Feuding aliyah groups reach deal

Tony Gelbart, Co-Founder and Chairman of Nefesh B'Nefesh. ( Sasson Tiram)

Tony Gelbart, Co-Founder and Chairman of Nefesh B’Nefesh. ( Sasson Tiram)

NEW YORK (JTA) – An historic agreement appears to have ended the fierce feud between two organizations promoting aliyah from the United States and formally ended the dominant role played by the Jewish Agency for Israel.

The deal involves the Jewish Agency, the quasi-governmental organization that historically played an almost exclusive role in promoting and facilitating immigrations to Israel from across the globe, and Nefesh B’Nefesh, a relatively new nonprofit group that has used cash incentives to help encourage 16,000 people to move to Israel since 2002.

Both organizations announced Aug. 31 that they had agreed to a “collaborative venture” to increase North American aliyah.

The complete details of the deal have yet to be made public, but according to officials with both groups, Nefesh B’Nefesh will take the lead on marketing aliyah – a major departure from the era when the Jewish Agency was essentially the face of aliyah. The Jewish Agency will continue to oversee administrative dealings with the Israeli government, including the task of handling the immigrants’ paperwork.

Prospective immigrants in the past had to fill out one application with the agency and, if they hoped to receive grants from Nefesh B’Nefesh, an additional form with that organization. Now the process will be streamlined to one application.

“We are not ceding responsibility for aliyah to Nefesh B’Nefesh, we are entering into a collaborative effort with them,” said Shoel Silver, the chair of the Jewish Agency’s budget and finance committee.

Silver negotiated the deal with officials from Nefesh B’Nefesh, the Jewish Agency and the Jewish federation system, which provides funding to both organizations.

The agreement ends a sparring match between the Jewish Agency and Nefesh B’Nefesh that had existed since Nefesh B’Nefesh started to gain traction several years ago, with a modern marketing scheme and deep-pocketed financiers hoping to unseat the agency.

The feud came to a head in the summer of 2007 when the two groups broke off a long-standing arrangement under which the Jewish Agency would give Nefesh $1,000 for each new immigrant the organization brought to Israel.

Nefesh accused the agency of failing to live up to its financial commitments. The agency claimed it had paid $1.2 million to $1.5 million in advance to Nefesh for immigration targets, but wanted the money back because the new group had failed to meet the prescribed goals.

During the brouhaha, agency lay leaders went so far as to call into question Nefesh B’Nefesh’s nonprofit status and suggest that donors should be wary of giving to the organization.

Prior to the deal, Nefesh B’Nefesh had been in discussions with the Israeli government in an effort to secure permission to open its own portfolios for immigrants, which would have allowed the organization to entirely circumvent the Jewish Agency.

But this latest agreement ends the spat and Nefesh B’Nefesh has dropped that pursuit, its chairman and co-founder Tony Gelbart told JTA Tuesday.

“This deal means that the Jewish Agency and Nefesh B’Nefesh have decided that working together for the Jewish people and for aliyah, and that having a working relationship and partnership, is better than simply working alone,” Gelbart said in a telephone interview from Israel. “Whatever differences we had, we decided we should put them aside to work for the original goal, which is to increase aliyah.”

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