ‘Peoplehood’ reflects both the economic reality and Russian roots of The Jewish Agency.

by Gal Beckerman

Natan Sharansky knows he’s disturbing the status quo. Days before the most recent meeting of the Board of Governors, the body that oversees the Jewish Agency for Israel, Sharansky, its relatively new chairman, declared that the agency’s traditional mission had outlived its usefulness.

“It’s not enough to speak about aliyah,” Sharansky said, talking in front of a delegation of American Jewish leaders. “It’s almost prohibited for the head of the Jewish Agency to say so, but it can’t be our goal [just] to bring more Jewish people [to Israel].”

With these words – and the recent appointment to key positions of people who share his views – Sharansky has signaled his intent to bring about radical change to the financially strapped Jewish Agency, shifting its focus away from Israel and toward strengthening the secular identity of Diaspora Jews.

At the center of Sharansky’s plan is the notion of peoplehood. He and a tight group of ideological allies – mostly other Russian Jews – believe that the Jewish Agency must now become a global promoter of Jewish identity, particularly among the young. Peoplehood, according to its proponents, is defined as a sense of connectivity between Jews who share a common history and fate. It is still an amorphous concept for some critics. Others wonder if it is too weak a foundation on which to base educational programs – especially since this vision of peoplehood is not predicated on having any kind of religious or spiritual identity.

Nonetheless, this new role for the Jewish Agency is one that Sharansky, by all accounts, seems to be pursuing with great passion. It also comes out of necessity. Ever since the establishment of Israel in 1948, the agency has been financed through a combination of Israeli government funds and money from the Diaspora. In the Agency’s heyday, North American Jewish federations regularly contributed between 50% and 70% of the money they raised every year to fund it. But as the large-scale immigration to Israel began to ebb, so, too, did this source of money. By 2004, the last year for which the Jewish Agency provided this statistic, only 23% of combined Jewish federation money was being sent overseas, to be split by the agency, which received 75%, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which got the remaining 25%.

By now it is clear that this source of money has long since dried up. Whereas in 1989, the Jewish Agency received $275 million from the North American federations, last year it received only $130 million, and the projected intake for 2010 is $110 million. Given that Diaspora money makes up one-third of the agency’s budget, the drop has been catastrophic for the large bureaucracy.

“The Diaspora institutions, from the 1970s on, began to cut allocations and put pressure for cuts,” said Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, a prominent Modern Orthodox rabbi who was the founding president of the Jewish Life Network, an organization focused on revitalizing American Jewish life through educational and cultural initiatives. “And the agency, instead of giving up some of its functions and making a real transformation, suffered a slow death by a thousand cuts. It’s been cumulative, and by now they see that they can’t just do less of all of the things they are doing currently.”

Immigration to Israel is also not the giant task that it once was. In recent years, private organizations like Nefesh B’Nefesh, which helps North American Jews make aliyah, have been praised for providing better, more efficient services than the Jewish Agency. And though immigration is still a large budget category, this year it will account for barely more than the education department ($100.59 million, as opposed to $94.29 million for education, out of a budget of $321.71 million).

Two recent appointments to high posts in the agency are further indication of a change in direction.

A new senior position has been created for Misha Galperin, the current executive vice president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. He will be based in New York, and provisionally be in charge of, what the Agency is calling “Global Public Affairs and Financial Resource Develoment.”

Galperin, the most prominent Russian Jew filling a leadership position in the American Jewish organizational world, is one of the main conceptual architects of peoplehood and recently authored a book on the subject.

A few days before the official confirmation of his appointment, which came on March 3, the Jewish Agency announced that Alan Hoffmann, currently the director general of the agency’s education department, will become the director general of the entire agency, elevating someone whose orientation is promoting Jewish education. Of Hoffmann’s appointment, Galperin said that he knows “I have a partner in Israel who is exactly the kind of person that I was hoping would be my partner on that side.”

With these new positions filled, all that remains is to define exactly what peoplehood is and how a sprawling institution promotes it.

Steven M. Cohen, who is a sociologist of American Jewry director of New York University’s Berman Jewish Policy Archive, and has conducted research around the concept, said that rather than being a vague idea, peoplehood can actually be reduced to a very distinct set of values and corresponding commitments.

“There are obligations,” Cohen said. “When Jews are in trouble, you are expected to go help them. When you do tikkun olam [repairing the world], you have to balance tikkun olam for the larger world with tikkun olam for Jews in particular. You are supposed to follow the news about Jews. You are supposed to be involved in community affairs. There are a lot of peoplehood obligations that are real. Things you should do. You should be involved in your community, either religiously or socially. You should be engaged with other Jews doing things that are Jewish. That’s a peoplehood commitment.”

Galperin’s succinct definition of peoplehood is “an extended family with a mission,” and to promote it, one must engender a feeling of belonging, of community. Advocates say that young Jews must be given experiences – like Jewish summer camp or the Taglit-Birthright Israel program – that allow them to see their connection to other Jews and identify with the Jewish story.

Galperin says that contrary to what most people think about the Jewish Agency, it is already engaged in many projects that could fall under this rubric.

“Most donors have no idea that the Jewish Agency puts a significant amount of money into Birthright or that one of its subsidiaries provides an enormous amount of services for Israel experience, for all kinds of trips,” Galperin said. “Or that there are today 400 emissaries of the agency in the United States providing Jewish-identity education through a variety of ways. It’s just not something that is known. So some of what we have to do is positioning and marketing and communication, and some of it is substance.”

The substance, Galperin says, has yet to be clearly defined. There are certain successful programs that already exist. Others will have to be invented. The key for him, and Sharansky, is that the core mission no longer be immigration.

Galperin also contends that such a move will be good for the financial situation of the Jewish Agency, enabling it to find new sources of funding and to draw more from federations. John Ruskay, head of New York’s UJA-Federation, agrees. He, too, has been working on a peoplehood-related project for years and sees it as the critical element for increasing both commitment and funds.

“I see this as a reframing to respond to a new context,” Ruskay said, referring to the agency’s new stated mission. “Sharansky has said repeatedly, whenever there is a Jew that needs to be rescued, the Jewish Agency will be there. But he recognizes that identity is the critical driver. If you’re not identified positively as a Jew, who is going to consider making aliyah? Who will be committed to helping hungry Jews whether in the former Soviet Union or New York? Who will be concerned with securing the Jewish state? In my view, the Jewish Agency, born in 1919, finds itself in a new context.”

Another prominent Russian Jew, Leonid Nevzlin, a former oligarch who now lives in Israel and has become a major philanthropist, has also had a hand in promoting the concept of peoplehood. Through his foundation, Nadav, he has given funds to projects that contribute to this idea. At this year’s General Assembly, for example, Nadav sponsored a series of sessions dealing with different aspects of Jewish-identity building. Nevzlin also sits on the Jewish Agency board and is a strong ally of Sharansky and Galperin.

In an op-ed that ran in Haaretz just before Sharansky became chairman, Nevzlin wrote that the “key to the future success” of the agency was “the realizing of Jewish Peoplehood.” He posited that the organization needed “to change its structure and relinquish its current divisions (education, aliyah, partnerships) – a vestige of past assignments or political considerations.” Instead, he wrote, “it must establish two main operational frameworks: the first for the Jewish communities around the world, the second for Israel.” Although neither Galperin nor Sharansky will confirm that such a planned restructuring is in the works, Nevzlin is a close collaborator with the two, and his ideas have reflected theirs in the past.

It is fitting that Russian Jews should be the ones pushing this particular approach to identity building. Jews who lived in the Soviet Union – the parents of Sharansky, Galperin and Nevzlin – survived decades of communism with their sense of peoplehood intact, even as they lost their religious connection. As Cohen put it, it makes sense that Russian Jews, given their history, should be “predisposed to a secular, national definition of what it means to be Jewish.”

There are those, however, who worry that peoplehood is too vacuous or superficial a concept to be the basis of Jewish identity. Absent the threat of antisemitism, the critics say, it is hard to see what will bind Jews as one “global family.” Others argue that the Jewish faith has done a good job of inspiring a sense of peoplehood, but that the programming envisioned by the Jewish Agency makes no room for religion.

“I think that the agency in the end will not succeed in the educational, cultural, peoplehood mission unless it is able to make a contribution in the development of Jewish religion,” Greenberg said. “That’s going to be a real challenge.”

But that’s a minor worry compared to the larger concern if the agency doesn’t change. “I think the logic is overwhelming and inescapable, and it’s probably the last chance,” Greenberg said. “If this doesn’t work, then the agency will die.”

This article originally appeared in The Jewish Daily Forward; reprinted with permission.