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Comments About Aliyah Create Stir at Jewish Agency Meetings

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The leader of the North American Jewish federation system has apologized for blasting the group’s primary overseas partner, the Jewish Agency for Israel. The comments from Robert Goldberg, chairman of the board of the United Jewish Communities, reported in the Israeli daily Ma’ariv, caused a stir at the Jewish Agency’s board of governors meeting in Jerusalem this week.

Reactions ranged from questioning Goldberg’s leadership to applauding his apology. Still others said they thought his comments had merit.

“The Jewish Agency is a dinosaur,” Goldberg was quoted as saying in Tuesday’s Ma’ariv.

“It’s a bureaucratic and inefficient organization, political, inflexible and does not initiate quick enough responses to changes.

“Therefore it’s having difficulty bringing immigrants from the West and is competing with private organizations that are preparing them for aliyah,” he was quoted as saying.

“Now aliyah is made out of choice and the Jewish Agency is not prepared to do this because they don’t understand the mentality of Americans.”

He added that the federations are not entirely supportive of North American aliyah:

“Some of the federations are scared that Jews will immigrate to Israel and that this will weaken their own communities,” he was reported as saying.

The comments came as the Jewish Agency was wrapping up three days of meetings among its board of governors in Israel to approve programs under its new strategic plan. A key element of that plan is encouraging aliyah from North America.

In his remarks referring to private groups promoting aliyah, Goldberg was alluding to Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization founded three and a half years ago to promote and organize aliyah.

Since its inception, Nefesh B’Nefesh, in partnership with the Jewish Agency, has brought thousands of North Americans to Israel.

Goldberg, who is very involved with Nefesh B’Nefesh as well as with the Jewish Agency, attended the agency’s board of governors gathering, but was absent from Tuesday’s closing meeting.

Goldberg, who lives in Cleveland, could not be reached for comment this week in Israel, where he also has a home.

But UJC officials issued a strong apology from him at that final session.

“Unfortunately, comments I made about a program supporting aliyah from North America, which I have been involved with as an individual, Nefesh B’Nefesh, formed the basis for what was written as an across-the-board attack on JAFI, something for which I apologize,” the statement said.

“I realize that my comments on the narrow subject of North American aliyah may serve to undermine the very things that I believe in most strongly,” he said, adding that he “wholeheartedly endorsed” the Jewish Agency’s proposed changes in its strategic plan.

He also said in the apology that he makes a “major commitment” to the annual federation fund-raising campaign each year, which he dramatically increases each year. “I do not make contributions to causes in which I don’t believe.”

Still, Goldberg’s reported remarks ruffled more than a few feathers.

Some federation officials suggested he is not fit to head the UJC.

“The real question boils down to, can Bobby separate his responsibility as the leader from Bobby’s personal views, and Bobby obviously can’t,” said a member of UJC’s board of trustees who asked not to be identified.

Others applauded his apology.

“One of the things that distinguishes leadership is the ability to admit a mistake, and much as I felt that Bobby’s earlier statement was inappropriate and factually incorrect, I give him a lot of credit for stepping up and righting the wrong,” said Richard Wexler of Chicago, a vice chairman of UJC and head of the Jewish Agency’s North American Council.

Still others think Goldberg’s initial comments had merit.

“There’s a lot of truth in what Bobby said, but I don’t think I entirely agree with him,” said Steven Klinghoffer, immediate past president of United Jewish Communities of Metrowest New Jersey.

“I’m a lot more optimistic about the Jewish Agency now than I was a few months ago,” Klinghoffer said. “I think they’ve really shown some effort to modernize” and reflect the thinking of the federations.

“The Jewish Agency has a good collaborative relationship with Nefesh B’Nefesh,” said Barry Shrage, president of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies.

Saying he had “enormous respect” for Goldberg, Shrage added, “He’s a lot closer to the aliyah issue than I am so I give weight to his opinions on that.”

For its part, the UJC is standing behind its leader.

“UJC Chair Robert Goldberg always has been, and continues to be, a strong advocate for and supporter of the UJC annual campaign, North American and global Jewry, the federation system and its strong and effective partnerships with our overseas agencies, including the Jewish Agency for Israel,” UJC spokesman Glenn Rosenkrantz wrote to JTA in an e-mail Wednesday.

“His voice, leadership and passions are immensely valued.”

Some were surprised by Goldberg’s argument that the Jewish Agency fails to compete with Nefesh B’Nefesh because the two groups are partners.

The Jewish Agency and Nefesh B’Nefesh penned a “full operational partnership” in the fall of 2004, Charley Levine, Nefesh B’Nefesh spokesman, told JTA by phone from Jerusalem.

The Jewish Agency continues to screen prospective immigrants and pay their one-way tickets to Israel, while Nefesh B’Nefesh orchestrates charter deals for the immigrants to make aliyah together, and provides financial assistance and additional help for new immigrants navigating the red tape of the Israeli government.

Nefesh B’Nefesh had a 2004 budget of $4.2 million, almost entirely funded by private North American individuals and family foundations, Levine said.

Proof of his group’s approach and its successful collaboration with the Jewish Agency is the nearly 3,000 North Americans who made aliyah in 2004 — the highest number of North American immigrants in 20 years, he said.

Goldberg has no official role at Nefesh B’Nefesh, but he has been a major supporter of the group and helped facilitate the coordination between it and the Jewish Agency, said Levine.

For many Jewish Agency officials, Goldberg’s timing did not take into account major changes under way at the Jewish Agency.

Jane Sherman of Detroit, the co-chair of the Jewish Agency’s Israel department who has worked with the Jewish Agency since 1983, said the agency was more efficient today than it was 20 years ago.

“We have a new Jewish Agency with a new culture today,” she said.

“The strategic plan has turned the agency around. We believe we’re meeting the needs of the future.”

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