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Jewish Agency Shifts Focus As Aliyah to Israel Declines

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With immigration to Israel down, the Jewish Agency for Israel is shifting its priorities in an attempt to maintain its relevance — and its funding from North American Jewry. Long focused primarily on aliyah and absorption, the agency is poised to put into action a strategic plan that lists strengthening the Jewish identity of young Jews around the world as one of its top priorities.

To that end, it plans to devote more resources to Zionist education and youth programming in Israel.

Positioning itself as something of a rescue operation in the fight for Jewish continuity, the agency said in its plan, which was approved last fall: “Without focused and dramatic intervention, further decline is certain. Jewish-Zionist education is a front-line response in a battle we simply cannot afford to lose.”

That battle cry fits neatly with a top concern of many Jewish communities worldwide, particularly in the highly intermarried Jewish communities of North America, which provide more than half of the Jewish Agency’s $290 million budget.

The contours of the strategic plan — and budget decisions to match it — are expected to be mapped out when the group’s board of governors meets in Jerusalem on Feb. 20.

Agency officials declined to detail the budget proposals until the board of governors thrashes out the numbers at next week’s three-day gathering.

In addition to strengthening Jewish identity, the plan calls for continued focus on immigration and absorption as well as fostering the involvement of Diaspora Jews in Israel.

Last year, 22,000 immigrants arrived in Israel. While Jewish Agency officials point out that that number represents a considerable increase from aliyah rates in the 1980s, it is a major slide from the 1990s, when after the fall of the Iron Curtain, 80,000 to 90,000 emigrants from the former Soviet Union arrived in Israel each year.

But agency officials say that despite the decrease in aliyah, absorption costs have risen due to the immense needs of new Ethiopian immigrants.

Now, the Jewish Agency is preparing to manage the expedited aliyah of some 20,000 Falash Mura — Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity but who have returned to Jewish practice.

After a meeting with Jewish Agency officials Jan. 31, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced that Israel would double the rate of Ethiopian immigration to 600 per month, which would complete the group’s aliyah by 2007.

It will cost $10 million per year for the next three years to run the compounds housing the Falash Mura in Ethiopia, agency officials said.

Absorption of the Falash Mura in Israel will cost the agency some $800 million, most of which will be shouldered by Israeli taxpayers, Sallai Meridor, chairman of the Jewish Agency’s executive, told JTA.

About $20 million of the Jewish Agency’s budget is spent on the 7,000 Falash Mura still living in absorption centers in Israel, Meridor said.

New money must be raised in partnership with the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group for North American Jewish federations, and others, he said.

The new demands and shifting priorities of the Jewish Agency come as the UJC is reviewing its system for allocating overseas funds.

The UJC’s current process, run by ONAD — the Overseas Needs Assessment and Distribution Committee — has been criticized by both federations and their overseas partners, the Jewish Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which operates relief and welfare programs for Jews abroad.

The ONAD process was an attempt to respond to new developments, including lower levels of aliyah and increasing needs elsewhere in the world. It was also an effort to encourage federations to increase their support of overseas needs at a time when allocations to local projects have increased.

To the Jewish Agency’s dismay, federations considered changing the longtime 75-25 overseas allocations split that favored the Jewish Agency over the JDC.

But after a laborious, expensive process, the split was unchanged and overseas funds were not increased meaningfully. They are still trying to figure out a new approach, say UJC officials.

The Jewish Agency, which narrowly avoided losing sizable funds from the federation system, hopes its strategic plan will make it more relevant.

Despite the continuing costs associated with aliyah and absorption, the absolute decline in the number of people coming to Israel made the agency’s case less compelling for many in the federation system.

Jewish Agency officials say their new strategy provides a tool for the federations as they struggle both to increase overseas dollars and to connect with Jewish youth, their own future donors.

“What the agency is going to provide is a platform for reinvigorating the Israel and overseas agenda in partnership with UJC, making it a far more accessible and relevant platform,” said Jay Sarver of St. Louis, the budget and finance chairman of the Jewish Agency.

“The focus on the next generation is the critical issue that every community is facing,” said Sarver, a past president of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis.

By paying attention to that age group, “we’re going to sow the seeds of federation involvement,” he said.

Grounded in the philosophy that an Israel experience roots a Jew in his or her Zionist identity — and may beget aliyah — over the next five years the Jewish Agency aims to bring 50,000 Diaspora youth to Israel on a short-term program and another 20,000 on a yearlong one.

To that end, the group partnered last year with the Israeli government to fund such long-term programs to the tune of $10 million each year for the next five years.

Many North American federation leaders were closely involved in mapping out the Jewish Agency’s strategic plan, ensuring that the goals of both partners align, Sarver said.

“I think the report has broad support,” said John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of UJA-Federation of New York.

Still, Richard Wexler of Chicago, chairman of the Jewish Agency’s North American council, said the Jewish Agency suffers from an image problem.

Many see it as a “politicized, bloated” group, when it is “an organization that is lean and mean and structured to work not only on its own priorities but the priorities of the federations in Israel.”

“Our job as American Jews and federation leaders” is “to help open those minds up if we can,” he said.

While the first three months of this year’s budget has been set, officials are scheduled to approve the final $290 million budget for 2005 at the closing plenary of the meetings in Jerusalem next week.

This represents a $20 million reduction in administrative and programming costs from the previous year, Sarver said.

Meanwhile, the agency is continuing to place a high premium on aliyah, albeit with a new emphasis.

In addition, the agency is linking its new strategies to its continuing goal of increased aliyah.

“Aliyah is like drinking water for the very existence of the State of Israel,” Meridor told JTA. Israel needs an influx of Jewish immigrants to secure its Jewish, democratic character, he said.

Despite the drop in aliyah, Jewish Agency officials says there is plenty of potential for recruiting new immigrants in such places as France, where many Jews feel intimidated by anti-Israel sentiment, and in North America, by convincing Jews to choose to live in Israel.

The Jewish Agency is spending $3 million to $4 million a year in recruiting North Americans for aliyah. In addition, the agency will give $1,000 to each North American immigrant to ease the cost of the move, Meridor said.

“We are moving to the example of immigration by choice,” he said. “There are few countries from which Jews have to flee and for that we are glad, and so immigration is becoming more and more a matter of choice.”

That is why the Jewish Agency is emphasizing its Zionist education and Israel programming.

Not only will that bolster the identity and activism of Diaspora Jews, officials said, but it may well create the next generation of immigrants.

Indeed, most Israeli immigrants have spent several weeks in the Jewish state before moving there, said Michael Landsberg, executive director of the Jewish Agency’s North American aliyah delegation.

That’s why the Jewish Agency refers to its range of Zionist education programs as “aliyah in stages,” Landsberg said.

JTA correspondent Dina Kraft in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.

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