TEL AVIV (May. 17)
Ra’anana Mayor Zeev Bielski can be seen in the mornings opening car doors for schoolchildren, ushering them toward their classrooms with a smile. Now Bielski, 58, may be heading to one of the most powerful offices in the Jewish world — chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced Monday that Bielski was his choice to succeed Sallai Meridor, who announced last week that he would step down after six years at the helm of the agency, which facilitates immigration to Israel and runs Zionist education programs worldwide.
Sharon’s backing, and a subsequent affirmation Monday by a key JAFI committee, the Advice and Consent Committee, virtually assures Bielski of the job.
The affable Bielski, who once played basketball in Israel’s national league, is known today as a consummate politician and fundraiser. He’s a fixture on Ra’anana’s neat, flower-lined streets. Residents credit Bielski for the high quality of life in the city and for running one of the few municipalities in Israel with a balanced budget.
Ra’anana residents commend Bielski’s effectiveness and efficiency: He has an e-mail address to take comments from the public, with responses promised within 24 hours. He could not be reached for this story.
Bielski also knows his way around the Diaspora: A pioneer of JAFI-sponsored partnerships between Israeli and Diaspora communities, in recent years he teamed Ra’anana with MetroWest, an affluent New Jersey Jewish community, a relationship that has proven hugely beneficial to the town.
The relationships Bielski has built with American Jewish leaders and others will help if he becomes JAFI chairman.
“That nomination is about as good a thing that can happen to the Jewish people as anything in the last number of years,” said Stephen Greenberg of Manhattan, who worked with Bielski when Greenberg was vice president of the United Jewish Communities of MetroWest’s executive committee.
Greenberg met Bielski more than 20 years ago at a conference that brought Israeli and Diaspora Jewish leaders together to map a common agenda. Bielski has made a point of staying in touch with his Diaspora friends, Greenberg said.
“I know it sounds trite, but if there’s a person who is really not just uniquely qualified, but is probably the perfect individual to bridge the gap between Israel and the Diaspora, it’s Zeev Bielski,” Greenberg said.
He cited Bielski’s “spectacular personality that endears him to people” and his understanding of the Diaspora Jewish mind-set.
Greenberg also pointed to Bielski’s sense of innovation: A formula he helped created to have Ra’anana residents help integrate new Russian immigrants became a model program in Israel.
“I think he has a very good grasp of the Israel-Diaspora relationship,” said Stephen Hoffman, president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland and former CEO of the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella body for the North American federation system.
“I think he has grown to understand and appreciate the role of the Diaspora in Israel’s life and the role of Israel in the Diaspora’s life, and that’s a key understanding if you want to lead the Jewish Agency,” Hoffman said.
Diaspora backing will be critical for JAFI’s next chairman: The agency continues to struggle to secure funding from the federation system, its primary financial backer, and must put into effect a new strategic plan that emphasizes strengthening Diaspora Jews’ Zionist identity.
“This position has become more and more important as the Jewish Agency has become more and more challenged,” said Richard Wexler, UJC’s vice chairman and head of JAFI’s North American Council. “Pillars of the Jewish Agency, such as rescue” of Jews in endangered Diaspora communities, “are being challenged in a post-rescue era, and we need someone in this position who can inspire greater American Jewish support. That will be Zeev Bielski’s challenge.”
Bielski’s first extended professional contact with Diaspora Jews came when he was dispatched by the Jewish Agency to South Africa in 1977 to head the organization’s aliyah department there.
It was there that he met his wife, adding an extra understanding of Diaspora Jewry and the immigrant experience to Israel.
Soon after returning to Israel in 1982, Bielski helped found the Israel Forum, which tries to strengthen education and business ties between Israelis and Diaspora Jews. He later became the organization’s president.
After several years as a businessman, he was elected mayor of Ra’anana in 1988.
“This is the best town in Israel to live in, largely because of his efforts,” said David Schwartz, 42, who immigrated to Israel from New Jersey. “The city is extremely well run. He’s very accessible.”
Schwartz, who helps raise money for Ra’anana’s local TALI school, based on the North American Jewish day school model, has appreciated Bielski’s support for the institution.
“I’m going to be sorry to see him go because I don’t know of anyone with his charisma or vision that is in line to replace to him,” Schwartz said.
A childhood friend, Dubi Harel, director general of the World Zionist Organization’s finance department, said Bielski has a special touch with people that will serve him well as JAFI head.
“He’s the kind of person everyone loves,” Harel told JTA. “He knows how to reach consensus with everyone. He’ll be close with the Board of Governors and the employees of the agency, and he’ll know how to connect everyone.”
Bielski is expected to be approved by the Zionist General Council, which meets in Jerusalem on June 21, and the agency’s assembly, which meets June 26.
JTA Staff Writer Rachel Pomerance in New York contributed to this report.