Jewish Agency reacts to dollar woes

New immigrants from North America disembark from a specially chartered plane at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv in July 2002. (Brian Hendler)

New immigrants from North America disembark from a specially chartered plane at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv in July 2002. (Brian Hendler)

NEW YORK (JTA) – Facing a $20 million budget deficit for 2008, the Jewish Agency for Israel is considering some major organizational changes that could lead to a revamping of its aliyah operations.

Responding to criticism of its bureaucracy as bloated and to the changing nature of immigration to Israel, the agency launched a multi-year strategic planning process in 2004 to streamline operations. The plan also called for diversifying the agency’s revenue sources.

But the dollar’s decline against the shekel has brought new urgency to the strategic changes, and this month agency officials proposed making major structural changes to the organization.

Last week, the agency’s director-general, Moshe Vigdor, proposed splitting the organization into two operations: one in Israel and one in the Diaspora, with the aliyah department being folded into one or the other or both of the new departments.

Vigdor also spoke of changing the agency’s focus to encouraging aliyah of choice, since aliyah of necessity practically has run its course, officials said.

“The dollar effect is like this: If you are moving toward structural changes and you realize you have serious budgetary concerns coming over the next one, two or three years, you don’t want to make smaller, piecemeal cuts,” the Jewish Agency’s North American spokesman, Jacob Dallal, told JTA. “You want to do it more holistically. It is a good time to look at structural changes.”

When parts of Vigdor’s plan were portrayed in the Israeli media last week as a step toward reducing the agency’s focus on aliyah, Jewish Agency leaders rushed to issue a letter to their board of governors assuring them that immigration would remain one of the Jewish Agency’s core principles.

“We would like to emphasize that the Aliyah Department will not be closed,” agency chairman Ze’ev Bielski and president Richie Pearlstone wrote. “The Department’s mission, which is no less relevant and important today as it was in the past, and perhaps even more so today, will continue to be the spearhead of our actions. Promoting aliyah is our top priority.”

Rather, the leaders explained, the changing nature of aliyah and the growing shekel-dollar gap were forcing the agency to explore new ways to position itself to promote immigration effectively and efficiently.

Vigdor’s suggestion constituted only one proposal, officials stressed, with others to follow.

“Frankly, the professionals are still trying to come up with other options,” said the co-chairman of the Jewish Agency’s aliyah and absorption department, Jay Sarver. “This is like starting the race before the rest of the field shows up. There are a lot of options that could come into play.”

Since last April the dollar has dropped to 3.5 shekels from 4.2 shekels. The Jewish Agency raises most of its $314 million budget in dollars but spends mostly in shekels or Russian rubles, so the agency estimates it will face a $20 million shortfall this year.

The Jewish Agency is funded primarily by the North American Jewish federation system, Keren Hayesod in Europe and grants in excess of $40 million per year from the U.S. government.

Though there has been no significant change in the amount the agency spends on aliyah – this year, $109 million is allocated to aliyah, compared to $113 million in 2007 – agency officials have suggested that the shifting nature of aliyah from immigration of necessity to immigration of choice could prompt the agency to make some changes in the near future to how it encourages aliyah.

Currently the aliyah department spends money on recruiting immigrants, finding them jobs and assisting in their absorption.

As mass immigration to Israel of Jews from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia ends and aliyah from elsewhere in the Diaspora slows, agency officials say the organization must figure out new ways to bolster aliyah of choice.

Thus the agency may shift significantly more money to efforts to encourage Westerners – immigrants of choice – to make “flexible aliyah,” officials said. In such a scenario, getting Jews from Western countries to split their time between Israel and their countries of origin would be considered a success.

Aliyah would be no less of a priority, agency officials said. Rather the idea is to spend money to help Diaspora Jews form stronger relationships to Israel with the hope that it will culminate in aliyah.

In this scenario, aliyah would not be viewed as the exclusive benchmark of success. “Flex aliyah” and a stronger relationship between Diaspora Jews and Israel also would count as worthwhile achievements.

In their letter, Bielski and Pearlstone reiterated the agency’s goals of “increasing the number of olim from Western countries, increasing the number of students from the Diaspora who come to Israel and strengthening partnership relationships between Israel and the Diaspora.”

In any case, Dallal said, significant budget cuts to traditional aliyah and absorption will not happen until mass immigration from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia have ended.

NEXT STORY