A New Level of Scrutiny Marks 1988 Jewish Agency Assembly

Lofty pronouncements and resolutions that are of but passing interest to the occasional researcher have a traditional way of concluding many conventions, and last week’s Jewish Agency Assembly here was no exception.

But there was one significant difference at this particular gathering. In the final hours before adjournment, a packed hall of 600 delegates from around the world could be found studiously analyzing last year’s resolutions, pouring over every jot and tittle, demanding reports and results from the implementing bureaucracy.

They asked such questions as: What ever came out of the debate on withholding communal funds the from ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students who evade service in the Israel Defense Force? Just how had Project Renewal been refashioned in the preceding 12 months, and how much fat in the form of excess personnel and duplicated programming had been cut, as called for last summer?

The atmosphere appeared to reflect not only a new level of scrutiny, but a genuine desire on the part of Diaspora leaders to better understand the workings of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

One of the participants demanding deeper understanding more than summary answers was Syma Kroll, chairman of the Ann Arbor, Mich., Committee on Jewish Agency Affairs. This was her first assembly, as it was for approximately 40 percent of those present, and she was here to learn.

“The education of our community would not be complete without us understanding how this process works,” she said. “No one has a right to criticize the Jewish Agency without understanding it.”

‘A FORTUNE OF OUTREACH’

Kroll, who is active in raising funds in her Jewish community, conceded that she found the assembly “a little overwhelming,” but also said she discovered “a fortune of outreach and sharing of information between the different regional delegations. The process is still somewhat of a mystery to me, but I sense an abiding openness to new ideas and new directions,” she said.

She was especially impressed with the willingness of the body’s top leadership to pull up a chair and spend 15 minutes with a novice delegate who had questions about what was going on.

Maynard Wishner, president of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago, was also a first-timer at the assembly, though as a longtime leader of the American Jewish Committee and other organizations, he noted that “Jewish meetings are not new for me.”

Wishner was upbeat about the experience: “I am impressed by the spirit of new direction and approach, and I personally am looking forward to increased effectiveness of the agency,” he said.

“My home community has much more interest in these matters than say a decade ago,” he added. “We have a year-round committee, one of the first, which studies these matters on a permanent basis.”

In fact, local Jewish Agency monitoring units are springing up in federations and other Jewish community organs around the globe. There are already 24 known committees. Their ultimate objective is accountability of funds raised locally, not just knowing what the Jewish Agency is all about.

Rabbi Louis Bernstein, a national Orthodox leader, felt that the infusion of newcomers at this year’s assembly was a mixed blessing.

NEW BLOOD AND INEXPERIENCE

“New blood is important,” he said, “but you have four out of 10 delegates in there voting on crucial issues, and no matter how many preparatory sessions they go to, they don’t command a firm foundation to make those kinds of decisions.”

He also felt the assembly was not as well-organized in some respects as previous ones. He pointed out that even though his credentials lie in education, he was placed in the rural settlement study group.

“I’m a college professor,” he said, “but I am not capable of listening to a few days of date and making important decisions of a technical nature.”

He nevertheless felt that the large group’s presence, with very few dropouts among those who had initially registered their intention to come, was a symbolic boon to Israel’s citizens. “Don’t underestimate the importance for Israelis to see a major group of overseas Jews visiting here during these times,” he said.

An academic observer, Dr. Daniel Elazar, also gave a positive assessment: “There is no doubt but that it was a very upbeat assembly,” said Elazar, who is president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

“A majority of the people have been in this process for a while and they feel that their battles of the past are paying off now,” he said. “There is new leadership across the board, and a real window of opportunity to make substantial changes in almost every area that the agency is involved in is felt.”

RESTRUCTURING PLANS APPROVED

The assembly approved plans to reduce the number of immigrant absorption centers and to hand over their day-to-day operation to the government. It also ratified a new master plan to improve regional planning in outlying rural areas, with Galilee receiving priority.

The government’s recently declared policy of bringing Soviet Jews directly to Israel, instead of permitting them to “drop out” along the way and resettle in other countries, was endorsed by a large majority of the participants.

But a perfunctory nod to “freedom of choice” was articulated in the advisory that those Jews wishing to immigrate to the United States or elsewhere should apply to do so while still in the Soviet Union and not change their destination once exiting on the merit of an Israeli visa.

A strong consensus prevailed that the new leadership of the agency is a healthy change at a time of increasing interest and scrutiny on the part of Diaspora fund-raisers and activists.

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