What I Learned From The Jewish Agency

by Maxyne Finkelstein

What I have learned from the Jewish Agency for Israel ….

I will soon be ending my tenure as CEO of JAFI North America (JAFINA). This entity is currently being transformed to meet the new structure and vision of JAFI and bring the organization on a new path.

During the past four years I was responsible for developing the nascent resource development and public relations presence of the organization in North America. Part of my mandate involved bringing together the various parts of the organization which worked very much independently, into a more coherent presence and meaningful brand. While many Federations, JCCs, schools, summer camps and synagogues are consumers of JAFI services through Israel emissaries (Shlichim) and Makom, these programs are rarely linked to the overall brand of the organization. Since 2006 one of our great successes has been to grow and market the capacity of MASA – Israel Journey. Building on the success of Birthright Israel, MASA, a program run in partnership with funders and the Government of Israel, provides opportunities for young people (18 -30) to make a return visit for a semester or year in Israel, giving young adults a life-long attachment to Israel and Jewish identity. This year we will serve 10,000 young adults, most of them from North America, double the number that came to Israel in 2005.

Finally JAFI North America was charged with working to ensure that Federations (as our primary funders) had the best possible service and connection to JAFI, through the array of programs they support and the important partnerships they have developed over the past decades. We hired a team of North American professionals to serve as “Relationship Managers” and strengthen the local connections. This was a major change for JAFI as representation in North America was almost exclusively done by Israeli emissaries in the past.

In leaving a position one hopes that one has left a legacy of value. At the same time, it is important to think about what you have learned as you make your next move in your career. The lessons I take from JAFI are many, but the one of the most important has been learning to work in a multicultural environment.

When I began in my position I said I had to approach it as “wearing the clothes of North America and keeping the heart of Israel in all I do.” While I had worked closely with Israelis throughout my career in communal service and had overseen the operation of a representative office in Israel in my previous position, I had never worked for an Israeli organization. When you are no longer the visitor or funder but part of the team you learn that relationships are very different and need to be managed from a new perspective and with increased sensitivity. From the smallest issue of telephone courtesy, to the larger issues of effecting change, everything had to be relearned or reconsidered. Although I was not making aliyah, it was as if I was immigrating to a new culture. This, alongside the fact that I had just moved from Canada to the United States, created a significant learning opportunity.

So what did I learn? To begin with, I now have an understanding of the nuance of language, facial expression and body language of Israeli that I did not have before. I also have a high level of awareness of what situations and issues can derail a process.

I learned that decisions are not made in the same way in the two cultures. Israelis will often first make the decision and then deal with the details, while Americans will focus more on detail before making the decision. Israelis will become impatient with aspects of process that North Americans take for granted. North Americans will often pay less attention to inclusion and debate, which create a greater comfort for Israelis.

While cultural differences are not insurmountable they require one to learn, listen and focus. I had to step back and understand that the direct speech of my Israeli colleagues is not rudeness but an opportunity to engage in discussion. While there is a cultural hierarchical formality particular to Israelis and bureaucracies there is also an unusual openness and empathy that you don’t always find in the American workplace.

What I have also learned most from my experience at JAFI is the remarkable capacity of passion as an engine to achievement. During this period we struggled with fewer resources yet I continued to see my colleagues both in North America and Israel use their passion to achieve goals because of their belief in the importance of their mission. They never for a moment lost focus of the beneficiaries of their work – whether is the young person experiencing Israel and their Jewish identity in a new way, adults creating new relationships through partnerships with Israelis to achieve common goals, victims of terror or the new family arriving from distressed circumstances to settle in Israel. At the end of the day it is this passion, this caring for the individual, for each program, for the future of our people and Israel that defines us as Jews and creates the global Jewish connection.

The experience taught me that you can take two different cultures, and use the best in each to create something better and stronger. This applies to JAFI and it applies, in the larger sense, to us as a Jewish people I learned of the true love and dedication we in North America and we in Israel share – no matter how differently we express it -for our People and our shared vision.

Maxyne Finkelstein is the CEO of JAFINA (JAFI North America).