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In making peace with Nefesh B’Nefesh, the Jewish Agency may have ticked off its own board

In striking a deal last week with Nefesh B’Nefesh and agreeing to partner on promoting aliyah in North America instead of continuing an often nasty custody battle over would-be immigrants, the Jewish Agency for Israel might have put out one fire with a rival only to start another in-house with its own board.

The agency had been the sole proprietor on entry to Israel since the Jewish state’s inception, but its marketing had fallen limp, and in recent years the group had lost significant ground to Nefesh. Nefesh, an American 501c3 founded in 2002, brought with it onto the aliyah scene a slick publicity plan and offered potential immigrants significant cash incentives to move to Israel – and stay there, which resulted in a 98 percent retention rate once new immigrants arrived.

As the agency scrambled to maintain its role as only aliyah child as Nefesh fought hard for legitimacy in the eyes of the motherland, the two often fought viciously –- especially over the last year. Much of that came through in the press as lay leaders from each organization levied potentially libelous claims against the other (at one point even dragging JTA into a potential lawsuit for printing them).

The environment was so poisoned that, to settle the claim, the two sides brought in serious third-party mediation.

John Ruskay, the executive VP and CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York, and Stephen Hoffman, the president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, sat in as representatives of the federation system that funds the agency.

The parties also brought in a heavy hitter, Kenneth Feinberg, to oversee the talks. Feinberg, a Washington lawyer who specializes in mediation, was appointed by John Ashcroft as the Special Master of the U.S. Government’s September 11th Victim Compensation Fund – and negotiated the settlements that 9/11 victims received.

Feinberg, working pro-bono in the Nefesh-JAFI peace talks, oversaw two days of negotiating sessions that ended last week with an agreement. Under the deal, the Nefesh will now take the lead in marketing aliyah to North America and the agency would provide support staff, some money, and would continue to be the organization that worked with the Israeli government to process new immigrants.

The agency took an unusual step in striking the deal.

Before negotiations started, Feinstein and the other mediators insisted that the parties had to agree that those at the table would be allowed to make a deal and stick by it, which meant that they needed full autonomy to act and would not have to get the deal ratified by their boards.

This was not an issue for Nefesh, whose representative was also its co-founder and largest donor, Tony Gelbart. But for the agency, which has a huge lay board and answers also to the federation system, doing so was more complicated.

The chairman of the agency’s executive board, Richie Pearlstone, and its top executive, Ze’ev Bielski, appointed three people to negotiate on behalf of the organization: the chairman of the budget and finance committee, Shoel Silver; the co-chair of the agency’s aliyah and klitah budget subcommittee, Michael Gelman, and the director general of the agency, Moshe Vigdor to negotiate. Neither Pearlstone nor Bielski were involved in the talks.

“One thing they insisted on was that there would be confidentiality, and those given mandate to negotiate had to be able to say, ‘This is an agreement,’ and not go back to their board and say we have an agreement, but it does not we have an agreement in principle, but it needs to be ratified,” Silver said. “People can have the concern. And if that is an issue, they can take it up with the executive. Or, they may be comfortable with the agreement once they hear what it is.”

Giving them the autonomy to work on their own might have been a necessary and even progressive step, but the agency apparently flubbed by not first getting approval from its lay leadership for the arrangement.

The agency was set to inform its executive committee of the details of the Nefesh deal in a meeting and conference call on Wednesday, but they will likely have some healing to do within its own walls.

“I think there are a lot of lay leaders who are upset about it only from the point of view that they don’t know what it is about,” said one high-up agency lay leader. “I think the process sucked.”

“Whenever lay leaders would ask about the negotiations, I was told I was not privy to that information,” said another top agency lay leader. “I am secretly hoping that I never find out what is and is not in the agreement because then I don’t have to worry about whether I agree.”

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