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This Summer in Jerusalem, Not Kiev, for Jafi Assembly

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Despite talk of shifting this year’s Jewish Agency for Israel Assembly to Ukraine, the annual meeting will open in June in Jerusalem as usual.

The decision was announced this week by Knesset Member Avraham Burg, acting chairman of the Jewish Agency, and Mendel Kaplan, chairman of its Board of Governors.

The assembly, 600 leaders of Israel and the Diaspora, is the highest Jewish Agency policymaking forum.

Last month, the board, at its meetings here, decided to open the assembly in the Ukrainian city of Kiev. The decision followed a recent visit by board members to Kiev, which is considered a model for Jewish Agency operations and programs in the former Soviet Union.

According to Agency officials, their operations in Kiev have managed to transform a dying Jewish community into a vibrant one, with a tremendously renewed interest in Jewish communal life as well as in aliyah.

There have also been great efforts to service the elderly in the Jewish community who are either unable or unwilling to leave. An estimated 100,000 Jews live in Kiev, one-fifth of the total Jewish population of Ukraine.

Official said the idea for holding the annual assembly in Kiev was to highlight the efforts and successes of the Jewish Agency in the region, and use the example as an extra impetus for fund raising.

The costs of the endeavor were estimated at $500,000, to be covered in part by the Agency, a special fund-raising effort and by the participating assembly members themselves.

The plan drew some severe criticism from the onset. Yehiel Leket, the former acting chairman who had lost to Burg in the bid to become the new chairman, objected on the grounds that it was too costly.

He also had expressed concern that it could Jeopardize the Agency’s continued operations in Ukraine and in other parts of the former Soviet Union.

Leket had said of the idea: “It’s making a political statement in the heart of the Ukraine, and there is the question of the consequences of this statement on our continued operations there.”

Last year, a dispute between the Ukrainian government and the Jewish Agency erupted over Agency activities.

In a statement issued in March 1994, the Ukrainian Ministry of Justice charged the Agency with “going beyond its legal mandate” by stimulating mass departures to Israel,” especially among Ukrainian youth.

The ministry statement warned that if such activity continued, it would consider taking serious measures the Agency, “including its dissolution.”

The matter was ultimately resolved when Agency officials were informed by Yuri Sherbeck, the Ukrainian ambassador to Israel, that the letter of warning had been sent on a Justice Ministry official’s own initiative and did not represent the policy of the Ukrainian government.

Despite the objections raised about holding the assembly in Kiev, the board opted for the Kiev opening. However, Burg said the decision would be finalized only after he had consulted with responsible state authorities.

Burg then took up the matter with officials from the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office, exploring the possible consequences for continued Agency activities if the assembly were held in Kiev.

After these consultations, Burg, together with Kaplan, decided that it would be in the best interests of immigration and the Jewish community in Ukraine to forgo the Kiev opening and carry on the tradition of opening the assembly in Jerusalem.

Burg said the Kiev assembly was not appropriate if it involved even the slightest risk.

“Although we could have raised additional donations and funds by holding the assembly in Kiev,” Burg said, “we decided that the main factor is what’s best for the Jews”.

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