By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman
eJewish Philanthropy

On Sunday, hundreds of Jewish leaders from around the world will swarm on Israel for the multi-day Jewish Agency Board of Governors meeting, which will take place in Tel Aviv. While the meeting will include all of the usual and expected components – budget reviews, site visits, and discussions on the new Israel-U.S. relationship under President Donald Trump – the elephant in the room will perhaps be addressed by the meeting’s opening session, “Toward New Challenges.”

What’s the Jewish Agency for Israel’s (JAFI) next and largest hurdle? Replacing its Chairman of the Executive, Natan Sharansky.

Sharansky announced last fall that he would step down by June 2017. But a source close to Sharansky said the Prime Minister’s Office recently began pressuring Sharansky to stay on for another four years. Sharansky agreed to extend his tenure for just one more year, relinquishing his post in June 2018, nine years after resuming the role – joking to confidants that he would not stay in the post more than the amount of time he spent in a Russian prison under solitary confinement and hard labor for false accusations that he was collaborating with the CIA.

That same source said Sharansky decided to accept the additional year for two reasons: To help ensure the Kotel compromise is implemented – though Sharansky admitted he is not confident – and to help Israel navigate its first year with Trump.

“He sees a deepening chasm between Israeli Jews and Jews in the Diaspora because of American Jews’ animosity for Trump, who is seen so positively in Israel, and he is very worried,” the source said, on condition of anonymity.

Despite this additional year, it is expected that at the upcoming board of governors meeting, there will be serious talk about who will be Sharansky’s replacement.

It is tradition that the chairman of the Jewish Agency is selected by the prime minister of Israel, and then – following a complicated elections process – approved by the board of governors. Although the prime minister traditionally recommends a candidate from his party for the role as part of the World Zionist Organization’s coalition agreement (Labor selects the candidate for Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund due to that same deal), as prime minister, Netanyahu could recommend someone else.

A top Israeli political analyst told eJewish Philanthropy that despite the many names being tossed around, there is currently no member of the Likud party that would be palatable for most of American Jewry. This could cause a problem for Netanyahu, because U.S. Jews, especially leaders of its various pluralistic steams, have become increasingly active and vocal under Sharansky’s reign.

Rather, in the halls of the Knesset, talk is that Knesset Member (MK) Nachman Shai of the rival Zionist Union Party could be Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s top pick for JAFI chairman.

Shai, a veteran diplomat and politician who currently serves as deputy Knesset speaker, has been close with Netanyahu since the two worked together in the U.S. in the 1980s, when Shai was press consultant and Netanyahu deputy chief of mission at the Israeli embassy in Washington.

Shai built up his ties with American Jewish leaders when he served as senior vice president of the umbrella organization the Jewish Federations of North America, which was called the United Jewish Communities at the time. He also was director-general of UJC’s Israel office.

“It is obvious that Shai would take the job if he was offered it, because it would be a crowning achievement at the end of a long career,” a political analyst told eJP on condition of anonymity. Shai is 70-years-old.

But Shai receiving an offer to be the chairman is a long-shot, according to those close to the prime minister.

Rather, a more likely candidate is Maale Adumim Mayor Benny Kashriel, who told The Jerusalem Post earlier this month that he is considering running for the position. Kashriel was elected late last year as the chairmanship candidate of World Likud, an organization comprised of Likud branches throughout Israel and the Diaspora that Netanyahu could choose to empower or ignore when he makes his selection.

Like other Likud institutions, it is more right-wing than Netanyahu, so it chose Kashriel, one of the leaders of the West Bank settler movement. Maale Adumim is considered a moderate settlement and settler Sallai Meridor was Jewish Agency chairman, but choosing a settler now could further deepen the Israel-Diaspora rift that the agency is supposed to bridge. (eJP understands Kashriel would not receive the support of U.S. delegates, making his election almost impossible.)

Other names are also being tossed around, according to Michael Jankelowitz, a former JAFI spokesperson, who retired in 2011 after 33 years of service. Those include Israeli diplomat Dore Gold, president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs; Helena Glazer, honorary president of World Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO); Ron Prosor, former Israel’s former permanent representative to the United Nations (2011-2015); Eliezer (Moodi) Sandberg, world chairman of Keren Hayesod; Josh Schwartz, Jewish Agency Secretary-General; and Israeli businessman and philanthropist Eitan Wertheimer, a member of the JAFI board of governors.

At a Crossroads

The next chairman will be stepping into JAFI’s modern reality, created by Sharansky during his tenure, according to David Koschitzky, chairman of Keren Hayesod-UIA’s world board of trustees.

Sharansky, who is seen as the ultimate symbol of aliyah, ironically shifted JAFI’s focus from immigration to Israel to Jewish identity building throughout the world.

“The organization changed from being known as one that rescued people that needed to be relocated to Israel to an organization that is fiscally responsible, financially stable and with a clear vision of where we believe the future of the Jewish people is going,” said Richard (Richie) Pearlstone, a past chairman of the JAFI board of governors.

Pearlstone said this is mostly about involving Diaspora Jewish youth in Israel by partnering with and supporting external programs such as Taglit-Birthright Israel, MASA and other young-adult aliyah and Jewish social programming.

“We reinvented ourselves starting when Sharansky came on,” said Pearlstone. “We are an organization that changed with the times to be relevant in today’s world.”

The change was also one made out of necessity. For 30 near-consecutive years, The Jewish Federations of North America has consistently dropped funding to JAFI, resulting in agency debt. Under Sharansky, a first step was to improve the balance sheet, including selling JAFI public housing back to the government to pay down the organization’s liability. Sharansky, with Misha Galperin leading operations in North America, also reinvigorated Jewish Agency International Development (JAID – formerly known as JAFINA), JAFI’s external affairs arm, which focuses on growing philanthropic revenues from donors beyond the Agency’s traditional funding sources.

According to Pearlstone, JAFI’s budget is approximately $330 million, of which between $130 million to $140 million comes from the federations. Another approximately $35 million comes from Keren Hayesod. The rest is raised by JAID and through special gifts or the agency’s own earned income sources.

As part of Sharansky’s vision of uniting the Jewish people, he focused heavily on the North American Jewish community, the largest contingency of Jews outside of Israel, explained Koschitzky.

“Most of the issues Natan has been handling are more sensitive to the American population than they are to some of the other Jewish communities around the world,” said Koschitzky. “Whether a democracy or a business, one needs to relate to the needs of the majority.”

Through Sharansky’s efforts, the voices of America’s pluralistic religious streams increased in Israel. Jankelowitz said Sharansky originally came under attack for this methodology, but ultimately his vision gained recognition to the point that the prime minister reached out to Sharansky to partner with the government on issues dividing Israeli and Diaspora communities, such as conversion and the Western Wall. Sharansky was assigned to head up the task force that led to the historic Kotel compromise, though the compromise has not been implemented.

It was Sharansky who in 2013 pushed through the renovation of an egalitarian prayer space at the foot of Robinson’s Arch, located close to the southern end of the Western Wall, which is accessible to worshippers at all hours of the day. He also elevated discussions about the need for a more pluralistic religious perspective in Israel.

“Natan is a transformational leader,” said Rabbi Richard (Rick) Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “He has the respect and love of the entire Jewish people.”

Jankelowitz said he believes that whoever takes over for Sharansky will need to continue this close interaction with America’s pluralistic streams, and perhaps even increase such efforts. He told eJP that Conservative, Reform and Orthodox Jewish leaders will become “the movers and shakers of the Jewish Agency” during this transition.

“Israelis often look at the Diaspora as a project of active assimilation,” said Jacobs. “They are misreading the place we are in.”

Koschitzky questions the future potency of the streams based on surveys of religious affiliation, but he said that either way, the next chairman of the Jewish Agency will need to take over where Sharansky left off, preserve his legacy of inclusion and create the next vision.

“After Sharansky, the Jewish Agency will be at a crossroads,” said Jankelowitz.

Shaping the Jewish Future

eJewish Philanthropy asked those interviewed what might go into the job listing for a future chairman:

Looking for an experienced Jewish leader with a strong understanding of the Israeli political system, including close relationships with the Prime Minister’s Office and other government ministries. The person should have a background leading a national or international business or organization and a vision for uniting the Jewish people. The ideal candidate will be adaptable to modern and ever-changing Jewish realities and have knowledge of and willingness to use modern technologies. Proficiency in Hebrew and English required.

Jacobs said everyone knows that JAFI will not be able to hire another Sharansky, who is a living legacy in his own right. Rather, he hopes JAFI will be able to institutionalize the best parts of Sharansky and hire someone who understands what parts of Sharansky’s legacy the Jewish world is not willing to compromise.

Pearlstone said the board hopes to have a new hire by June 2017, so that there could be a period of overlap and training between Sharansky and the new chairman, though the board recognizes this might not be a reality. Either way, he said, it is important that the Jewish world keep an open mind about the new candidate and give him/her a chance.

“A lot of people are wondering, ‘What will be next?’ said Jacobs. “My experience is, don’t wonder what will be next, but rather shape what is going to be next so that we can have a chance of being the Jewish people we need to be.”